I am writing this in London just one day before the birth of CFOM – Britain’s first university-based Centre for Freedom of the Media. I await the day with excitement and some nervousness (London is lying under the heaviest snow for 18 years). What I do know is that the current age of uncertainty about political systems, economic storms and the survival of the traditional forms of media call exactly for what CFOM will be doing — that is, forming research networks and working with others to bring a more well-founded understanding of the role that the media, broadly defined, must play for open societies to work and in letting democracies thrive.

CFOM is doing something quite new — in the UK at least — by joining the skills and expertise of a leading research university with the experience and understanding of leading journalists and editors to define and expose ways in which news media freedom is abused, and to examine media standards of independence and truthfulness.

In the past year I have journeyed often between Sheffield and London, and travelled to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, to Vienna and to America, still the world’s media superpower, while preparing to work with my CFOM colleagues, including Professor Jackie Harrison and others in the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield and Jock Gallagher, a former senior BBC editor with whom I worked in past years planning the annual World Press Freedom Day events in London.

The public launch is taking place on Tuesday February 3rd. We expect about 200 people to attend the birth, which we are marking with a conference at the UK’s leading think-tank, Chatham House in London. The theme is “Twenty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall: What Happened to Press and Political Freedoms?”

Jens Reich, the former leader of New Forum, the East German pro-democracy movement which helped topple the communist system headed by Erich Honecker, is giving the keynote speech. Remarkably, he says that the electrifying effect of western TV broadcasts which flooded East German homes with pictures of the good life in the West was more effective even than the efforts of the anti-communist opposition in bringing about the Fall of the Wall on November 9th 1989, and with it the collapse of the communist regime in the heartland of the Soviet empire in central and eastern Europe.

CFOM’s conference, organised together with Chatham House, will be the first major public event in the UK during this 20th anniversary of the 1989 Year of Revolutions. The dramatic collapse in quick succession of the Soviet-backed communist governments across the then East bloc, from Hungary and Poland to East Germany and finally Romania, is unique in history as a sweeping victory for free expression and free media, as well as free political choice.

Other speakers include the dedicated Representative on Freedom of the Media of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), Miklos Haraszti, talking about the “meltdown” of some member states’ international commitments to media freedom as a pillar of social freedom and the rule of law. Lionel Barber, the Editor of the Financial Times, is reflecting on new forms of the age-old struggle between media authority and political power — the “pen and the sword”. Leading media and civil society figures from Russia are to share their insights and reflections on our theme.

My belief in our new creation, CFOM, arises from the plain evidence that freedom of the media and free expression are suffering harshly in large parts of the world, in spite of the astonishing opportunities offered to billions of people by the Internet and ever-faster communications.

The independent American-based organisation Freedom House, which produces a thorough survey of press freedom around the world each year, has found that it has declined for each of the past six years.

CFOM will add our resources — the combined skills of a leading British research university and a dedicated group of experienced journalists — to the work of an extraordinary array of specialised media monitoring and human rights organisation around the world, which already chronicle many aspects of the rising threats to global media freedom and independence. Those include violence against journalists, censorship, political pressures, ownership monopolies, and the drastic decline in the ranks of professional journalists caused by what has been called “the most disruptive transition in the history of the media”.

Despite many warnings and the close documentation of that decline in the capacity of the media to inform and hold the powerful to account, in most parts of the world there is still too little understanding of the often crucial role that independent media actually play in setting the political course of nations. Out of that ignorance comes mischief, and the risk of misrule and even conflict. Wars and rival nationalisms distort facts and blot out the paths to mutual understanding, and all too often the media serves as a willing or unwilling tool of official propaganda even in this new century. These are core areas for CFOM’s future research and public activities

CFOM, the Sheffield Centre for Freedom of the Media has a bold ambition, to treat the media’s role as a proper subject of study for political scientists. Now more than ever before the media, in their countless forms and platforms, must be seen as an integral part of the system of governance for countries, and even of wider structures of international relations.

The double murders in a Moscow street of a young Russian woman journalist Anastasia Baburova and the human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov on January 19th drew fresh attention to the risks of death and regular intimidation faced by countless journalists in troubled or illiberal societies.

Yet political and legal means to halt such corrosive abuses are in place and can be made effective when governments and their public opinion are mobilised to recognise the dangers and take action. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg has ruled many times against Russia, and many other governments, in cases where victims or their relatives have taken legal action to protect their rights in the face of government neglect or culpability.

So the contest between state power and the moral force of newspapers or other media does not have to be loaded in favour of one side alone. When national courts are corrupted or media fall under state control to do the bidding of political forces, international laws and rules are on the side of the citizen whose rights have been abused. The media must be true to its own well-aired principles in defence of free speech and the imperative to speak truth to power.

The President of the ECHR, Jean-Paul Costa, in a telling interview to the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta last year, rejected official Russian accusations of bias based on the large number of court rulings against the Russian state. There is nothing anti-Russian, he said, about the verdicts when they protect citizens of a state from abuses by their own government.

CFOM will be holding other public events and debates as part of its goal of building over time a wide community of academics, journalists and editors, and public figures in order to raise awareness and understanding of how crucial thriving and independent media are to the health of every body politic.

The Centre is also setting out to conduct original research investigating key issues such as improving Freedom of Information rules, the sometimes damaging effects of harsh national security-related laws, the impact of new media technologies and consumer behaviour on the editorial independence of public broadcasters and others, and the media’s performance in countries where political freedoms are restricted.

We are encouraged by the support we have already received from the Open Society Foundation and the British Foreign Office, who have helped us with the ground-breaking London conference on February 3rd. We ask others to give generously to support our programme and our goals.

CFOM believes that the time is ripe for governments and other international organisations to recognise the fact that in the media-driven world we live in, the freedom of information flows and freedom and independence of the media need to be protected and sustained more actively than before.

The great human rights organisations of the postwar world, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have forged completely new expectations around the world that abuses including torture and imprisonment without due trial will be monitored and countered by collective action.

Now, the widespread assaults on freedom of the media in countries around the world must also be contested with new vigour and determination. CFOM will work with institutions, universities, media and other civil society organisations everywhere to help independent media to build stronger foundations for political and civil freedom.