This year’s commemorations of World Press Freedom Day from May 2-4 in Helsinki attracted a record 1,100 press freedom activists, journalists, international officials and others.

The event was practical and focused on seeking solutions to urgent threats and problems, including whistle-blower and source protection, the new frontiers of disinformation and threats arising from internet surveillance, plus dozens of side events on growing threats to independent journalism, like judicial harassment of journalists and the scourge of impunity, and strategies to defend against them.

The occasion had particular resonance because it marked 25 years since 3 May 1991, when African journalists issued the Windhoek Declaration, a landmark prospectus for achieving genuine press freedom, independence and pluralism after the long decades of violence and oppression under apartheid and during the Cold War. With that Declaration, journalists laid the foundations of a big idea which bore fruit in 1993 when the UN General Assembly decided to celebrate World Press Freedom Day on 3 May every year.

This is also the 250th anniversary of the world’s first freedom of information law, covering modern-day Finland and Sweden. Today 108 countries have freedom of information laws, but that many have serious deficiencies and are not properly implemented to serve journalists or the general public.

2016 is the first year of international work to implement the United Nations’ ambitious new Sustainable Development Goals, including the targets named in SDG 16 that relate to the struggle for press freedom: universal access to information and to justice — hence the theme of World Press Freedom Day in Helsinki: ‘Access to Information and Fundamental Rights: This is Your Right!’ Agreement on the SDGs presents new opportunities for monitoring and putting in place effective protection mechanisms for journalists in areas of high risk.

The point of World Press Freedom Day needs to be re-stated: it is to remind governments of their obligations to respect press freedom, to inform citizens about the realities of censorship and violence against journalists, to develop practical initiatives with input from active civil society in favour of press freedom, and to support journalists who are targets of persecution or in jail and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

The annual international gathering on or around 3 May is a unique opportunity to get those stakeholders together to share information and ideas — that means representatives of UN bodies and other regional and inter-governmental organisations, specialist NGOs working in individual countries or globally, and media houses and journalists’ organisations. An unprecedented international effort has been going on in the past decade to halt the epidemic of violence against journalists and to tackle deep-seated problems like impunity. The task of creating a safe and enabling environment for journalists depends crucially on the engagement of all those moving parts of the whole picture.


Governments under scrutiny

Helsinki showcased plenty of evidence of the misdeeds of government authorities. The government of Azerbaijan was under the spotlight because the courageous Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was awarded the 2016 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in absentia.  She could not be present because on 3 May she was spending her 516th day in prison in Baku on charges that have been widely condemned internationally as false and politically motivated.

Ismayilova’s acceptance speech, read for her by her mother, deserves to be widely read and it may come to be seen as a classic among public defences of the principle of free speech. It contained these lines:

“As you know, I speak to you from my prison cell, on the occasion of an award I cannot claim. My crime? Investigative journalism — exposing corruption linked to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and members of his family. My conviction? Seven and a half years in prison as the result of a trial in which there was no incriminating evidence or a single witness who testified against me. I remain alive to fight for justice, unlike my colleague and dear friend Elmar; but it is a challenge I cannot accomplish on my own. Which brings me to you. Humanity suffers when journalists are silenced. This is why some people believe that the killing of journalists constitutes a crime against humanity. As you gather here tonight, I ask you not to laud my work or my courage, but to dedicate yourself to the work each one of you can do on behalf of press freedom and justice.”

The scale of the problem of physical as well as legal violence against journalists is illustrated by UNESCO figures showing that over 800 journalist have been killed for their work worldwide in the past decade, while in Africa only one out of 103 journalists’ murders in the past ten years has been judicially resolved. In all other cases, impunity reigns and those responsible have gone free.

The toll of journalists’ deaths is rising inexorably. In the 10 days since World Press Freedom Day one Pakistani journalist, Khurram Zaki, was shot dead by unknown attackers, and in India two journalists, Rajdeo Ranjan and Akhilesh Pratap Singh, were murdered in separate incidents.


The UN can’t perform miracles alone

The Helsinki meeting closely reviewed individual cases of killings and the successes and gaps in the concerted efforts of UNESCO and other parts of the UN to turn the tide. Participants  reviewed many regional and in-country projects, often involving NGO leadership with UNESCO’s support. These include initiatives to put in place an effective protection mechanism for threatened journalists in Mexico, a programme to train Tunisian police in respecting the rights of journalists, and support for the Pakistan Coalition on Media Safety (PCOMS), a multi-stakeholder project which has raised hopes for much-needed new legal protection for journalists and brought the editors of rival media houses together to stand together for the first time in facing down targeted violence against journalists.

UNESCO, the UN Agency with the mandate to uphold press freedom and journalists’ safety, is providing energetic leadership but is not immune from criticism itself. UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, was a target of NGO tweets saying Khadija Ismayilova remains behind bars. @UNESCO take action to free her, words are not enough for omitting to call publicly on the Azerbaijan government to free Khadija Ismayilova, as other speakers in Helsinki did.

Later, on 10 May, UNESCO did publish a joint statement by the Director-General and Christiane Amanpour, UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression, calling for Ismayilova’s immediate release from prison. The statement noted that whenever the World Press Freedom Prize has been given to journalists in jail, ‘the high visibility and support provided by UNESCO have always brought about their release.’


Coordinated actions overcome impunity

Much has been achieved in terms of the wider UN commitments to better protect press freedom as an essential pillar of democratic societies. In 2012 the member states of the UN adopted a multi-agency Action Plan with over 100 action lines.

Since 2006 UN member states have adopted a series of resolutions to address growing concerns about the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity in the Security Council, the General Assembly and UNESCO.

UN-level monitoring mechanisms have also been developed as ways of holding states to account, including UNESCO’s a monitoring process to measure how effectively state authorities conduct judicial follow-ups after any journalist is killed.

The next two-yearly report by the UNESCO Director-General is to be published in September. It will set out the latest figures from the authorities of the states concerned regarding the level of impunity in countries where journalists have been killed, and in November that DG’s report will be debated in the responsible UNESCO body, the Council of the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC).  That event will be open to NGOs and media.

A Dutch diplomat called on others, including the media, to put more pressure on those countries that fail to respond to UNESCO’s requests for information about investigations into the murders of journalists and prosecutions of suspects. He pointed out that  more than half of the states concerned fail to provide any information, and that lack of accountability leads to the very high rates of impunity relating to fatal attacks on journalists around the world.

The President of the European Federation of Journalists, Mogens Blicher Bjerregaard, asked what actions the editors of media houses are taking in response to the widespread sense of alarm about the increase in targeted violence against journalists? No answer was immediately forthcoming. But a growing consensus is emerging among press freedom organisations —  also reflected in public statements from some western governments — that the media should no longer stand aloof and leave the hard grind of international lobbying to NGOs and journalists’ unions and associations.

Instead, the argument goes, big international media houses should inform the public more consistently about the scale of the targeted violence against journalists and speak out plainly  to governments about the need to create better protections for journalists in international law, and through effective international actions, oversight and pressure on non-complying states.

This February in Paris, UNESCO hosted a large gathering of media owners, publishers auditors in Paris which proposed a set of action lines to strengthen the safety of journalists. They include improved in-house practices and providing fuller media coverage of incidents and the chilling impact of attacks on journalists and impunity, as well as building media coalitions for better self-defence, and explaining the importance to democratic societies of the role played by free and independent media.

Already, representatives of some 70 international media and press freedom organisations groups, convened by the International Press Institute and others, have painstakingly drawn up an International Declaration on the Protection of Journalists, which was published last December. It seeks to clarify and draw international attention to the legal obligations of states. It also stresses the need for journalists themselves, in the new hostile environment they often face, to have a proper understanding of international human rights standards and mechanisms, which can equip them to investigate and report effectively on injustices and corruption in the name of the public’s right to know.

These moves have raised expectations of a more coherent and strategic engagement by media houses, which has yet to take shape.


“Where are the media?”

The point was powerfully reinforced by Mustefa Souag, acting Director-General of Al Jazeera Media Network, who asked in a plenary session ‘Where are the New York Times? Where is the BBC?’. His speech drew attention to the absence of nearly all the best-known global media houses from Helsinki, with the result that they did not contribute much to, and did not for the most part even report on, this major policy forum about promoting media freedom. They were conspicuous by their absence from last year’s event in Riga and largely from previous WPFD conferences, too.

‘I hope I have not offended friends’, Mr Souag went on; ‘I hope in future to see more of them’.

The Director-General of Swedish National Radio, Cilla Benko, called on media managers and journalists to raise knowledge and awareness about the harmful effects of the global trend towards harsher repression of free speech and free journalism. International media, including broadcaster ‘should make more noise’ about attacks on journalists and on press freedom, she said.

Cilla Benko also called on European politicians to ‘say no’ to deals with countries which fail to guarantee journalists’ physical safety, and push other governments in international meetings to explain what they are doing about killings, jailings and harassment of journalists.

Anthony Bellanger, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, deplored the present lack of media attention to the persecution of local journalists in much of the world. He observed that ‘the world stops’ after the violent death of any European journalist because it gets widely  reported, whereas when Iraqi or Pakistani journalists are killed for their work international media don’t report it, so in his words ‘nothing stops’.

CFOM has made its assessment and we consider that mainstream media cannot afford to stand apart from such knowledge-sharing meetings and other formative discussions that are taking place among UN officials, governments and NGO experts about ways to protect press freedoms from old and new forms of repression.  The lives of investigative journalists everywhere depend on the media’s engagement and leadership on these matters.


What next?

The World Press Freedom Day 2016 international conference adopted a wide-ranging Finlandia Declaration on press freedom, access to information and cultural diversity, which addresses a broad array of concerns.

The next phase of initiatives and groundwork for future actions at global and local level are foreshadowed in a number of reports and texts presented in Helsinki:-

  • Newly-appointed UNESCO Assistant Director-General Frank la Rue, a former UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, voiced his expectation that the momentum from the recent agreement on the new UN development goals — including the targets on freedom of information and access to justice – can bring progress in building effective safety mechanisms for the protection of journalists as well as human rights defenders in all UN member states. He argued that appropriate state by state reporting procedures to UN bodies including the Human Rights Council will improve the record of states’ observance of their actual obligations.
  • In line with Frank La Rue’s proposal, Toby Mendel of the Centre for Law and Democracy presented a discussion paper in the form of a Practical Guide to Developing Specialized Safety Mechanisms. It is a valuable assessment of the experience gained from numerous attempts to put in place effective measures of protection, including monitoring and rapid response procedures, among others in Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Serbia  and Italy.
  • Julie Posetti, a journalist and academic, presented the latest version of her global research, commissioned by UNESCO and the World Editors Forum, on Protecting Journalism Sources in the Digital Age.  She found that the necessary legal frameworks that should protect the confidential sources of journalism internationally are under acute strain in the digital age, and there is now a need to revise and strengthen them, and to introduce them where they don’t exist.
  • The four international experts on freedom of expression mandated by the UN, African Union, Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, released the 2016 The Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Countering Violent Extremism. It raises concerns about  governments taking excessive powers in the name of national security and anti-terrorism policies. It also warns against blanket prohibitions on encryption and anonymity, and makes a number of recommendations to prevent violations.
  • A new Academic Network for research cooperation. UNESCO and the UNESCO Chair at University of Gothenburg, in collaboration with several partners, organised a research conference which was held simultaneously with the international conference in the same venue. The meeting endorsed the idea that safety of journalists issues should be an inherent part of journalism education. Thirty original studies were presented and a new academic network was born to collaborate on future work aimed at informing policy-makers about what they should do to protect the work of journalists in exposing corruption and injustices. The network will be based on CFOM’s website, and will invite scholars to sign in for future academic networking and collaboration.
  • More UNESCO background documents including UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.