UNESCO Symposium Sparked Debate on Future of Freedom of Expression

Frank La Rue UNESCO/Danica Bijeljac

Paris, 26 January 2011 – UNESCO hosted the second International Symposium on Freedom of Expression. Those in attendance numbered well over one hundred, with 255 more connecting online to view the proceedings via webcast.

Birgitta Ohlsson

© UNESCO/Danica Bijeljac

Director-General Irina Bokova welcomed the representatives of Member States, journalists, NGOs, media professionals and academics. Her opening remarks outlined the paradox between the possibilities offered by the digital age and the challenges that it also brings to the safety of those who publicly disseminate information. Birgitta Ohlsson, Minister for European Union Affairs of Sweden, highlighted the crucial role that free speech plays in government accountability. In a keynote address the UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue called attention to the enormous impact new technologies are having on the field of journalism and the importance of promoting freedom of access alongside freedom of speech.

The symposium was moderated by Helge Ronning, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oslo. Panellists in the opening session reported on the status of press freedom worldwide. Omar Osman of the Federation of African Journalists ranked journalism as the riskiest profession on his continent. Jean-Francois Julliard of Reporters without Borders noted the worrisome laws that are surfacing in democracies and also pointed to new threats emanating from private entities. Gayathry Venkiteswaran of Southeast Asia Press Alliance addressed the ambivalence of people in South Asia toward persecuted journalists, and the need to find a balance between free media and ethical media. Khaled Abu Aker assessed the state of press freedom in the Arab world and the impact of satellite TV on reporting the Middle East.

Helge Ronning

© UNESCO/Danica Bijeljac

The mid-morning panel examined the dilemmas presented by freedom of expression on the Internet, with Academics Guy Berger and Gordana Vilovic offering case studies on xenophobic speech from South Africa and Croatia, respectively. William Dutton of Oxford and Robert Boorstin of Google followed with addressing the difficulties of trying to apply a mass media model to the Internet.

Mónica González Mujica, laureate of the 2010 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, began the afternoon session by focusing on the safety of journalists in Latin America and the cancerous effects of impunity. Rodney Pinder of INSI explained how the threats journalists face today are more local and far from conflict zones. Nancy Roc discussed the obstacles journalists face in post-disaster zones such as Haiti, while Elizabeth Witchel of the CPJ shared findings from the organization’s ‘impunity index’.

The symposium brought together individuals and organizations linked to the field of journalism and sparked not only debate and discussion on the future of freedom of expression, but also fostered dialogue between civil society and governments – an exchange that UNESCO will continue to support.