World Press Freedom Day: A celebration with little to celebrate

world press freedom day

By Tihomir Loza

It was both fitting and a tad surreal that this year’s central celebration of the World Press Freedom Day (3 May) should be held in Helsinki. Finland is a habitual topper of various freedom rankings. (For example, it has come first in the RSF’s World Press Freedom Index for the past five years.  Finland was also ranked as the third best jurisdiction in the latest Human Freedom Index.) It is a place where you will easily come across journalists, public officials and ordinary citizens alike who’d argue—slightly bemused why others often don’t get it—that freedom of information (along with quality education) is a key precondition for social and economic development.

How seriously the Finns take freedom of information and expression was also obvious from the fact that the country’s president and prime minister as well as the mayor of Helsinki, a former president and a host of other officials and leading journalists spoke at the event, which perhaps is no surprise in a country that this year marks the 250th anniversary of its first freedom of information act, the oldest piece of FoI legislation anywhere. Nor was it then surprising that the Finns played perfect hosts to more than 1,200 journalists and activists from all over the world who attended the UNESCO-organised gathering between 2 and 4 May. (Even the weather played ball, inevitably prompting jokes about the might of Finnish engineering.) Slika 1

Set against this sunny backdrop was a celebration that, alas, found very little to celebrate. Put simply, the current state of world press is nothing short of terrifying. Journalists are frequently threatened and attacked in many countries. 110 were killed and 199 imprisoned only in 2015 and many were exiled. Impunity reins over most attacks on journalists. Censorship is rife as is self-censorship generated largely by clientelist relationships among media owners, editors and holders of political and economic power. More than ever before and largely thanks to the ease of use and availability of powerful new technologies, the media is being weaponised in battles for hearts and minds, so much so that we probably need a better word than propaganda to refer to the phenomenon.  No wonder then that, in addition to being a brilliant networking opportunity, the World Press Freedom Day conference in Helsinki last week was a grim expo of challenges that journalism worldwide faces today, with specific problems discussed by professionals trying to tackle them, often walking on uncharted territory.

Plenary sessions largely focused on general issues of press freedom, the right to information, transparency and safety of journalists. A suitable declaration was adopted, calling on governments to reaffirm their commitment to press freedom and the right to information as key for the protection of human right and sustainable development. At the end of the gathering’s first day, a ceremony was held at which the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2016 was awarded to Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist from Azerbaijan who currently serves a seven-year prison sentence for uncovering information on the secretive financial dealings of the President Ilham Aliyev’s family. Ljiljana Zurovac, executive director of Bosnia’s Press Council and chairwoman of this year’s jury, spoke along the president of Finland, the UNESCO director-general and the chair of Guillermo Cano Isaza Foundation. Ms Ismayilova’s mother, Elmira, received the award on behalf of her daughter and read her message. (As an illustration of how ticklish the issues surrounding press freedom today could be suffice to remind that President Aliyev’s wife, Mehriban, who is also a member of parliament, has been on the list of UNESCO’s good-will ambassadors since 2004. Arguably, the Aliyev regime was nowhere near as bad back than as it is today. But while UNESCO officials need no reminding how inappropriate the continued association with Ms Aliyeva really is, they found no mechanism to rescind the title in time for the award ceremony.)

The many parallel sessions and side events were the conference’s most valuable components. I attended the conference as a representative of SEENPM as did Remzi Lani, director of Albanian Media Institute (AMI), a founding SEENPM member. Together with hundreds of other media addicts, we often felt spoilt for choice and found it difficult to decide what to attend. You can review all the events at UNESCO’s pages. Here’s my pick of some outstanding stuff.

The London-based Media Diversity Institute (MDI) in cooperation with EBU and the Finnish Broadcasting Co. put together a seminar on the impact of the refugee crisis on public service media values. Moderated by MDI director Milica Pesic, the discussion included journalists and experts from very different parts of the world, focusing on, among others, the issues of stereotyping, user-generated content and diversity in media coverage of the refugee crisis.

Impact of Refugee Crisis on Public Service values

Impact of Refugee Crisis on Public Service values

The media coverage of the refugee crisis was again in focus at the launch of a report titled Refugee Crisis in European Newspapers. The report, produced by the Finnish Institute in London and the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux, focused on the reporting of six major European newspapers from three countries, the UK, Belgium and Finland.

A session organised by the Ethical Journalism Network, the Finnish Union of Journalists and the Finnish Council for Mass Media focused on countering hate speech in the media through reaffirming ethical values of journalism and self-regulation.

Countering Hate Speech in the Media

Countering Hate Speech in the Media

A panel discussion organised by the International Center for Journalists (ICfJ) and moderated by the organisation’s president, Joyce Barnathan, focused on “The New Frontiers in Disinformation.” The discussion included Andrey Rikhter, Senior Adviser to the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Magda Abu‐Fadil of Media Unlimited (Lebanon),  Nadezhda Azhgikhina of the Russian Union of Journalists, Rahma Mian, Co‐founder of Hacks/Hackers Pakistan  and Roberts Putnis from the Latvian Ministry of Culture. For a very useful overview of the related issues check out the non-paper Propaganda and Freedom of the Media published by the OSCE’s representative on Freedom of the Media in November last year.

The safety of journalists was examined in a number of events. If you get a chance, do watch In Their Press Vests, a virtual reality 360o video, which depicts the everyday risks that Syrian journalists face in carrying out their reporting assignments. The film was produced by UNESCO in partnership with The Association for the Support of Free Media and the Syrian News Agency SMART.

Tihomir Loza is executive director of SEENPM.

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* - References to Kosovo are without prejudice to positions on status. They are in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244/99 and the opinion by the International Court of Justice on the Kosovo declaration of independence.