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Freedom of Press: The right to know
April 30, 2016, 5:41 pm

World Press Freedom Day is celebrated across the globe on 3 May, representing an opportunity to advance the fundamental principles of press freedom and to pay solemn tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty. In 2016, World Press Freedom Day coincides with three important milestones:

  • The 250th anniversary of the world’s first freedom of information law, covering both modern-day Sweden and Finland.
  • The 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration of press freedom principles.
  • The year 2016 is also the first year of the 15 year life-cycle of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Against this background, the World Press Freedom Day in 2016 highlights the links between press freedom, a culture of openness and the right to freedom of information, and sustainable development in the digital age. The common thread in all these is the role of journalism, and the importance of safeguarding those who bring this service to the public. This year’s WPFD will examine the questions from three different perspectives:

Freedom of information as a fundamental freedom and as a human right: Freedom of information can be generally defined as the right to access information held by public bodies. Deemed to be one of the fundamental civil rights supporting democratic processes, freedom of information is required in order to ensure that citizens can vote in an informed way, and that they can hold their governments accountable through public scrutiny.

A major obstacle to this freedom is that to gain access to information is overreach in governmental secrecy. States should be able to keep some information confidential for legitimate purposes, however, certain information relating to administrative and executive authorities, should generally be accessible to everyone.

Hence, freedom of information both helps provide oversight over governmental bodies, as well as the possibility to hold them accountable, and this right strengthens the relevance of press freedom and independent journalism.

Protecting press freedom from censorship and surveillance overreach: In the digital age, press freedom is confronted by growing challenges of arbitrarily blocking access to online information, limiting or punishing cyber-expression, and arbitrary intrusions on digital privacy.

These developments impact on those who do journalism, on others who express themselves online, and also on those who receive online information indirectly through multi-step flows.

The right to privacy is well-established as a requirement for freedom of expression, and for the protection of journalists’ confidential sources. Where journalistic source protection is compromised, there may be cover-ups of corruption, intimidation and exposure of sources’ identities with repercussions on them. In the long term, this can contribute to sources of information running dry and to self-censorship in society at large.

Ensuring safety for journalism online and offline: It is crucial that journalists can safely access and produce information both online and offline. Assuring the physical and psychological well-being of journalists including digital security is one of the most pressing issues in recent times.

While not every blogger and social activist engages in journalistic activities, those who do so can risk harassment, threats, and attacks – akin to journalists working within traditional media. For this, several organizations have taken drastic measures to safeguard journalists. However, at both global and national levels, awareness can be further strengthened to protect journalists and punish perpetrators of attacks. 

Press freedom and access to information are essential to democracy and to sustainable development. Sometimes referred to as a ‘watchdog’ of political and societal institutions, journalism is also much more: it demonstrates freedom of expression for society at large, it puts new questions on the development agenda, and empowers citizens with information.

For all these reasons, strengthening the conditions for journalism is key to developing a culture of openness, access to information and fundamental freedoms.

To this end, World Press Freedom Day 2016 seeks to advance the right to information, press freedom, and the environment for journalism to done in safety. It resonates with contemporary global issues and opportunities.

In this way, around the world, it should be possible for stakeholders to continue to take the Day to an ever higher level of visibility, relevance, and impact.

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