Top UN officials stress importance of freedom of information

3 May 2010 – Marking the annual World Press Freedom Day, top United Nations officials have called for promoting the universal right to publicly-held information as well as ensuring the safety of all those who work in the media.

“Some journalists risk intimidation, detention and even their lives, simply for exercising their right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, through any media, and regardless of frontiers,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a message for the Day, which is observed worldwide on 3 May.

Last year, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) condemned the killing of 77 journalists.

Mr. Ban noted that these were not high-profile war correspondents, killed in the heat of battle. Most of them worked for small, local publications in peacetime, and were killed for attempting to expose wrongdoing or corruption.

“I condemn these murders and insist that the perpetrators are brought to justice. All Governments have a duty to protect those who work in the media,” he stated.

“Impunity gives the green light to criminals and murderers, and empowers those who have something to hide. Over the long term, it has a corrosive and corrupting effect on society as a whole,” he added.

While welcoming the global trend towards new laws which recognize the universal right to publicly held information, the Secretary-General pointed out that these new laws do not always translate into action.

“Requests for official information are often refused, or delayed, sometimes for years. At times, poor information management is to blame. But all too often, this happens because of a culture of secrecy and a lack of accountability.”

People have a right to information that affects their lives, and States have a duty to provide this information, he stressed, adding that such transparency is essential to good government.

The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said this year’s theme – freedom of information – included the principle that organizations and governments have a duty to share or provide ready access to information they hold, to anyone who wants it, based on the public’s right to be informed.

“The right to know is central for upholding other basic rights, for furthering transparency, justice and development. Hand-in-hand with the complementary notion of freedom of expression, it underpins democracy,” she stated in her message.

Highlighting some recent advances, she noted that more and more countries are adopting freedom of information legislation, making it easier to scrutinize government actions, and reinforcing public accountability.

In addition, faster and cheaper technology means that more people in the world have ready access to information from outside their immediate environment than ever before.

“Now is the time for us to capitalize on these advances, by strengthening institutions, by providing the necessary training for information professionals, by fostering greater openness within our public sectors and greater awareness among the public,” said Ms. Bokova, calling on governments, civil society, the media and individuals everywhere to join forces with UNESCO in promoting freedom of information.

The agency is celebrating World Press Freedom Day with a two-day global conference of media professionals entitled, “Freedom of Information: the Right to Know,” in Brisbane, Australia.

Also today, the Director-General will present this year’s UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to Mónica González Mujica, a Chilean champion of investigative journalism.

“Throughout her professional life, Mónica González Mujica has shown courage in shining the light on the dark side of Chile,” said the President of the jury, Joe Thloloe, Press Ombudsman of the Press Council of South Africa. “She has embodied the very spirit of the Award. She has been jailed, tortured, hauled before the courts but has remained steadfast.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, today urged all countries to ensure the full enjoyment of the freedom of information and the right to know:

“It is imperative that we talk about a ‘right’ wherein ordinary citizens can get information as an entitlement, and not as a favour,” he said in a statement. “Watering down what is now universally regarded as a fundamental right to passive concepts like ‘access’ or ‘freedom’ will blur the focus and dilute the effectiveness of any concerted effort to open up records.”

Meanwhile, the UN human rights office in Nepal is using the occasion of World Press Freedom Day to urge that the perpetrators of killings of journalists in the South Asian nation be brought to justice.

It noted in a news release that it has received reports of at least 28 incidents in the past six months ranging from intimidation to murder affecting journalists, editors and media entrepreneurs. Most incidents have occurred in the Terai region, targeting journalists for reporting wrongdoing or corruption, or simply for not following a particular political line.

Despite repeated calls by journalists, human rights organizations, and the international community, the Government has yet to make a single arrest in relation to any of the incidents.

“Bringing to book those responsible for attacking members of the media requires a genuine, determined effort by the authorities, while those sheltering alleged murderers must be prepared to surrender them,” said Richard Bennett, the Representative in Nepal of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As a first step, Mr. Bennett suggested that the authorities enforce the existing arrest warrants for those accused in the 2007 murder of journalist Birendra Shah, a correspondent for the Nepalese private radio station NepalFM, the Dristri Weekly and the television station Avenues TV.

The Maoists, who fought a decade-long civil war with the Government before signing a peace accord in 2006, claimed responsibility for the killing.


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