Cover Image
close this bookThe Courier N 159 - Sept - Oct 1996 - Dossier: Investing in People - Country Reports: Mali ; Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
close this folderDeveloping world
View the documentFreedom of expression: the heartbeat of democracy
View the documentCampaigning for free expression in the SADC region
View the documentVolunteers show their worth
View the documentStructural adiustment, the environment, and sustainable development

Freedom of expression: the heartbeat of democracy

A view from UNESCO.

The article which follows is an abridged version of a text compiled by Carlos Amaldo, who heads UNESCO's research into communication and the free flow of information. Mr Arnaldo highlights some of the main aspects of the UN agency's support for the development of a free press in the African, Caribbean and Pacific regions.

The resolution passed by the ACP/KU Joint Assembly in March 1996 in Windhoek, Namibia, reflected the spirit of many of UNESCO's communication programmes in these regions. Echoing the principal tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the resolution declares: 'freedom of expression is a precondition for holding free and fair elections'; 'the monopoly of information media is a barrier to the development of democracy,'; 'there is a need to create a climate in which all part)" can participate fully in political life.' It further holds: 'communication media must not only inform the electorate in an impartial and objective manner' but also; 'freedom of expression and the existence of free communications media are vital preconditions for the development of a democratic society.'

The resolution was timely, responding to a need to remind political leaders, as well as civic society, of the relation between free communication media and truly democratic practices. Just five years ago, on 3 May 1991,

African journalists and media adopted the Windhoek Declaration at the UN/ UNESCO seminar on promoting an independent and pluralistic African press. Likewise, journalists and media practitioners of each major region adopted the Declarations of Alma Ata (October 1992), Santiago (May 1994) and Sana'a (January 1996), all of which affirmed the unwavering belief of professional communicators in freedom of expression, press freedom, independence and pluralism of the media, and the contribution of such freedoms to democratic processes. At their 28th General Conference, UNESCO Member States further declared that, 'press freedom is an essential component of any democracy.' All these declarations contain action programmes to strengthen press freedom in these regions.

Africa

Turning to look at some practical initiatives, a media project entitled 'Independent Press in Africa', which was put in place after the signing of the Windhoek declaration, soon attracted the interest of a number of donors (Italy, USA, France). Under this project, the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) organised four sets of courses for journalists in 1994. In April 1995, IPDC arranged a multi-theme workshop for 33 English-speaking journalists and editors from Central and West Africa on marketing, distribution techniques, managing mass media enterprises in Africa, new communication technologies, journalism and ethical issues.

There are now plans afoot to study the situation of the press in Mauritius, Madagascar and Comoros, and to publish several handbooks about press enterprises. Efforts will also be made to attract increased donor contributions so that the successes achieved by these initial training activities can be strengthened and shared with other regions.

A further example of positive action in support of the media is the work of MISA (the Media Institute of Southern Africa-featured in more detail in the following article). This organisation has been receiving UNESCO support since 1994 under a funding arrangement with the Danish International Development Agency. The project seeks to strengthen links among the region's independent media so as to enhance the free flow of information. It also aims to boost cooperation and information-sharing with similar groups in developing and developed countries worldwide, to strengthen the ability of the region's independent media to stand on its own feet and to improve professional standards.

MlSA, which was set up in 1992, has been monitoring and safeguarding press freedom in the region, facilitated by an electronic network for distribution of information on press freedom issues. It has mounted seminars and training workshops for professional journalists on computer-aided design, strategic financial management, journalism ethics and advertising management. MISA's campaigning material includes a bi-monthly magazine, Free Press: the Media Magazine of Southern Africa and a booklet, So this is Democray, which is a compilation of its 'action alerts' curing 1994 and 1995.

Another UNESCO initiative is the 'Communication and Good Governance in West and Central African Countries' project, supported by Germany. This aims to strengthen the human and technical capacity of the media in these regions so that they can make a contribution to good governance. The three year project is to be implemented in 10 countries - Benin, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Sao Tome & Principe and Togo.

Together with other institutions such as legislatures, the judiciary and civic organisations, media bodies like MISA have a useful role to play. They can enhance transparency and accountability by systematic analysis and reporting of government programmes, policies and pledges, and by encouraging public discussions which help people to make informed decisions about public issues and about how their leaders discharge the power vested in them. Fulfilment of these functions requires access to the media, and qualified, well-trained practitioners who can effectively use the media for information, education and communication on good governance issues.

Caribbean

Turning our attention now to the Caribbean, the question of media freedom recently came to the fore in Trinidad and Tobago when 13 editors and journalists on The Guardian lost their jobs following publication of a number of controversial articles (some reports said they 'constructively resigned'). The events cast a shadow over the famous Carnival. Indeed, as one journalist put it, the Carnival quickly ceded to the 'sacrificial rites' of Holy Week. Six of the paper's youngest reporters were among those who lost their jobs-but out of the furore, a new newspaper was born.

A 'Comparative Study of Media Laws in the CARICOM countries' by Ainsley Sahai, commissioned earlier by UNESCO, became a reference in the debates that followed. The study highlighted that all Caribbean countries guaranteed freedom of expression in their national constitutions. Indeed, Trinidad and Tobago's constitution explicitly guarantees press freedom as well. The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) organised two meetings. The first of these, on 10 April 1996, was a public forum on issues of press freedom. Although a full cross-section of society was not present, and not all the issues at stake were fully debated, it was nevertheless a start. Those who took the floor came from many sectors of society -women, the unemployed, workers, community organisations and at least three different religious groups. About a quarter of those who contributed spoke as individuals. While many criticised the press for errors in reporting, all confirmed the need to uphold a free press vis-a-vis both political pressures and economic and financial interests.

The public gave strong support to MATT and demanded that the forum be replicated in other parts of the country. It was the first time that the public had been given the opportunity to speak out on these issues. It was not so much the content of the discussion which counted, but the very fact that the event took place, bringing the media closer to its 'customers'. The meeting gave the public an opportunity to put over their own perceptions of press freedom, impartial reporting and the strengthening of democratic processes.

Two days later, with support from UNESCO, the Media Association staged a journalists' symposium, moderated by George John, consulting editor at The Guardian. David de Caires, publisher of Guyana's Stabroek News was invited by MATT as an external consultant. Drawing on past and more recent examples of uneasy relations between a free press and governments, Mr de Caires concluded with a headlinehitting statement; the relations of the press with government should not be too cosy, the press must maintain its adversarial position.

Many journalists took the floor to stress Trinidad and Tobago's constitutional guarantees for both freedom of expression and press freedom. They also stressed the need to safeguard editorial independence, not only in the printed press, but also in broadcasting, and urged the repeal of 'antiquated' libel laws-a point also made in the Sahai study. The preparation of a Freedom of Information Act was strongly urged to ensure access to public information.

These events appear to have strengthened the resolve of the jobless journalists. They grouped together to set up a new weekly newspaper, called The Independent. The new publication focuses on investigative articles, comment and reviews. In addition, a monthly called The Formatt was launched by MATT to disseminate specialised news on press freedom issues and to provide print support for future public fore. Both newspapers brought out their first editions in early May amidst the celebrations of World Press Freedom Day.

Pacific

In the Pacific, issues of freedom of expression and press freedom are no less salient, although a key issue for practitioners there is the modernisation of infrastructures. This is needed to ensure that this vast island region does not find itself in the slow lane of the information highway.

The computerisation of radio newsrooms, in places such as the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Tonga, is a priority. The Cook Islands already has a fully computerised newspaper operation. Indeed, this is the first newspaper in the Pacific with the capacity to transmit photographs from various parts of the country to the newsroom electronically by phone.

Considerable concern has been expressed about the inadequacy of national television programming. There is a need for the people of the Pacific to see themselves and their culture, and not just the imported fare distributed by most international TV services. With UNESCO support, women media producers from seven island countries were able to meet to work out ways of cooperating on a series of television documentaries that they themselves produced and exchanged within the region. Preparations are now under way for the annual evaluation and awarding of prizes at the end of 1996.

C.A.A.