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
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
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
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.
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.
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.