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World Press Freedom Day, 2018—another day of accountability to freedom of opinion and expression

By G.D. Zaney, Esq.

 

The third day of May, every year, since 1993, never passed without ceremony, funfair or recognition across the globe.

 

The Day, May 3, has been labelled World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) and set aside or dedicated to reminding the world of a fundamental human right - the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontier.

 

It is a time to design and promote initiatives in favour of press freedom, and to assess the state of press freedom globally - in view of the fact that there have been abuses or violations of this fundamental human right, where publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.

 

It is also, therefore an occasion to evaluate press freedom around the world, defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession and the right to freedom of opinion and of expression.

 

History of World Press Freedom Day

 

The General Assembly of the United Nations Organization (U.N.O.) proclaimed WPFD in 1993, following a Recommendation adopted at the twenty-sixth session of the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO's) General Conference in 1991.

 

It is important to note that the 1993 proclamation was a consequence of a call — The Windhoek Declarationby African print journalists in 1991 for media pluralism and independence.

 

The Windhoek Declaration is a statement of press freedom principles put together and produced at a UNESCO seminar, "Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press," held in Windhoek, Namibia, from April 29 to May 3, 1991 which was later endorsed by the UNESCO General Conference.

 

The Declaration document enumerates instances of intimidation, imprisonment, and censorship across Africa, with a strong belief in the connection between a fully independent press and successful participatory democracy, and also asserts that a free press is essential to democracy and a fundamental human right.

 

Freedom of opinion and expression and the law

 

Reference has already been made to the right to freedom of opinion and expression which is stipulated in Article 19  of the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers".

 

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

 

And under Article 21(1) (a) of Ghana’s 1992 Constitution, All persons shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media.

 

The famous English jurist, Lord Denning explicitly state the position of the law when he said: "The freedom of the press is extolled as one of the great bulwarks of liberty. It is entrenched in the constitutions of the world... It can publish whatever it chooses to publish. But it does so at its own risk... Afterwards, after the publication, if the press has done anything unlawful they can be dealt with by the courts... If they should damage the reputation of innocent people...they may be made liable in damages.... The press is not above the law."

 

One most significant element of the law as espoused my Lord Denning is the rejection of prior restraint. In 1971, the Court in New York Times Co. v. United States established that freedom of the press is nearly free when there is no restraint on publications before disseminating.

 

In the case of Near v. Minnesota, the Supreme Court cancelled a gag law and considered the doctrine of prior restraint as unconstitutional. The court held that a journalist in a free press has the right to shape the opinions of the public and the interference of the State does not contribute to the phrase "free press".

 

Another element of the law, in Lord Denning’s dictum is that although the law guarantees freedom of the press to be unrestricted, every citizen should be responsible for the abuse of that freedom.

 

The freedom of press is considered as an essential tool for knowledge and exchange of ideas and opinions in a modern democracy.

 

Responsibility, abuse and violations

 

There is, however, the inclination to ignore the responsibilities attached to freedom, making it susceptible to abuse. Indeed, any institution or freedom, if left ungoverned, has the tendency to be abused and the law states clearly that punishment should be meted out to an errant journalist only after publication, but he or she should not be restrained from publishing the material.

 

Many countries around the world have clearly demonstrated disregarded for press freedom and trampled upon the fundamental right to freedom of opinion and expression by continuing to restrict the publications of  materials they consider damaging, albeit the truth.

 

But some governments have even exceeded the boundary of restraining publications, and are engaged in blatant violations as journalists are murdered, expelled or harassed, as a means of gagging them or intimidating them from publishing information considered distasteful, even if it is the truth and is in the public interest to publish such information.

 

Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and International Freedom of Expression Exchange have established that  journalists have been killed , expelled and harassed and that more than a third of the world's people live in countries where there is no press freedom and where there is no system of democracy or where there are serious deficiencies in the democratic process.

 

World Press Freedom Day, therefore, acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.

 

Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story.

 

Significantly, Ghana is hosting this year’s World Press Freedom Day, with more than 700 media leaders around the world converging in Accra for the two-day event, May 2 and May 3, 2018.

 

It is the fourth time that the global celebration of WPFD is taking place on African soil, 27 years after the Windhoek Declaration.

 

The event— 25th   global celebration — organized by UNESCO in partnership with Government of Ghana on the theme: Media, Justice and the Rule of law, is scheduled to feature debates and discussions on the interplay between the media, political process and judicial system as well as explore how to strengthen the watchdog role of independent journalism.

 

Ghana’s President, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay and the President of the International Federation of Journalists, Philipe Leruth, are the leading personalities of the event.

 

Other events featuring at the event include an awards night on May 1 to present the UNESCO/Guillero Cano World Press Freedom Prize which is presented to an individual or organisation that has made an outstanding contribution to the defence and promotion of press freedom.

 

As part of activities marking the event in Ghana, the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) will hold a vigil on May 1 at the Press Centre in honour of fallen heroes followed by a cocktail to welcome foreign journalists.

 

There will also be a walk on April 28 to be led by former Black Stars Captain Stephen Appiah.