World Press Freedom Day focuses on media in conflict and countries in transitionMedia in conflict areas and in countries in transition is the focus of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, May 3, which UNESCO is observing in Belgrade.* The award ceremony of the 2004 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize will also take place in the capital of Serbia and Montenegro on that day.
This year’s laureate, chosen by an international jury of media professionals chaired by Oliver Clarke, Chairman of Gleaner Company Limited (Jamaica), is the jailed Cuban journalist and poet Raúl Rivero Castañeda.**
As the intergovernmental organization with a constitutional mandate to “promote the free flow of ideas by word and image”, UNESCO observes World Press Freedom Day to highlight the importance of press freedom, which is crucial for democracy. On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, the Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, will issue a message expressing the Organization’s commitment to press freedom and independent media as essential components of democracy, reconciliation and reconstruction (see web link below for the message).
UNESCO has been supporting independent and pluralistic media in conflict and post conflict areas since the early 1990s, and has been particularly active in South-East Europe where state-owned media had become instruments of war during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Seeking to support non-partisan reporting during the conflict, UNESCO provided print and broadcast journalists with equipment and supplies and helped them communicate across lines of fire and organize distribution.
UNESCO remains active in the region and was instrumental in the creation of the first independent newspaper printing plant inaugurated in Belgrade last September. The plant, owned and operated by and for private newspapers in Serbia and Montenegro, aims to bolster the independence of the media in the country. UNESCO has also helped set up the ERNO television exchange which groups 12 broadcasters in the region.
Such activities, implemented with a variety of partners, are designed to create the conditions for the exercise of the basic human right of freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UNESCO has undertaken such projects in conflict areas and countries in transition around the world, from Afghanistan to the Middle East, through Africa, to name but a few examples.
Among the projects supported in Afghanistan, was the creation of the first independent publication in the country, the Kabul Weekly, which hit the streets in January 2001, just weeks after the fall of the Taleban regime. During the crisis that followed the genocide in Rwanda, the Organization helped set up radio stations that provided reliable survival information (including information about sanitation, where to find drinking water and food etc.). UNESCO has also helped establish independent newspapers both in Rwanda and Burundi and train a new generation of journalists in both countries. In Liberia, UNESCO has been working with the United Nations Development Group and the World Bank to assess the needs of the media, which have been severely affected by years of political repression and violent conflict. This programme is presently being implemented with the National Transitional Government of Liberia and other UN and non-governmental partners.
In the Middle East, UNESCO has been organizing meetings between Israeli and Palestinian journalists while helping the Palestinians with training and infrastructure with a view to creating a news agency and developing public service broadcasting.
In the aftermath of conflict, independent and public service media, especially broadcasting, can help heal the wounds of war and contribute to social and economic reconstruction. Indeed, there is a demonstrable link between the buoyancy of the independent media and of the economy, and freedom of the press has been shown to contribute to material prosperity.
While supporting the development of media infrastructure, UNESCO has been seeking to ensure that journalists, including those working in war zones, can carry out their professional duty to inform the public in reasonable conditions of safety. But journalists continue working in conditions of extreme danger, as can be seen from the number of casualties, in both times of war and times of peace. According to the International Press Institute (IPI), an international network of editors, media executives and journalists, 64 journalists were killed in 2003, including 19 reporters and media professionals in the war in Iraq, almost as many as in 1999, a particularly bad year for the profession, which saw 86 deaths, mainly in the conflicts in the Balkans and in Sierra Leone. Journalists are not only killed in war, all too often they are murdered by security organizations, guerrilla organizations, or organized criminals, all of whom have a vested interest in suppressing investigations into their misdeeds.
UNESCO uses diplomatic channels in seeking to persuade governments to respect the rights of journalists to do their work. It also publishes statements to draw attention to abuses against media professionals. It has also helped create the IFEX network of 57 freedom of expression organizations worldwide, which publicizes abuses against freedom of expression, supports freedom of expression initiatives in developing countries and countries in transition.
*May 2-3: UNESCO’s international conference: “Support to Media in Violent Conflict and in Countries in Transition”. On May 4, a regional conference for media professionals, “Media in Post-Conflict and Transition Countries”, is being organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) with UNESCO. Both conferences will take place at the Sava Conference Centre in Belgrade.
Also at the Sava Centre, the non-profit organization World Press Photo is organizing an exhibition of the results of the celebrated photo contest, the largest international competition in the field of photojournalism.
** The Director-General of UNESCO will present the Prize to a representative of the laureate on May 3, 6 p.m., at the Sava Centre. The UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize has been awarded yearly since 1997 as part of UNESCO’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day, which was endorsed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1993. Previous laureates of the World Press Freedom Prize are: Amira Hass (Israel) 2003; Geoffrey Nyarota (Zimbabwe), 2002; U Win Tin (Myanmar), 2001; Nizar Nayyouf (Syria), 2000; Jesus Blancornelas (Mexico), 1999; Christina Anyanwu (Nigeria), 1998; and Gao Yu (China), 1997.
For more information: http://www.unesco.org/webworld/wpfd/2004/
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