World press freedom day 2018: ‘Keeping power in check: media, justice and the rule of law’

4 May 2018

Event report

This session took place on 3 May 2018 at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, and was moderated by Ms Alessandra Vellucci (Director, UN Information Service, Geneva). The event commemorated the 25th anniversary of the United Nations’ World Press Freedom Day. The moderator expressed her regret about the journalists killed exercising their profession in war-torn countries, and used this as a reminder of the importance of protecting and promoting free press.  

Mr António Guterres (UN Secretary-General) gave the welcoming remarks by noting the importance of uncensored free press for democratic participation. Mr Abdulaziz Almuzaini, (Director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Geneva Liaison Office) commented on the media’s role in increasing transparency and restraining power in the public and private sectors.

Mr Noel Curran (Director-General of the European Broadcasting Union) said that this event serves as a reminder for governments to uphold the freedom of expression in the name of democracy, citing Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He continued by criticising the fact that many modern politicians have begun to publicly discredit the modern media, labelling journalists as ‘enemies of the people.’ To Curran, resisting this type of censorship means educating the public about episodes of media abuse, avoiding knee-jerk reactions against ‘fake news,’ and calling on media companies to protect their reporters.

Ms Elizabeth Laurin (Permanent Representative of France to the UN in Geneva), spoke next. She connected the freedom of the press to the UN sustainable development goal (SDG) #16, which aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies through sustainable development. She praised digitalisation for democratising access to information, but cautioned against the speed at which fake news can travel through digital outlets. She added that educating the youth on how to seek verifiable news sources is important to counteracting the power of fake news.

Ms Nina Larson (President of the Association of the Accredited Correspondents to the UN) opened by noting that more than 30 journalists have been killed since the beginning of 2018. Larson encouraged the private sector to take steps to minimise the time required to correct the spread of misinformation online. Furthermore, she detailed the dangers of advanced audiovisual editing software that can be used to distort past events to benefit a particular agenda.

Mr Walid Doudech (Permanent Representative of Tunisia to the UN Office in Geneva) acknowledged that Tunisia has made great leaps forward in terms of press freedom since the 2011 Arab Spring, but noted that his country still needs to establish institutions that coordinate and monitor freedom of expression. In particular, Doudech called for bodies tasked with regulating access to information and personal data to end avoiding their economic and political misuse. He also posed the question of whether there should exist an international convention aimed at protecting journalists.

Ms Nathalie Prouvez (Chief of the Rule of Law and Democracy Section of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)), spoke specifically about measures states can undertake to guarantee freedom of the press. She noted that governments cannot wait for the development of new ‘instruments’ for targeting press freedom, but rather, must act now with the present set of ‘tools.’ To that end, Prouvez noted that the OHCHR is developing a way of measuring violations committed against journalists, which will help to target SDG #16. She encouraged governments to use this tool and their judicial systems to ensure that all cases of media censorship are duly investigated and prosecuted.

The session was then opened to questions and comments. Among the points raised was a question about the particular challenges that female journalists face, and a comment that social media has played a particularly important role in disseminating fake news, to which Curran added by noting that the social media platforms contribute to an unhealthy singularity of perspective in news coverage.

Larson re-joined the conversation by encouraging the audience to voice opposition to media attacks and to embrace education as the key to deconstructing censorship. Moreover, she noted that new algorithms designed to flag and hide clearly inaccurate news are under development in the digital world.

The session concluded as Doudech stressed the importance of involving journalists’ perspectives in the efforts to protect the sanctity of accurate media worldwide.