On World Press Freedom Day, UN leaders call on others to "renew their commitment" to freedom of expression

By Zach Dyer

Dignitaries, heads of states, journalists and advocates arrived in San José, Costa Rica yesterday, Thursday, May 2, for the welcoming reception of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s World Press Freedom Day conference.

Alongside highlighting the need for greater press freedom around the world and honoring journalists killed for their profession, the conference will also have a special focus on the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The stated goals of the conference include: Ensuring the safety of journalists and media workers; combatting impunity of crimes against press freedom; and online safety.

On Friday morning, the UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize was awarded to Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu, who is serving a five-year jail sentence in Ethiopia’s Kality prison.

The conference’s 2013 theme, “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media,” could not be more timely. According to a statement from IFEX, 2012 was by some measures the “most lethal” year on record for journalists around the world, due largely to the on-going civil war in Syria. UNESCO statistics report that over 600 journalists have been killed during the last decade, with nine out of 10 killings going unpunished.

Latin America, sadly, reflects similar trends in world press freedom. The Committee to Protect Journalists' latest Impunity Index of the world’s greatest offenders included Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. Reporters Without Borders’ annual media predators report noted the high levels of impunity surrounding cases where organized crime is involved, especially the Zetas drug cartel in Mexico and the Urabeños in Colombia. And censorship is also up as Brazil topped Google’s annual Transparency Report for most requests to remove online content by judicial order.

In a joint statement from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, both leaders urged observers to use the 20th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day to renew commitments to freedom of expression in challenging times.

Costa Rica, with the most “free” score on Freedom House’s annual report, is a natural choice to host the UNESCO event, but the same could not be said for most of Latin America. According to the Freedom House report, only three countries in Latin America—Costa Rica, Uruguay and Belize—have a free press while Honduras, Venezuela, Mexico and Cuba top the ranking as the least free countries in the region.

Even Costa Rica, however, was reprimanded by the Inter American Press Association during its Mid Year Meeting for its troubling information crimes law, commonly known as the “ley mordaza,” or gag law, that would have required jail time for the “publication of secret information.” The law has since been amended.

There have been some improvements, however. Several Caribbean countries have taken steps to remove or weaken libel crimes as part of an International Press Institute campaign to decriminalize defamation there. Trinidad and Tobago struck criminal libel from its laws in celebration of WPFD, May 3, reported the country’s Guardian newspaper. Last month, the Dominican Republic removed prison terms for libel crimes and in 2012, Grenada removed libel from its penal code, according to IPI. Killings of journalists in Mexico are also down, albeit for dubious reasons.

Events will continue from Thursday, May 2, to Saturday, May 4, according to the organization. Twitter users can follow the hashtags #wpfd and #pressfreedom to stay informed of the day’s events.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.