World Press Freedom Day 2016 highlights access to information and fundamental freedoms

Media outlets and freedom of speech advocacy organizations from around the world came together to honor World Press Freedom Day, celebrated every May 3 since its proclamation by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993.

Although there were over 100 national activities organized to honor this day, the main celebration was led by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Government of Finland with a conference in Helsinki from May 2 to 4.

The 2016 celebration's motto was “Access to information and fundamental freedoms” with an emphasis on related issues such as freedom of information and sustainable development, the protection of press freedoms in the face of censure and surveillance and security guarantees for journalists online and offline.

In the context of this celebration, the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize was awarded to Akhadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter from Azerbaijan, who was arrested in December 2014 and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on September 2015 under charges of abuse of power and tax evasion. Her sentence has been labeled a retaliation for her work as a journalist.

The Guillermo Cano Prize seeks to honor a “person, organization or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the defense and/or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world, especially when this has been achieved in the face of danger.” Cano was a journalist and the director of the Colombian newspaper El Espectador who was assassinated in Bogota in 1986 under orders from drug cartel leaders.

Several organizations took advantage of the commemoration of the day to release reports, organize academic events or promote campaigns.

For example, on the eve of the celebration, the organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF for its initials in Spanish) launched the campaign “Great year for censorship” which “focuses on leaders in 12 countries who have trampled on media freedom and gagged journalists in various spectacular ways.”

The president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro is among these “12 enemies of media freedom.” RSF highlighted that in the country, there have been 22 media directors who are prohibited from leaving the country, a shortage of newsprint paper, lootings of newsrooms and a newspaper director sentenced to four years in prison accused of defamation.

The RSF campaign, designed by the agency BETC, is part of the publication of the 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published their report “Attacks on the Press: Gender and Media Freedom Worldwide” a few days before the celebration. They also highlighted via Twitter the issue of violence against journalists, with a specific focus on gender issues, and the need to abolish laws that criminalize defamation.

The sentence against Peruvian writer and journalist Rafael León (Rafo León) for alleged defamation received special attention on this occasion.

Meanwhile, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urged the members States in the continent to enact laws that make it possible to access public information and that these be effectively and efficiently implemented.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur also highlighted the importance of journalism as “one of the most important forms of demonstration of freedom of expression and information,” which is why it reiterated member States’ responsibility to “ensure that the media are able to keep society informed, including the creation of an environment in which a free, independent and diverse media can flourish.”

At the regional level, Ecuadorian NGO Fundamedios, together with other organizations, launched the “May your voice not break” campaign with the goal of helping journalists and media who were affected by the earthquake that shook the country on April 16.

The Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP by its initials in Spanish) in Colombia organized the International Seminar on Democracy and Media. They also published information about the situation of press freedom in the country through their Twitter account.

The Institute for Press and Society (IPYS by its initials in Spanish) in Venezuela presented its Annual Report 2015. According to the organization, the country “faced twelve months of obstacles to the exercise of journalism within a hostile context. Citizens circumvented silence to be able to properly inform themselves and to make responsible decisions.”

The Regional Alliance for Freedom of Speech and Information, a network that brings together 23 NGOs from 19 countries, presented the 2016 version of “Article XIII,” a collection of regional reports titled “State Control of Social Media.”

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas also joined in the commemoration of this day with a social media campaign. Journalists and experts on freedom of speech in Latin America spoke about the importance of press freedom.

Guilherme Canela, Regional Advisor on Communication and Information for UNESCO; Edison Lanza and Catalina Botero, current and former Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression for the IACHR; Carlos Lauría, program director and senior program coordinator for the CPJ Americas Program; Emilia Díaz-Struck, editor for the International Consortium of Journalists and Investigation and co-founder of Armando.Info; César Ricaurte, director of Fundamedios; as well as journalists such as Laura Zommer from Chequeado, Fabiola Torres from Ojo Público, Carlos Huertas from Connectas, and Isabela Ponce from GkillCity were some of the people that were part of the campaign.

World Press Freedom Day was enacted as a result of a recommendation from the UNESCO General Conference in 1991. The date was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, a document in which African journalists established principles on freedom of the press, media plurality, and their independence.​

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.