The UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office in Beirut celebrated today World Press Freedom Day 2023, with the kickoff of a regional conference, in partnership with HE the Minister of Information, Mr. Ziad Makary and with the support of the Gulf Center for Human Rights. The Conference is placed under the global theme “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights”, signifying the enabling element of freedom of expression to enjoy and protect all other human rights. This year’s 30th anniversary celebration of World Press Freedom coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Over the course of two days, the conference will gather media professionals, academics, and human rights activists from the Arab region along with media students from Lebanese universities and from other Arab countries, to highlight the link between press freedom, freedom of expression as the necessary precondition for the enjoyment of all other human rights, towards the realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Roundtables will focus on key themes such as freedom of expression as a keystone for human safety and right to life, the crucial importance of press freedom in upholding human rights and the impact of its limitations on all fundamental freedoms, the role of press freedom in ensuring access to reliable information on the internet and its impact on women and vulnerable groups.
Speaking at the opening session, Minister of Information Ziad Makary, expressed “respect, appreciation and thanks to all those working in the press of all kinds.” “On this occasion, I would like to point out that the Ministry of Information had launched, on World Press Freedom Day, the Samir Kassab Photography Award in order to shed light on the case of this photographer who was kidnapped in Syria while on duty in 2013”, he said. “This is an invitation to the international community to help us reveal his fate.”
“World Press Freedom Day is perhaps the only international day which is not linked to an official holiday for workers in the sector, because the press is the heartbeat of society, and if it were to stop, society would die. Three decades have passed since the United Nations General Assembly declared the date of May 3 as World Press Freedom Day, based on the recommendation of the UNESCO General Conference in 1991, and since that time we have been striving to preserve the freedom, independence and pluralism of the press, and journalists are still subjected to oppression, pressure, killing, extortion, harassment, kidnapping, electronic attacks and other tools to silence the free speech, in different parts of the world. However, despite all the sacrifices, hardships, and obstacles, the free press still stands to defend the rights of society: it is the voice of ordinary people, and it is the voice of truth in the face of the oppressor.”
“Accordingly, it is our duty as the official authorities to protect the freedom of the press, regardless of the difference and division in political opinions. Respect for pluralism is one of the pillars of democracy that we praise. Acceptance of the other opinion is the noblest thing that people can live up to. This freedom is firstly preserved through laws that protect the freedom of the press and the safety of journalists and enable them to obtain the necessary information to carry out their work in a scientific and objective manner, and through awareness of their rights and methods of protecting them from the dangers that threaten them.”
“Therefore, since the beginning of my term in the Ministry of Information, I have been keen to guarantee these rights through a new drafting of a modern media law, in cooperation with the UNESCO office, that guarantees the safety of journalists and freedom of expression, abolishes jail sentences and regulates the profession of journalism in a way that guarantees professional rights, in the hope that the Lebanese economy will soon recover and journalists will get their economic and social rights.”
“We believe that media professionals, academics, jurists, trade unions, civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations are our partners in the cause of defending freedoms. Hence, we find it necessary to take their suggestions, concerns and aspirations into account and include them in the amendments that we will soon submit to the Parliaments. What we aspire to is complete and responsible freedom, a freedom that has no limits except for what constitutes a threat to society, such as false and misleading news and hate speech that fuels division.”
“You all know that Lebanon is going through stifling economic, social, environmental, and institutional crises. However, as a Lebanese citizen in the first place, I am proud that our country still enjoys, to a large extent, the blessing of freedom of expression. This freedom of expression is the backbone of journalism. There is no free press, and therefore no accountability, no dreams, no ambitions, without freedom of expression. Today, I make a special appeal to journalists to uphold freedom of expression and defend it, no matter how much effort it takes. In a time when we lose everything, let us fight to preserve freedom of expression, and with it we move forward towards restoring our economic and societal health in Lebanon.”
From her side, UN Special Coordinator to Lebanon Joanna Wronecka said: “I am pleased to join UNESCO and all of you on this World Press Freedom Day to pay tribute to the critical work and sacrifices by journalists and media workers in Lebanon, in the region and around the world and to recognize the big impact they have on our daily lives. Our meeting today in Beirut is symbolic because of the influential role the media has played historically in Lebanon. It is very important to safeguard this image of openness in Lebanon and the space it offers for press freedoms and freedom of expression.”
“During the past two decades, the media realm has evolved and expanded considerably worldwide. New media and technologies are on the rise reaching more people. Traditional press and audiovisual media are also seeking new horizons. But the mission at the heart of this plethora of media outlets remains one and the same, to keep people informed.”
“Democratic societies cannot thrive and develop without an active and free press. A free press allows people to exercise their right to know, expand and diversify their knowledge and make educated decisions. A free press not only informs people, it empowers society as a whole by making information and developments that affect their lives accessible to all, even making it possible for people to hold their authorities accountable when necessary. Its role is critical in shedding light on human rights violations and enabling marginalized groups, such as women, persons with disabilities and vulnerable people by making their voices heard and their needs and rights understood.“
“During the past 30 years, since the UN began marking World Press Freedom Day, progress has been made in recognizing the importance of press freedom and implementing it. Nevertheless, many challenges remain and need to be addressed.”
“Journalists still find themselves threatened or targeted for doing their job. At the global level, at least 67 media workers were killed in 2022, a 50 per cent increase over the previous year. Others faced enforced disappearance, kidnapping, arbitrary detention, legal harassment, and digital violence, with women particularly being targeted. Governments and national authorities must do more to stop such crimes and ensure the protection of journalists.”
“Freedom of expression, which is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”, is in many cases restricted and under attack, which in turn impacts the fulfillment of other human rights of individuals. “
“The media needs a conducive environment to flourish. This is only possible when it is backed by the necessary laws and legal structures. Last week, the Ministry of Information and UNESCO proposed a new enhanced version of the media law in Lebanon that aims to strengthen the media landscape, is aligned with international standards, and ensures freedom of speech and the protection of journalists. I hope the Lebanese Parliament will give this matter the urgency it deserves by expediting the adoption of this new modern and progressive media law.”
“Meanwhile, the unprecedented socio-economic crisis in Lebanon has also deeply affected media institutions and journalists. Sometimes we forget that while reporting on hardships, conflict and adversity, the journalists can themselves be equally affected. This brings us back to the main issue: reforms. The Lebanese authorities need to urgently put in place and implement necessary reforms to steer Lebanon back towards a path of recovery that will address the needs of all sectors of society, including the media.”
“Another big challenge is the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation that sometimes contribute to the spread of hate speech and hostility. It is the duty of journalists to stand up for the truth, to share verified information and counter the spread of fake news. This can only be possible by giving the media the necessary freedom and access.”
“Press freedom comes with a big responsibility. Media Ethics that is centered on truth and accuracy, independence, humanity and accountability is essential to have the right influence on people. If not exercised responsibly, press freedom can sow divisions instead of solidarity, can spread hatred instead of tolerance and understanding, which can be very dangerous in fragile societies. “
“Looking ahead, the media has a central role to play in building back a better future in Lebanon and the region. For the UN, the media is an important partner in promoting worldwide priorities, including the Sustainable Development Goals that offer the prospect for a more prosperous world. Being the closest to the people, the media can relay their hopes and aspirations and open the windows to information and knowledge.”
“I am really honored to welcome you all very warmly to the celebrations of World Press Freedom Day for 2023” noted Costanza Farina, Director of the UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office in Beirut. “Allow me first of all to convey my gratitude to HE the Minister for the robust partnership and his engagement with UNESCO on key strategic media related topics, very recently on the enhanced media law, which we hope to see being deliberated soon in Parliament. I also wish to extend my personal appreciation to the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon for her presence here today and for the support and good auspices which have always guided our collaborations.”
“You may recall that in 1993, exactly 30 years ago, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 3 May as World Press Freedom Day. This proclamation marked the beginning of substantial progress towards enabling a free press and freedom of expression around the world. Celebrated every 3rd of May, this year’s theme for the Day is “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights”, signifying the enabling element of freedom of expression to enjoy and protect all other human rights.”
“The international anniversary of World Press Freedom Day led by UNESCO has just concluded a few hours ago. It was celebrated yesterday in NY at the UN Headquarters Member States, Governing bodies, and with partners from the UN, media, academia, and civil society. I am very proud that also Lebanon is joining the world and is hosting celebrations to reflect on the status of Press freedom and how we can collectively contribute to its progress.”
The UNESCO Director shared the news about the new three laureates of the 2023 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, which had just been announced. Three Iranian women journalists, namely Ms Niloofar Hamedi, Elaheh Mohammadi and Narges Mohammadi had been awarded the prize by the Jury at the international celebrations in New York. Ms Farina then quoted Ms Audrey Azoulay, the UNESCO Director-General, who on that occasion said:
“Now more than ever, it is important to pay tribute to all women journalists who are prevented from doing their jobs and who face threats and attacks on their personal safety. Today we are honoring their commitment to truth and accountability”.
“Over the past 30 years, World Press Freedom Day celebrations have taken us on a journey, giving prominence to the right to free expression and emphasizing various aspects of press freedom’s importance. However, in the face of multiple crises, media freedom, journalist safety, and freedom of expression, as well as other human rights are increasingly under attack. As we enter the final decade to meet all countries’ ambitions for the Sustainable Development Goals and to fulfil the commitments made by every Member State of the United Nations to the future of the planet, World Press Freedom Day is a call to recenter and reaffirm freedom of expression, as a necessary precondition for the enjoyment of all other human rights.”
“And indeed, we have witnessed globally substantial progress on press freedom over the last 30 years with end of one-party or military rule in many countries, with the growth of Internet as significant enabler of both freedom of expression and press freedom, while also acknowledging at the same time more recent backsliding in many countries, including some well-established democracies.
The collapse of the traditional business model for media in many countries is an aggravating element, as advertising resources flock to social media platforms.
Allow me now to highlight a few key strategic factors in this wide media ecosystem, factors which I hope will be debated and discussed today and tomorrow during this event.”
“First, we should distinguish clearly between media – professionally collected and curated news information, including investigative journalism – regardless of how it is distributed – and the “chatter” that dominates social media. We should reaffirm the important notion of information as a public good which is what UNESCO has always been promoting. Second, the “real” media are particularly important in the current environment since automated processes of most social media platforms (driven by their business models which rely on engagement or “clicks”) privilege disinformation and possibly hate speech whereas professional media should do the opposite and help counter that. Third, let me also focus on the importance of freedom of expression/media freedom both in their own right and as an underpinning of all other human rights, namely:
-Press freedom as a driver of participation: we need information and the ability to speak freely to participate – this, in turn, lies at the very heart of democracy which is a core means to guarantee all rights
-Press freedom as a driver of accountability: media can expose wrongdoing and hence can hold all actors to account;
-Press freedom as an underpinning of culture, which is ultimately about expressing cultural values, science and education (like academic freedom), all of which also depend on the freedom to express oneself; this is the core of UNESCO’s mandate;
-Press freedom specifically in relation to the environment and the need for open debates about how to combat climate change, so as to arrive at viable and effective solutions.”
“This year’s Special 30th anniversary celebration of World Press Freedom Day is, therefore, a call to re-focus on press freedom, as well as independent, pluralistic, and diverse media, as necessary key to the enjoyment of all other human rights.
This anniversary is also special as it also coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I wish to thank the colleagues from the OHCHR and the Gulf Center for Human Rights, for their support and engagement in the preparation of todays event. Allow me to express my gratitude and appreciation to the key speakers who have graciously accepted to be with us, some had to travel long distances. And also wish to thank all the participants and experts: we are delighted to host colleagues, students and professionals from 8 Arab countries (Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine).
A warm welcome also to my UNESCO colleagues who are here representing 3 UNESCO Offices in the Arab region. I look very much forward to the deliberations of the various panels and I encourage all the distinguished participants to really be proactive and engage in the different sessions.”
“To conclude, I will quote Ms Andrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director General which yesterday in NY said: 30 years after the first World Press Freedom Day, we can see how far we have come and how far we still have to go. So let this Day be an opportunity to renew our commitment, within international organizations, to defending journalists and through them press freedom.”