Statement by H.E. Ms Fatima Kyari Mohammed
Ambassador, African Union Permanent Observer to the United Nations
(delivered also on behalf of UNESCO)
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me begin by thanking UNESCO and the UN Department of Global Communications (DGC) for bringing us together here at the UN Headquarters on this World Press Freedom Day. There are almost 100 events taking place worldwide to mark this important Day.
In fact, the global conference event has been taking place since Wednesday at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The conference is jointly organized by UNESCO, the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the African Union Commission – the first time a regional Organization partners with UNESCO on this endeavour.
The Day we celebrate Press Freedom is in fact on May 3rd to mark the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, adopted this day in 1991 by African journalists as a call for an Independent and Pluralistic African Press. The UNESCO General Conference then recommended this International Day to the UN General Assembly, who proclaimed it in 1993.
The theme for World Press Freedom Day in 2019 “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation” concerns the current challenges faced by the media in times of elections and the growing prevalence of disinformation, along with the media’s potential to support democracy, peace and reconciliation.
This commemoration theme is closely interlinked with the objectives of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which under Aspiration 3 envisions “An Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law and specifically earmarks, under it a specific goal on
“Democratic values, practices, universal principles of human rights, justice and the rule of law entrenched” as one of its priority areas to be realized by 2023.
Similarly, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 underscores the importance of public access to information and fundamental freedoms, which includes freedom of expression. SDG 16 recognizes that peace and democracy are preconditions for equitable and sustainable development. When freedom of expression and safety of journalists are protected, the media can play a vital role in preventing conflict and in supporting peaceful democratic processes. These outcomes are conditions for the realization of Africa’s Agenda 2063 as well.
The SDGs themselves encapsulate media’s potential to promote peaceful, just and inclusive societies. SDG Target 16.10 urges UN Member States to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements”. The two indicators to follow progress under Target 16.10 cover the safety of journalists and the legal and political guarantees to access information. These indicators show that under the UN agenda for sustainable development, the institutions of a free and safe press are a substantive component of peaceful societies.
It follows that a free and safe press must be able to access and disseminate information of public interest without fear of attack. Since today we will be looking into how the digital era is affecting electoral communications, it is important to also consider what can be done to counter rhetorical and other attacks on journalism, including during elections.
One effect of aggressive rhetoric is to blur the line between legitimate critique of media and naked threats which violate the right of journalists to exercise freedom of expression. Yet, the safety of journalists is fundamental to whether an election can be considered as free and fair.
Rapid political and judicial responses are needed at all times to address impunity for crimes against journalists – and these are particularly relevant during an election period. Recent resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council and UNESCO have urged Member States to create monitoring mechanisms under the SDG framework in order to track the safety of journalists.
The importance of having free and safe professional journalism in an election is highlighted against the background of social media and social messaging where disinformation flourishes.
Artificial Intelligence is already being applied in social media content moderation. Automated chat bots are delivering propaganda material. These raise questions of hidden agenda-setting influence. Emerging debates about the ethical, technological, political, social and legal implications of the use of AI need to be linked to freedom of expression broadly, and elections in particular.
On the positive side however, digital technologies are enhancing the ‘Right to Information’, which is also an important issue for elections. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has developed broad guidelines relevant to this topic. These recommend steps to enhance information access by Election Management Bodies, political parties and candidates, as well regulatory bodies that cover media and Internet operations. Transparency proposals are also made for Internet companies and for media institutions.
In sum, these matters all impact on existing policies and regulations for elections and for communications related to the Internet. UNESCO’s value of Internet Universality promotes an Internet based on human Rights, Openness and Accessibility, and underpinned by Multi-stakeholder participation (known as the ROAM principles). This holistic and inclusive approach to internet governance draws in media, civil society, media regulation bodies, internet companies, governments and others as stakeholders.
Given the value of the Internet for both reliable journalism and official communications, and for voters to be informed as well as act as watchdogs over processes, it is important to avoid the extreme step of cutting off Internet access during elections. To protect the integrity of communications around an election, abuses and problems can be dealt with in proportionate and legal ways, without disrupting connectivity as such.
In conclusion, let me emphasize on behalf of the African Union and UNESCO that free, independent and professional journalism – both online and offline – serves an essential role in democracies. It provides information that allows citizens to make informed decisions, inside and outside the voting booth. It holds the powerful to account for the integrity, peace and fairness of an election.
Journalism can also contribute to the electoral agenda by requiring politicians to respond to the public, and to focus on subjects of real public interest. These subjects include the SDGs – a common cause that is agreed by the global community, which range from advancing peace and human rights through to ensuring cultural diversity, gender equality, combating poverty, creating sustainable cities, and countering climate change.
During times of conflict, journalism can be a beacon in a storm of information where unchecked lies are disseminated and emotions are whipped up to the detriment of a culture of peaceful conflict resolution. In reconciliation processes, conflict-sensitive journalism can play a pivotal role. It can bridge divides through accurate reporting, break down stereotypes, cover human stories and present solutions. Such journalism can help prevent polarization, violence and war.
Yesterday in Addis Ababa, the 2019 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize was awarded to Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone following the recommendation of an international jury of media professionals. UNESCO has also launched a global media campaign called “Defend Journalism” to promote journalism that debunks falsehoods, uses verified sources and counters disinformation. World Press Freedom Day is a major opportunity to advance the agenda of deepening democracy and sustainable development in digital times.