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Freedom of speech

The freedom to speak and express one’s ideas and knowledge without fear or apprehension is the quest of all journalists.

Hence this year’s aptly titled theme for World Press Freedom Day, Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in all Media, which was recently celebrated on May 3.

Now in its 20th year, WPFD was first officially proclaimed during the United Nations General Assembly in 1993. Ever since then, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation as the UN agency with the mandate to promote freedom of expression and its result, freedom of the press, has been promoting these fundamental rights in every region in the world.

The UNESCO Constitution defines WPFD as a commitment to foster the “free exchange of ideas and knowledge” and the “free flow of ideas by word and image”. To promote these goals, WPFD has been commemorated worldwide by many stakeholders each year on May 3, and this has emerged as an effective way to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of expression and press freedom.

It was against this backdrop, that approximately 30 journalists and media personnel from across the region gathered in Curacao at the Hotel Renaissance from May 2 to 5 to celebrate WPFD. A Caribbean Media Summit was also staged and participants attended workshops conducted by several noted Caribbean journalists.

Here, in this informal setting, participants shared their stories ranging from intimidation and harassment of their colleagues and associated personnel as a result of their professional activities.

Executive Director at the International Press Institute, Alison Bethel McKenzie, who gave the keynote address on Safety of Journalists and Criminal Defamation at the opening session, noted that the price paid by journalists was becoming heavier while adding that attacks on journalists included murder, abductions, hostage-taking, and other forms of abuse.

Therefore, the question was raised: Have the countries, the international organisations, and the media institutions put in place all possible means to limit the risks incurred by journalists?

According to Jamaican journalist Jenni Campbell who spoke on the topic, Safety of Journalists in the Caribbean: Where are we and what should be done?, it is something that hits close to home as she and several of her colleagues had to beef up security in their homes after they started receiving threats while working on controversial stories.

And, against this background, she pointed out that the media house had a pivotal role to play in protecting its journalists. However, apart from Haiti and in some instances Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana and even Curacao, thankfully Caribbean journalists have not experienced the worst effects of political and criminal violence.

The call for the international calendar to observe the importance of press freedom was originally made at a meeting in Namibia of African journalists convened by UNESCO in 1991. It is a fundamental part of the Windhoek Declaration which was adopted at the meeting, and which was also endorsed by the UNESCO General Assembly in the same year. The Declaration spelt out that the precondition for press freedom is a free, independent, and pluralistic media environment.

In this regard, the Windhoek Declaration described a media landscape that is free from governmental, political or economic control, including freedom as regards to the infrastructure essential for doing journalism.

Additionally, the issue of community media was also raised, and according to former UNESCO Director, Kwame Boafo, who examined the topic Community Media and Sustainable Livelihood in the Caribbean: “Community media are characterised by their accountability to the communities they serve. They emerge as a result of popular movements that strive to attain an important space in citizen participation and demand the right to own and operate free from political or commercial interference.”

As stated in the Declaration of Windhoek, May 3, 1991: “Consistent with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is critical to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.”

* Theresa Blackman is an officer of the Barbados Government Information Service

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