New challenges to press freedom—27 years after Windhoek declaration

By G.D. Zaney, Esq.


The Day, May 3, has been set aside or dedicated to reminding the world of a fundamental human right —the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontier.


It is a time for the world at large to design and promote initiatives in favour of press freedom and to assess the state of press freedom in the world—in view of the fact that there have been abuses or violations of this fundamental human right, where publications are censored, publishers fined, suspended and publishing houses closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.


It is also, therefore an occasion to evaluate press freedom around the world, defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession and the right to freedom of opinion and of expression.


Ghana is hosting this year’s World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) — the fourth time that the global celebration is taking place on African soil since 1993, when the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization (U.N.O.) dedicated the Day to Freedom of the Press to be observed across the globe.


The two-day event of May 2 and May 3, 2018— the 25th   global celebration of WPFD — is being organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in partnership with the Government of Ghana.


 The theme for WPFD 2018 is Media, Justice and the Rule of law.


WPFD 2018 is scheduled to feature debates and discussions on the interplay between the media, political process and judicial system as well as explore how to strengthen the watchdog role of independent journalism.


The 1993 proclamation by the United Nations followed a Recommendation— The Windhoek Declaration— by African print journalists for media pluralism and independence at the twenty-sixth session of UNESCO's General Conference in 1991.


The Windhoek Declaration was a statement of press freedom principles put together and produced at a UNESCO seminar, "Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press," held in Windhoek, Namibia, from April 29 to May 3, 1991 which was later endorsed by the UNESCO General Conference.


The Declaration document enumerates instances of intimidation, imprisonment, and censorship across Africa, with a strong belief in the connection between a fully independent press and successful participatory democracy. It also asserts that a free press is essential to democracy and a fundamental human right.


The question “What strides has the world made since the adoption of the 1991 Windhoek Declaration” will appear to be the focus of the 2018 World Press Day, particularly in view of the theme for the celebration.


In other words, WPFD 2018 will critically evaluate the success or failure of the Windhoek Declaration. WPFD 2018 will provide the platform for an assessment of whether or not the intimidations and imprisonment of journalists and censorship of the media have ceased in compliance with the Declaration, or whether or not new challenges have bedevilled the exercise of the right to the fundamental human rights of  freedom of opinion and expression,  including the freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontier.


The Windhoek Declaration defined "independent press" as a press that is independent from governmental, political or economic control as well as control of materials or infrastructure necessary for the production of printed media.


On the other hand, the reference by the Declaration to a “pluralistic press" implied the absence of media monopolies and the proliferation of several newspapers, magazines and periodicals which reflect a wide possible range of opinions.


Indeed, underpinning the spirit of the Declaration was a commitment to working as professionals and spreading information in the public interest.


Without doubt, positive developments are noticeable since the Declaration. For, at the time of the Windhoek Declaration in1991, no single African country had an access to information law. But today, the number of access to information laws on the African continent have seen a significant leap forward and yet, the right to access information on issues that affect people's livelihoods remains a mirage for the majority of African people while only about 30 per cent of countries on the continent guarantee their citizens the right of access to information because implementation of the laws remains an onerous task and a formidable challenge.


Since the Windhoek Declaration, a new development—the internet— has facilitated information gathering and dissemination; but it is also known that there have been   Internet shutdowns and service restrictions to prevent the free flow of information. In Burundi, Uganda, Ethiopia and Egypt, among others, access to the internet is restricted— and at critical times when public dialogue and access is most important.


The fact also remains that the principle and the accompanying benchmarks of press freedom are now widely recognized by governments across Africa and globally, but progress has not been substantially made in providing the enabling environment for a free press to thrive.


The press is yet to fully operate as an independent entity because governmental, political or economic interests operate as constraints while materials and infrastructure needed for the production and dissemination of information are virtually unavailable.


Indeed evidence is available to show that violations of this fundamental human right to freedom of the press still exits— where publications are censored, publishers are fined, and suspended and press houses closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.


Much progress has also been recorded as far as the number and diversity of broadcasters on the continent are concerned. In other words, efforts to promote broadcasting freedom, including public broadcasting and independent private commercial and community broadcasting, and to ensure independent and transparent regulatory frameworks have yielded positive results— yet genuine public-service broadcasters and truly independent regulatory bodies remain elusive.


Since 1990, the records indicate, over 100 journalists in Africa have paid the ultimate price, while many others have endured other forms of abuse as new tools are employed or deployed to restrict the free flow of investigative journalism.


It is also common knowledge that safety protocols that facilitate the work of the journalist are not respected.


In Zimbabwe, the country has not seen any meaningful shifts in its media legislation or policies, despite the existence of a progressive Constitution that guarantees media freedom and freedom of expression as plans to introduce more stringent monitoring of the internet and other social media platforms, in attempts to reduce the so-called abuse of the technology by Zimbabweans


The Parliament of Botswana was contemplating Whistle-blower Bill that would criminalize whistleblowing to the media or any other person besides those directed in the bill and in Namibia, the Minister of Information and Communication Technologies (MICT) offers an access to information law as a trade-off for increased media regulation.


In Ghana, there once existed the Criminal Libel Law while the Right to Information (RTI) Bill is yet to be passed into law since it was drafted in 1999 and reviewed in 2003, 2005 and 2007, but was not presented to Parliament.


The first attempt at enacting the law on RTI was made when the bill was presented to Parliament on February 5, 2010.


Most state-owned radio and TV stations are yet to transform to become impartial public service broadcasters and so continue to be mouthpieces of Governments.


The press has also suffered  from the lack of motivation while the many journalists are ill-equipped with knowledge and understanding of specific subjects, thus many editorial offices and stations lacking specialists, thereby compromising the quality of reportage. 


The absence of an independent judiciary in many countries has also presented a formidable challenge for the development of progressive jurisprudence on freedom of expression.


Thus, some progress has been made, since 1991 which requires the annual commemorations of WPFD to celebrate while the challenges provide the agenda for debate and strategies to addressing them.


The writer is an officer of the Information Services Department.


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