Guest Blogger Maura Bogue on World Press Freedom Day 2011
I woke up in the middle of the night to a text message from a friend: "Are you still in DC? America riots outside the White House. Looks like fun on CNN." I knew it was going to be an eventful day, and its theme – the intersection of news and new tools of dissemination – had already begun.
As I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue in the morning, past the Department of Justice and with the Capitol in the distance, and arrived at the Newseum for the World Press Freedom Day 2011 global conference, the day took on a noble feeling. Outside the glass building hung framed front pages of newspapers from all 50 states and abroad. Nearly all of them displayed the day's top story: Osama bin Laden is dead.
On this day that countless newspapers shared the same top story, I was excited to gather with up-and-coming and well-established media professionals from around the world to share a dedication to a common cause: free press.
I already knew I was eager to meet my first Global Press Institute reporter, Jennifer Ehidiamen, who was invited to speak at the conference about the new media generation in Nigeria. But as the first session of the day began, I identified another reason for the excitement that had been building: the opportunity to convene in one space with a cross section of international free press enthusiasts to publicly reaffirm our joint purpose in the work we do every day that is larger than myself and even GPI.
Janis Karklins of Latvia, assistant director-general for communication and information of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, which organized the conference with the U.S. State Department and more than 20 civil society organizations, summarized this joint purpose best in his welcoming remarks.
"Free press keeps us free," he said.
Karin Karlekar, managing editor of Freedom of the Press, an annual index that tracks trends in media freedom worldwide, said that freedom worldwide has declined for the last eight years. With "21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers" as the conference theme, she said that the Internet and digital media created hope for reversing this trend.
Attributing this trend to the dozens of wars worldwide, Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a national foundation that aims to transform both communities and journalism, said the index showed the "mess of humanity at its messiest."
"A violent world is not a free world," he said.
Identifying a correlation between war and free press, Newton said that free press had increased with the end of past wars yet decreased with the development of new conflicts. But he emphasized that the current war was of ideas – not between nations – and that cyberspace was built for such a fight.
"We may already be in World War 3.0, and we just don't know it," he said.
He said that governments in 40 countries now censored the Internet.
"We call Google a digital miracle," he said. "They call it a cyberattack."
Namibian journalist Gwen Lister was chairwoman of the UNESCO-sponsored conference in Namibia that produced the Declaration of Windhoek, a statement of free press principles by newspaper journalists, on May 3, 1991 – now World Press Freedom Day. She said that new forms of media 20 years later meant new forms of control. Because of government ownership or control of the media, the press situation is considered free in only a handful of African countries and depressing on the continent overall, she said.
But Newton said that freedom could be growing, even if current indicators suggested it was not. He said the current index tracked the negatives, but that positive signs also existed, such as the 5 billion of the world's 7 billion people who can text, Tweet and post news on Facebook.
"You can hold a printing press in your hand," said Newton, encouraging everyone in the audience to join UNESCO's call to action campaign by using social media to urge peers and leaders to protect freedom of expression.
I smiled as I looked to my left at Jen, who, one step ahead of him, had been Tweeting away throughout the session to her followers in Nigeria.
But Lister emphasized that many people are still left out of this conversation. Because computer access remains elitist and elusive to many and the radio is still the strongest form of media in Africa, she said press freedom needed to be nonnegotiable on all platforms and worldwide.
Acknowledging this reality in her speech during the next session, Jen said that while Nigeria has a relatively free press environment, that digital technology was just evolving. But she said that new media, especially via cell phone, was already transforming the portrayal of young people in the media as well as their participation in politics and society, as she reported on in her latest article on the GPI Newswire,"Nigerian Youth Celebrate Social Media as Tool of Successful Election."
"Growing up digital is changing everything," she said.
Fellow panelist Adnan Hajizade – who by speaking via Skype from Azerbaijan epitomized this change – agreed that new media can drive young people to social activity. But he cautioned that it also creates new risks of their persecution for exercising their free speech – and, in places like Azerbaijan, in more dangerous ways than shutting down a blog.
Hajizade, a videoblogger who I was also excited to hear speak because he's a fellow University of Richmond alum and we covered his case in our student newspaper, said he was beaten by government-hired thugs and jailed for 17 months for hooliganism after posting a satirical YouTube video mocking the $41,000 the Azerbaijani government paid to import a donkey.
With many young people still in jail around the world for exercising their free speech, Hajizade said that new media tools were powerless without real action behind them. In the same way, the conference, though a powerful public commitment to press freedom and a rich exchange of opinions regarding new media, isn't enough either. It's what we continue to do after the Washington Declaration adoption and on every other day of the year to increase press freedom through various platforms worldwide that counts.
And the topic isn't just relevant to those in the media world.
"Freedom of expression underpins all human rights," Newton said.
At GPI, with every reporter we train and employ, community member we give a voice to, story and photo we publish and syndicate, reader we gain, and awareness and action we provoke, I sincerely believe we are contributing to stronger and more widespread human rights worldwide. As I watched Jen speak at the conference, pose questions to panelists during other sessions and introduce herself to each person she wanted to meet, I admired the bold yet graceful way she inserted herself in the free press conversation – just as each of our reporters does with every piece she submits.
But the many sessions and speakers at the conference beyond what I've recapped here also taught me that we can never become complacent with our efforts and must continue to seek innovative ways to expand our contribution to press freedom at GPI and, therefore, strengthen human rights. After a record fund-raising month in April, I hope we can use these new social investments to push forward in our mission to use journalism and our free speech as a development tool.
I received a final point to consider before leaving Washington, DC, though, when I overheard a conversation while waiting for my bus home.
"People don't have toilets, but they have Facebook," the young woman said.
So as we consider what development means to us at GPI, new media, as highlighted by the conference, is useful. But only as a means to an end, with the end being basic human rights that still elude so many.