World Press Freedom Day*
Dr K. Parameswaran**,,
The World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) was jointly established in 1991 by UNESCO and the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI), against the framework of a conference held in Windhoek, Namibia. This conference emphasized the idea that press freedom should be understood as necessitating pluralism and independence for the mass media at large. Since then, the World Press Freedom Day has been celebrated every year on May 3rd.
May 3rd was proclaimed World Press Freedom Day by the UN General Assembly also. This happened in 1993, following a recommendation adopted at the twenty-sixth session of UNESCO's General Conference.
The day serves to inform citizens about various kinds of violations of press freedom – a grim reminder that publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed and attacked. It is also the apt occasion to encourage and develop initiatives in favour of press freedom, and to assess the state of press freedom worldwide.
In more practical terms, freedom of the press or freedom of the media is the freedom of communication and expression through vehicles including various electronic media and various forms of published material in printed as well as allied forms like photographs, videos etc. While such freedom mostly implies the absence of interference from an overreaching state, its preservation may be sought through constitutional as well as other legal provisions.
The Idea of Press Freedom.
Media freedom entails the right of any person to enjoy freedom of opinion and expression on a public basis. This includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ICT (like text messaging) and social media have enabled the diffusion of vital information to reach the widest number of people in the shortest span of time. Equally importantly, the phenomenon of social media has also enabled protesters to self-organize, and thus engaged the global youth in the fight to be able to freely express themselves and the aspirations of their wider communities.
At the same time, it has to be noted that media freedom is extremely fragile. It is also important to recognize that it is not yet within the reach of everyone. While the enabling environment for true media freedom is improving, the harsh reality is that many in the world still do not have access to basic communication technology. Furthermore, as more reporting is transmitted online, more and more online journalists including bloggers are being harassed and attacked. UNESCO has even dedicated a webpage, UNESCO Remembers Assassinated Journalists.
States and governments too have a responsibility to ensure that national laws on freedom of expression are in accordance with internationally accepted principles as laid out in the Windhoek Declaration (adopted at Windhoek, Namibia) and UNESCO’s Media Development Indicators, which are both documents that they have endorsed.
Hindrances to Press Freedom
Media freedom is hindered mainly by two factors. One is a lack of any organized information system; the other is the lack of basic skills and literacy to access, understand and evaluate information. Many sections of the society not only lack access to express themselves publicly, but they are also deprived of ways of getting information that could educate and empower them. This lack of access has become a persistent paradox against the back ground of increasing spread of the World Wide Web and the consequent ease in accessing information.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), more than 60 percent of the world’s households still do not own a computer and no more than 35 percent of the world population consider themselves as “internet users” with the vast majority of those surveyed belonging to the “developing countries”. (This statistics is taken from a global study sponsored by the UNESCO).
Considering that the right to free speech and press freedom are deeply interconnected with the right to access information, it is a priority to bridge the digital divide both between and within countries. In fact, the participants at the recent 7th UNESCO Youth Forum underlined that democratizing access to ICTs is an urgent challenge. Universal access to information must be pursued especially in remote areas such as rural, remote and insular areas.
The Indian Context
In India, the constitution, while not mentioning the word "press", provides for "the right to freedom of speech and expression" (Article 19(1) a). However this right is subject to restrictions under sub clause (2), whereby this freedom can be restricted for reasons of "soverignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, preserving decency, preserving morality, in relation to contempt, court, defamation, or incitement to an offense".
For a proper functioning of democracy it is essential that citizens are kept informed about news from various parts of the country and even abroad, because only then can they form rational opinions. A citizen surely cannot be expected personally to gather news to enable him or her to form such opinions. Hence, the media play an important role in a democracy and serve as an agency of the people to gather news for them. It is for this reason that freedom of the press has been emphasized in all democratic countries, while it was not permitted in feudal or totalitarian regimes.
In developing countries like India, the media have a great responsibility to fight backward ideas such as casteism and communalism, and help the people in their struggle against poverty and other social evils. “Since a large section of the people is backward and ignorant, it is all the more necessary that modern ideas are brought to them and their backwardness removed so that they become part of enlightened India. The media have a great responsibility in this respect”. (Justice Markandey Katju, Justice, Supreme Court).
Right to Information Act
It is against the background of the quality of access to information that has received world wide concern that the Right to Information Act 2005 passed by the Parliament acquires great significance. The act mandates timely response to citizen requests for government information.
Under the provisions of the Act, any citizen may request information from a "public authority" (a body of Government or "instrumentality of State") which is required to reply expeditiously or within thirty days. The Act also requires every public authority to computerize their records for wide dissemination and to pro-actively publish certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally. This law was passed by Parliament on 15 June, 2005 and came fully into force on 13 October, 2005.
In short, the act empowers every citizen to ask any questions from the government or seek any information, take copies of any governmental documents, inspect any governmental documents, inspect any work undertaken by the government and take samples of materials of any governmental work.
Right to Information is a fundamental human right, crucial to human development, and a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights. The experiences of the past seven years since the act has been in place shows that RTI has become a friend in need, making life easier and honorable for common people and empowers them to request and access public services successfully.*Joint Director, Chennai. ** Assistant Director, Madurai. *Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of INVC