Every 3rd May, the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) is commemorated worldwide, to strengthen the call for media freedom and to uphold the commitment to a free press as an absolute cornerstone of democratic society. This year’s theme, Information as a Public Good, is a strong call to reaffirm the value of preserving information as a public good. It notes how, “press freedom is essential to effective informed decision making. Without open access to information, governments and other organizations may block access to information deemed critical to protecting and advancing the public’s interests”. Information as a public good includes the freedom to seek out, receive and review information concerning the affairs of government, how the public budget is spent, and to be informed about matters of concern to the public.
Protecting press freedom is still as relevant today as it was 30 years ago when African journalists signed a declaration at a UNESCO conference in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1991: “The development of a free, independent and pluralistic press is linked to the freedom to seek, communicate and receive information as a public good”.
3rd May is an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of freedom of the press, to assess the state of freedom of the press around the world, to defend the media against attacks on their independence and to honor journalists who have lost their lives in service. It is also a day of reflection on professional issues of the media, freedom of the press and professional ethics. 3rd May also serves as a reminder that governments must respect their commitment to press freedom.
The concept goes further than affording journalists unfettered access to information. It also recognizes that journalists should be protected from physical harm in their work. It follows that journalists and media outlets should not be arbitrarily targeted due to their affiliation with any particular groups or interest groups. In addition to recognizing the special dangers to African journalists and freelance journalists working in low-income communities, or freelance working conditions that render them vulnerable to physical harm, the contemporary celebration of 3rd May reminds us that all journalists deserve the right to work without fear of violence.
In countries around the world, publications are censored or excluded from reporting, and journalists are harassed, arrested, attacked, or investigated for reporting stories that they follow. Governments around the world deny the press their right to freedom of expression and, in doing do, deny citizens their right to access information. In many African countries including Nigeria and Uganda, journalists and media professionals face censorship, abuse, harassment, imprisonment and even death for doing their jobs. News media in some African countries has also been targeted by the military, who has also been cracking down on journalists; this was evident in the recently concluded 2021 Uganda General Elections which were marred by massive violence against journalists.
Contributing to the well-being of humanity through accurate information as a public good.
The work of journalists and media workers is crucial as the world recovers from the devastation of the crisis. Objective, trustworthy, fact-checked messages against disinformation help ensure robust and sustainable solutions to current challenges, ensure transparency and accountability, and foster trust in institutions. It is widely recognized that changes in communication systems affect access to health, human rights, democracy and sustainable development.
The theme of WPFD 2021 is an urgent one for countries around the world. The promotion of information as a public good is necessary to build a post-COVID world; especially in light of the consequences of disinformation and compromised access to reliable, accurate and timely public health information during the pandemic. It represents a reiteration of the importance of continuing to fight for a normative context that emphasizes free, pluralistic and independent journalism as a springboard for progress. It also values and supports the efforts of the United Nations on Sustainable Development to promote public access to information as a fundamental freedom (SDG 16.10.2).
Africa Freedom of Information Centre thereby calls on governments to do everything in their power to build mutually beneficial partnerships and support free, independent and diverse media. As custodians of public resources and duty bearers for the well-being of all citizens, the WPFD should serve as a reminder to governments of the awesome responsibility the hold, and no less the enormous potential for change, is present on the African continent. In order to achieve long term, sustainable democratic change, and also learn from the experience of this (potentially just one of many to come) pandemic, access to information is crucial as are all stakeholders including the media and its ability to provide such in a timely and accurate manner.