World Press Freedom Day (Guyana Peace Council)

Remarks by Ms. Mikiko Tanaka, UN Resident Coordinator, to mark World Press Freedom Day at an event hosted by the Guyana Peace Council

The single guiding principle underlying the role of the media in elections is that without media freedom and pluralism, democracy is not possible.

Many societies have falling trust in established political parties and in news outlets themselves. This is often accompanied by polarizing political discourse that threatens peaceful elections and press freedom.  Election outcomes and their aftermath are critically affected by political discourse and communications, including the role of the media in relation to the polling process.

Ethical and responsible journalism during an electoral campaign reduces tensions, informs the electorate and creates space in which to exchange ideas and reach compromises.  Unfortunately, irresponsible actions can lead to the press increasing tensions, spreading misinformation and inciting communities against one another. Journalism needs to be based on facts and ethics and journalists need to understand the important role they play in how people perceive the reality around them and how it is presented to them.

At stake are three interlocking sets of rights:

  • the right of the voters to make a fully informed choice.
  • the right of the candidates to put their policies across.
  • the right of the media to report and express their views on matters of public interest.

Elections need to be a competition of ideas and proposals, not of lies and distortions. The high stakes of elections need the corrective power of the press to keep the debate on topic and issue in a manner that will help the citizens make up their minds.

Informed citizens, who understand the current complex global political environment, are likely to feel more empowered to exercise their democratic rights and accept outcomes of free and fair elections. Free, independent and professional journalism - both online and offline – serves an essential role in democracies. It can also hold the powerful to account for the integrity, peace and fairness of an election. Journalism can also contribute to the electoral agenda by requiring politicians to respond to the public, and to focus on subjects of real public interest.

One of the greatest professional challenges for journalists covering an election campaign is the question of how to report inflammatory language and sentiments conveyed during political campaigns. This challenge is a balancing act between two potentially conflicting ethical obligations: reporting accurately and declining to report on anything that will discriminate on racial, religious, national, gender, or other grounds.

Balance is usually the key. Balance involves citing differing or opposing viewpoints. It also entails placing the words of politicians in accurate contexts.

The balancing act of reporting hate speech and actions plays a positive and useful purpose. Not only does it provide an opportunity for factual content of inflammatory messages to be challenged, but it also gives voice to those who are the targets of the inflammatory messages, thereby nulling the dehumanizing effects of hate speech and actions. Responsible media reporting plays a crucial part in this.

In the era of saturated mainstream and social media spaces, the importance and value of the World Press Freedom Day gains a new meaning.  Professional journalism has gone through many tests to aspire to professional standards of truth-telling, methodologies of verification, confidentiality of source, and ethics of public interest, independent of political and commercial interests. Even with the plethora of information flowing every day through diverse media platforms, we can still recognize the journalists, bloggers and tweeters who are driven by ethics and concern for humanity and justice. 

Traditionally, elections are a time of increased tensions in Guyana. The media can and should play a key role in creating conditions conducive to a free change of ideas, focusing the debate on issues and condemning anything that resembles incitement or hate speech.  The media can cover issues that are of common interest to the Guyanese and facilitate a mature discussion on the kind of society Guyanese citizens want to build.  

The role of political parties is also critical in enabling an effective media by supporting that free and professional space.  Political parties themselves should abstain from hate speech and disrespectful attacks of other parties that can instill division, fear or apathy among voters.  Politics affects media and media affects politics – it takes the effort of both sides to shape the future of Guyana’s socio-political culture.     

I hope that all of you gathered here today will play a role in ensuring that citizens can vote with informed choice in a free and fair electoral process.

Speech by
Author
Mikiko Tanaka
Resident Coordinator
RCO
Mikiko Tanaka, UN Resident Coordinator
UN entities involved in this initiative
FAO
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
ILO
International Labor Organization
IOM
International Organization for Migration
PAHO
Pan American Health Organization
UN Women
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
UNAIDS
Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
UNDP
United Nations Development Programme
UNEP
United Nations Environment Programme
UNESCO
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
UNFPA
United Nations Population Fund
UNHCR
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
UNICEF
United Nations Children’s Fund
WHO
World Health Organization