World Press Freedom Day

Remarks by Ms. Mikiko Tanaka, UN Resident Coordinator, for the observance of World Press Freedom Day at the British High Commission event

UNSG Antonio Guterres

“A free press is essential for peace, justice, sustainable development and human rights.

No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information. It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.

This is especially true during election seasons -- the focus of this year’s World Press Freedom Day.”

Globally today, the contribution of free, pluralistic, independent and safe journalism to democracy is under unprecedented stress.

In 2018, 251 journalists were jailed across the world. The number of journalists killed in targeted killings, cross fire or bomb attacks rose from 82 in 2017 to 94 in 2018. As we pay tributes to these brave journalists, we need to fight for the rights of the press to do its job as one of the gatekeepers of democracy.

The single guiding principle underlying the role of the media in elections is that without media freedom and pluralism, democracy is not possible. This has been underlined in the decisions of numerous international tribunals. It has also been stated very clearly by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, who elaborated a series of steps that governments should take to guarantee freedom of media during elections.

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.

As we fight against censorship, media closure and violence against journalists around the world, we also need to be better equipped against new phenomena such as fake news and misleading media outfits which distort reality and inflame tensions.

The freedom to report the news and to express opinions is especially important in electoral contexts. 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. In reconciliation processes, conflict-sensitive journalism can play a pivotal role. It can bridge divides through accurate reporting, break down stereotypes, cover human stories and present solutions. Such journalism can help prevent polarization, violence and war.

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.

Combating hate speech and disinformation should be understood in the context that information manipulation goes back millennia, while journalistic professionalism is comparatively recent. Records date back to ancient Rome when Antony met Cleopatra and his political enemy Octavian launched a smear campaign against him with short, sharp slogans written on coins in Tweet style (Kaminska 2017 Financial Times).  All kinds of creative propaganda were used in war and politics through history around the world. 

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 and iterations to fulfil a normative role in contemporary society, by aspiring 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. 

Elections will be coming to Guyana within a year. Traditionally, elections are a time of increased tensions in Guyana as different parties vie for votes. 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 importance to Guyana and the common people and facilitate a mature discussion on the kind of society Guyanese citizens want to build.  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
Mikiko Tanaka
Resident Coordinator
Mikiko Tanaka, UN Resident Coordinator
UN entities involved in this initiative
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
International Labor Organization
International Organization for Migration
Pan American Health Organization
UN Women
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Environment Programme
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
United Nations Population Fund
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
United Nations Children’s Fund
World Health Organization