Observance of World Press Freedom Day: emerging dimensions
As the UN Organisation responsible for defending and promoting freedom of expression, media independence and pluralism, UNESCO led the observance of the World Press Freedom Day on May 3 this year.
This year's celebration was particularly special for the international community as it marked the 30th anniversary of the proclamation of the Day by the United Nations General Assembly. Like other years, it served as an occasion to take stock not only of the global gains for press freedom secured by UNESCO and its partners in the past decades but also to underline the new risks faced in the digital age. This year's theme for World Press Freedom Day was "Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all other Human Rights."
The Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which is mandated to oversee press freedom, defines Freedom of Information (FOI) as the right to access information held by public bodies. According to UNESCO, the FOI is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognised by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which states that the fundamental right of freedom of expression encompasses the freedom to "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers". FOI has also been enshrined as a "freedom of expression" in other major international instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the American Convention on Human Rights (1969).
The significance of this process has grown against a backdrop where many analysts have drawn attention to the fact that though the United Nations has consistently been a vociferous advocate of freedom of the press - and, most importantly, the right of journalists to report without fear of reprisals, it is seen as an opaque institution where transparency never appears to be the norm. It has also been alleged that in addition to diplomats attached and involved with UN functions, UN senior officials also refrain from suitable inter-active engagement with journalists. In this context there are charges that that, in general, email messages are sometimes not even acknowledged.
Such a course of action has particularly raised some debate and controversy in the United States. Many in this context refer to The US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which dates back to 1967.
It may be recalled that this Act has provided the public and mostly the press in the United States the right to request access to records from any federal agency that enables citizens to know about their government. As a result, some of the media revelations in that country have emerged on the basis of believable insider information following requests from American journalists under the FOIA. However a longstanding proposal for a FOIA at the United Nations has failed to get off the ground due largely to the inaction by the 193-member General Assembly, the UN's highest policy making body, resulting in the lack of transparency in the inner workings of the UN and its secretariat.
Many analysts and strategists associated with enhancing the parameter of Right to Information have expressed their anxiety with regard to this situation. It would be worthwhile to refer to recent observations made by some of them.
Andreas Bummel, Executive Director of 'Democracy Without Borders' has commented that the UN is an institution that exercises public authority directly and indirectly with over 30,000 working in the Secretariat, plus the UN system worldwide and consequently " it needs to be accountable not only to its member states but to citizens and the public at large. Establishing a proper freedom of information procedure at the UN will be an important tool to enhance this."
Professor Martin S. Edwards of the Seton Hall University in the US has also interestingly noted that "the only way forward for the UN in an era of political division is greater transparency." He has also underlined that if one can advocate the need for "effective, accountable, and inclusive" institutions at the national level, then the same principle should also be applicable for the United Nations and its different institutions. This will then be an example of transparency and accountability. Edwards has accordingly reiterated that access to information will be an essential step in that direction.
It would be appropriate at this point to also refer to what Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General initiated about six years ago. Sanbar who served with five different UN Secretary Generals opened a website with the help of a team of DPI volunteers in his Office to help interested persons and country representatives to access news about the activities of the United Nations. This has opened up many windows.
It would as such be important to refer here also to the significance being associated in most of the world -- where there is democratic governance -- to not only Freedom of Information but also to Right to Information. In the US, federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement. In Australia, the legislation is known as Right2Know.
In Bangladesh, the Right to Information (RTI) provides assistance and direction for those seeking to file a request for information associated with government agencies. Required efforts in this regard have been undertaken since its introduction in 2010. Over the past 13 years measures have also been taken to not only store information in digital scanned archives and web portals but also appoint Designated Officers in institutions to provide necessary information when sought, as permitted within the regulatory paradigm of the Right to Information Act.
In Japan, the Citizens' Centre for Information Disclosure offers help to those interested in filing requests. In India there is also the Right to Information process. The RTI portal also exists in many countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. However there are allegations that some of them do not function as expected because of lack of democratic governance and absence of legal accountability. It also needs to be mentioned that some analysts think that Sweden's Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 is the "oldest in the world."
However, the last week has seen a departure from the process of Right to Information in Bangladesh towards the rights of journalists and the media remaining under the umbrella of "press freedom". Attention has been drawn towards the functionality of the Digital Security Act (DSA) in this regard. The Editors' Council has demanded the repeal of the DSA and suspension of all laws that, according to them, cast a shadow on independent and free journalism. On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, the Council in their discussion titled "Freedom of expression is the driving force of all types of human rights" highlighted their anger about the DSA.
It was underlined that we need the press to do its job, and steps must be taken to amend our draconian laws so that they do not impede the work of journalists or infringe on freedom of expression. It has also been reiterated that it is also crucial to ensure that journalists are free to report on sensitive issues without fear, and that those who violate their rights are held accountable.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in an interview with the Voice of America Bangla Service during her recent stay in Washington has defended the DSA by affirming that it is a necessary law to check social unrest and militancy in the modern world where cybercrime is becoming increasingly prevalent. She has also observed that similar laws exist in other countries, but that the one in Bangladesh is relatively simple. In this context she also pointed out that "even our country had a law earlier, when military dictators were in power that could lead to arrest of any journalist without summons". She has also commented that "It is not the case that journalists are being harassed. If anyone does any anti-social or provocative activities or any militant activities, action is generally taken against them."
In any case, Law Minister Anisul Huq has responded to the rising criticism about the DSA from some quarters of the media by assuring that the DSA is likely to be amended by September this year during the tenure of this government. He has also remarked that the government has nearly finished reviewing technical recommendations sent to them by the UN human rights agency. Apparently, the Digital Security Act (DSA) is not being repealed, but is undergoing a refinement process to prevent its inappropriate use.
A Committee comprising members of the Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Division, officials from foreign and home ministries, the ICT Division, and the Law and Justice Division is working on amending the law.
The Law Minister has also recalled United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk's assistance in providing "detailed technical comments to assist with such a revision of the existing DSA law." The Law Minister has also observed that they have been carefully scrutinising the recommendations made by Michelle Bachelet, Turk's predecessor, during her visit last year pertaining to certain provisions of the DSA. The Minister has also reiterated that the DSA was not created to undermine the freedom of the press or media but to combat cyber-crime and spread of false information based on religion and ethnicity. This was consistent with the government's belief in free media and not an attempt to control it.
There has to be freedom of information, right to information, transparency and accountability. At the same time, relevant authorities need to be careful that they do not misuse facilities provided under law - because of politics -- which is in conflict with the judicial process and human rights as guaranteed in the Constitution.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador,
is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. [email protected]