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World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development

Posted by Pranesh Prakash at Feb 17, 2016 05:05 PM |
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had published a book in 2014 that examines free speech, expression and media development. The chapter contains a Foreword by Irina Bokova, Director General, UNESCO. Pranesh Prakash contributed to Independence: Introduction - Global Media Chapter. The book was edited by Courtney C. Radsch.


Tectonic shifts in technology and economic models have vastly expanded the opportunities for press freedom and the safety of journalists, opening new avenues for freedom of expression for women and men across the world. Today, more and more people are able to produce, update and share information widely, within and across national borders. All of this is a blessing for creativity, exchange and dialogue.

At the same time, new threats are arising. In a context of rapid change, these are combining with older forms of restriction to pose challenges to freedom of expression, in the shape of controls not aligned with international standards for protection of freedom of expression and rising threats against journalists.

These developments raise issues that go to the heart of UNESCO’s mandate “to promote the flow of ideas by word and image” between all peoples, across the world. For UNESCO, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that underpins all other civil liberties, that is vital for the rule of law and good governance, and that is a foundation for inclusive and open societies. Freedom of expression stands at the heart of media freedom and the practice of journalism as a form of expression aspiring to be in the public interest.

At the 36th session of the General Conference (November 2011), Member States mandated UNESCO to explore the impact of change on press freedom and the safety of journalists. For this purpose, the Report has adopted four angles of analysis, drawing on the 1991 Windhoek Declaration, to review emerging trends through the conditions of media freedom, pluralism and independence, as well as the safety of journalists. At each level, the Report has also examined trends through the lens of gender equality.

The result is the portrait of change -- across the world, at all levels, featuring as much opportunity as challenge. The business of media is undergoing a revolution with the rise of digital networks, online platforms, internet intermediaries and social media. New actors are emerging, including citizen journalists, who are redrawing the boundaries of the media. At the same time, the Report shows that the traditional news institutions continue to be agenda-setters for media and public communications in general – even as they are also engaging with the digital revolution. The Report highlights also the mix of old and new challenges to media freedom, including increasing cases of threats against the safety of journalists.

The pace of change raises questions about how to foster freedom of expression across print, broadcast and internet media and how to ensure the safety of journalists. The Report draws on a rich array of research and is not prescriptive -- but it sends a clear message on the importance of freedom of expression and press freedom on all platforms.

To these ends, UNESCO is working across the board, across the world. This starts with global awareness raising and advocacy, including through World Press Freedom Day. It entails supporting countries in strengthening their legal and regulatory frameworks and in building capacity. It means standing up to call for justice every time a journalist is killed, to eliminate impunity. This is the importance of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, spearheaded by UNESCO and endorsed by the UN Chief Executives Board in April 2012. UNESCO is working with countries to take this plan forward on the ground. We also seek to better understand the challenges that are arising – most recently, through a Global Survey on Violence against Female Journalists, with the International News Safety Institute, the International Women’s Media Foundation, and the Austrian Government.

Respecting freedom of expression and media freedom is essential today, as we seek to build inclusive, knowledge societies and a more just and peaceful century ahead. I am confident that this Report will find a wide audience, in Member States, international and regional organizations, civil society and academia, as well as with the media and journalists, and I wish to thank Sweden for its support to this initiative. This is an important contribution to understanding a world in change, at a time when the international community is defining a new global sustainable development agenda, which must be underpinned and driven by human rights, with particular attention to freedom of expression.

Executive Summary

Freedom of expression in general, and media development in particular, are core to UNESCO’s constitutional mandate to advance ‘the mutual knowledge and understanding of peoples, through all means of mass communication’ and promoting ‘the free flow of ideas by word and image.’ For UNESCO, press freedom is a corollary of the general right to freedom of expression. Since 1991, the year of the seminal Windhoek Declaration, which was endorsed by the UN General Assembly, UNESCO has understood press freedom as designating the conditions of media freedom, pluralism and independence, as well as the safety of journalists.  It is within this framework that this report examines progress as regards press freedom, including in regard to gender equality, and makes sense of the evolution of media actors, news media institutions and journalistic roles over time.

This report has been prepared on the basis of a summary report on the global state of press freedom and the safety of journalists, presented to the General Conference of UNESCO Member States in November 2013, on the mandate of the decision by Member States taken at the 36th session of the General Conference of the Organization.[*]

The overarching global trend with respect to media freedom, pluralism, independence and the safety of journalists over the past several years is that of disruption and change brought on by technology, and to a lesser extent, the global financial crisis. These trends have impacted traditional economic and organizational structures in the news media, legal and regulatory frameworks, journalism practices, and media consumption and production habits. Technological convergence has expanded the number of and access to media platforms as well as the potential for expression. It has enabled the emergence of citizen journalism and spaces for independent media, while at the same time fundamentally reconfiguring journalistic practices and the business of news.

The broad global patterns identified in this report are accompanied by extensive unevenness within the whole.  The trends summarized above, therefore, go hand in hand with substantial variations between and within regions as well as countries.

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[*]. 37 C/INF.4 16 September 2013 “Information regarding the implementation of decisions of the governing bodies”.;