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Kiyotaka Akasaka

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Remembering World Press Freedom Day

Posted: 05/ 3/2010 4:31 pm

Walking to my office at UN Headquarters in New York this morning I passed by an intersection that bore a prominent street sign saying: "Mandela Corner." This is New York City's way of recognizing a fearless fighter for liberty in Africa and many other noble causes.

It reminded me that the United Nations has its own system of "street signs" -- a calendar of special days and observances that aim to draw attention to issues of vital interest to people around the world.

Today happens to be one of such dates. May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. It was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly back in 1993 and since then it has been observed annually as a way of celebrating the fundamental principles of press freedom which are rooted in a landmark UN document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But beyond honouring that basic right, the May 3 observance attempts to achieve some practical goals: to assess the state of press freedom around the world; to help protect media outlets from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives while doing their job.

This day on the UN calendar gives us an opportunity to get the word out about violations of press freedom, to re-focus attention on the sad fact that in dozens of nations around the globe censorship remains a fact of life: newspapers and magazines, television and radio are threatened with fines or closures; reporters and editors are harassed, imprisoned and shot at.

But these are all well-known facts, one may say, and things don't seem to be getting better.

Indeed, while there has been progress in many areas, there are still ample grounds for concern. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, for example, 47 members of the press were killed in 2005. Last year, UNESCO reported the killing of 77 journalists. And what's telling, a majority of them were not battlefield casualties. While working for mostly local outlets in seemingly peaceful times, they lost their lives as they plied their trade to expose corruption and other wrongdoings.

On a recent assignment in Iraq, a UNTV crew from my Department captured on video the plight of a journalist who was doing just that, although, luckily, with a much happier ending. Amina Al-Thahabi, an Iraqi television reporter, took two bullets from a revolver and two from a Kalashnikov. Despite the attack, she was not intimidated. She told our interviewer that her next project is making a documentary about the freedom of speech. A mother of two, she says she is working hard to make sure all the Iraqis get the information they need.

It's just one story among thousands that are playing out in real life in different parts of the world. For people like Amina, "freedom of the press" is not an abstract notion. She doesn't need lofty rhetoric to appreciate the true value of this vital right. She has paid for this knowledge with her own blood and she is determined to press on, despite all the risks.

Rewind to an "official" United Nations observance of World Press Freedom Day that I mentioned in the beginning. What can it do for courageous journalists like Amina? "And," a sceptic may ask, "don't you already have enough speeches at the UN?"

I will readily admit that there is no shortage of oratory at Turtle Bay. But I will strongly argue that occasions such as World Press Freedom Day play a key role in bringing to the attention of the public and the media -- and let's not forget governments! -- the issues and concerns that are as vital for individual societies and as they are for the international community as a whole.

Yes, I do hope that the short UNTV video from Iraq will serve as our modest tribute to Amina and thousands like her who literally risk their lives to make sure people can enjoy their right to know, which, by the way, is the main theme of this year's observance.

And I also believe that it's important for the message that the UN "stands with persecuted journalists and media professionals everywhere," as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the other day, to reach across borders and through the walls of government offices.

So there is something to be said about World Press Freedom Day as a "street sign" to remind everybody -- be it a casual passer-by or the one filled with purpose -- that freedom of the press is a fundamental human right that needs to be respected by all, especially those who have the power to take it away.