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WPFD 2016: Global attention on access to information, safety of journalists

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Prof. Pate PHOTO: ha.rfi.fr

Prof. Pate PHOTO: ha.rfi.fr

Tomorrow is World Press Freedom Day (WPFD). Every year, May 3 is a date set aside not only to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, but also to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

The UN General Assembly in 1993 proclaimed May 3 as press freedom day following a recommendation adopted at the 26th Session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1991. This in turn was a response to a call by African journalists who in 1991 produced the landmark Windhoek Declaration on media pluralism and independence.

Over 100 national celebrations take place each year to commemorate this Day. UNESCO leads the worldwide celebration by identifying the global thematic and organizing the main event in different parts of world every year.

For this year’s anniversary, the theme is Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms: This is Your Right! And because the commemoration coincides with the silver jubilee anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, UNESCO in collaboration with the Government of Finland has lined up series of activities including opening ceremony (25 years after Windhoek Declaration – Press Freedom, Right to Information, and Transparency), plenary sessions, parallel roundtable sessions, award presentation ceremony of the prestigious UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize as well as UNESCO’s Research Conference on the Safety of Journalists: Knowledge is the Key. Events run from today till Wednesday, May 4, 2016 in Helsinki, Finland.

As a panelist on the safety of journalists’ conference, Dean, School of Communication and Film Studies, Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria, Prof. Umaru Pate established the relevance of this year’s theme to the situation in Nigeria saying, “It is quite relevant as it will encourage us to understand that information is a fundamental human right and we have the right to express ourselves. People should not see it as if they are doing us a favour by allowing our media to operate freely or individuals to express themselves freely. It is not a favour, rather it is considered globally as one of the rights we should enjoy and we need to conscientise the people to really know that this right is available and they should make use of it. And the government should not appear as if they are doing us a favour.”

Relating the celebration to five years after the Freedom of Information Act was passed in Nigeria, Pate stated that the provisions of law have not really been exploited. He also felt that the public must be made to understand that the law is for everybody and not journalists alone, just as there have not been consequences for denial of information sought. “So, we need to do more in the application of the law.”

UNESCO will be marking this year World Press Freedom Day in Finland with a conference, where some Nigerians would be presenting papers. Pate said that Nigeria’s participation in the conference, which will be focusing on safety of journalists, is a good development as the country’s voice will be part of the global voice.

“Our journalists have suffered all forms of injustice in the past though situation has improved a bit now. We have lost about four journalists to the Boko Haram crises but usually two are mentioned and there are several other things that journalists suffered, injuries, harassment from security agencies and insurgents. One of the journalists said he was harassed by security agencies over 30 times and several other examples.

“And we have not given specific consideration to safety of journalists despite the dangerous and vulnerability of journalists in the course of work, but increasingly attention is now being focused, not just on press freedom but also on the safety of journalists and there are different dimension of safety – legal, physical, psychological and economic safety. It is not enough to employ a journalist and not give him the salary he deserves and the working tools. And we see many of our colleagues dying young and miserably. So attention must be focused on this area. And the academic must also consider safety of journalists in the curriculum and not just press freedom.”

Journalism teacher at the School of Communication, Lagos State University (LASU), Dr. Tunde Akanni corroborated Prof. Pate’s view. He said the global theme is relevant to Nigeria “as it’s a major wake up call to governments at all levels. Almost all the MDAs have websites, but how regularly do they update it? If only for reason of social justice and life threatening variables like climate change manifesting in unusual weathers, the attitude of government agencies to making information available to citizens should improve dramatically.”

On his assessment of the workability of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which is going to clock five years by May 28, Dr. Akanni said, “FOIA is workable to the extent to which government is keen on one hand and the proactiveness of the media on the other. How much have our media taken advantage of it?
”

LASU will also be marking the day with a lecture on its campus with Dr. Paul Nwulu of Ford Foundation as guest lecturer. Akanni said LASU’s programme is a demonstration of the university’s consciousness for universal values, which also enjoy national endorsement.

“LASU is also using it to sustain its leadership position in journalism studies. It’s the first to accord autonomous status to journalism studies in Nigeria in line with the trends around the world. The new VC, Prof. Lanre Fagboun has zero tolerance for half measures. For him, it either the best or nothing at all. This explains the university’s choice of the functionary of a foremost supporter of media activism and scholarship, Dr. Nwulu, as guest lecturer. The event is intended to stimulate further research and even possible partnership with Ford.”

Executive Director, Media Right Agenda, Mr. Edetaen Ojo said this year’s celebration is significant for many reasons, the most prominent being that it falls on the 250th anniversary of the adoption of the world’s first national freedom of information law, by Sweden and Finland in 1766 and the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the “Declaration of Windhoek on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press” on  May 3, 1991, which ultimately gave birth to World Press Freedom Day in 1993.

“The overarching theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day celebration (Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms: This is your Right) is also quite important because we have seen that despite all of the progress that has been made over the years in affirming this important right at national, regional and international levels, the citizens of many countries, including Nigeria, are yet to take full advantage of this right that they have to advance their social, economic, civil and political rights and interests. Citizens around the world therefore need to be appropriately reminded that “this is your right!” They should seize it, exercise it and enjoy it,” Ojo stated.

Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova underscores access to information as “a fundamental freedom and part of the basic human right to freedom of expression.” Receiving and imparting information, both offline and online, she says, “is a cornerstone of democracy, good governance, and rule of law.”



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