On my noticeboard I have a calendar that highlights certain national and international days of interest, and this morning I noticed it was World Press Freedom Day. I did not know a thing about this at the time, but I do understand the importance of the freedom of the press, so in addition to briefly explaining this important international day, I think it would be worth sharing a few thoughts on press freedom.
Set up by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, World Press Freedom Day is designed to celebrate press freedom and its fundamental principles as well as examine how free the world’s press is, defend those in media whose independence is being attacked and remember those journalists who have died in service. The specific date has been chosen to mark the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration of 1991, a statement of principles for press freedom collated by newspaper journalists from Africa, where there were many problems facing print media. The day also involves an international conference, held in a different country each year (and sometimes on a different day depending on when May 3rd falls in the week), where media professionals, organisations and agencies from the UN assess how free the world’s press is, normally associated with the theme of the conference, this year entitled ‘Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms’. Since 1997, it is also the day on which the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize is awarded to someone who has made an outstanding contribution to defending or promoting press freedom in the face of dangerous or difficult circumstances. This year’s winner is investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who is currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan for her work as an investigative journalist. You can find out more about Khadija, the day and events surrounding it on the UNESCO website.
Student journalism has been known to be quite restricted and subject to censorship by SUs, particularly surrounding election coverage. Of course, this is by no means comparable to the intense threat to press freedom elsewhere in the world and we certainly do not end up in prison for anything that we produce. However, there are definitely steps that can be taken to make the student press more free. This year’s NUS Conference saw the passing of Motion 314, a motion described by the Student Publication Association as safeguarding “fair, accurate and vital coverage to student union elections” (You can read more on the SPA website). This looks to ensure that student media can provide content that make the incoming officers more accountable and provide fair coverage of SU elections to their readers, who are of course the sole electorate. The Huffington Post wrote a good article on this, entitled ‘We Need to Encourage Free Speech at UK Universities, Not Silence’ and I would strongly encourage reading this via the link. It must be remembered though that SUs do act in the interests of the organisation and of students: many censorship measures were in place to ensure that the media does not favour one candidate over another and the importance of a free but fair press should not be overlooked. This goes for all forms of media, not only print but broadcast media, and avoiding libel and malpractice can be as easy as educating yourself on the law and what can and can’t be said by the media, particularly during elections. I therefore want to end this post with a video produced by Jon May, the Media and Development Co-ordinator at Royal Holloway, outlining Student Media Law for the May elections and EU referendum this year.
Let’s celebrate the free press that we enjoy in the UK and strive to maintain its freedom across the world, not only on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day but at all times.