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UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2019 – surreal, inspirational, thoughtful and imaginative (Demo)

Jointly organized by UNESCO, the Ethiopian government and the African Union Commission, this year’s World Press Freedom day (WPFD) commemoration in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, hosted at the plush African Union headquarters, provided moments of inspiration, reflection, introspection and creativity.

The highest number of participants on record – over 2000 – including journalists, bloggers, cartoonists, activists, media freedom and access to information advocates and dignitaries, attended the 2019 WPFD celebrations, in a country that just over a year ago was considered the worst jailer on the continent. There was a strong sense of immense possibilities.

Being in the striking and sizeable African Union Conference Centre, completely disconnected from the hustle and bustle of the city’s pace and pulse, was akin at first to being in a glass bubble. But the animated, engaging and insightful panel and plenary discussions over an intense three days brought back the reality of the conference themes.

Disinformation, hate speech, and democracy

There was substantial emphasis on the impact of disinformation, misinformation and hate speech on democratic electoral processes, and responses to tackle them. Related themes included internet shutdowns, access to information, legislative frameworks and the safety of journalists. While there was agreement that misinformation and disinformation are not new phenomena, participants recognised how new technology was changing the landscape – creating both new opportunities and new vulnerabilities.

This point was emphasised by Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa, when she acknowledged that while information is power, technology had acted as an accelerant in making people doubt the facts. In her simple but impactful video address, the internationally renowned Ressa – recently arrested and charged for cyber libel in the Philippines – mentioned how journalists and newsgroups around the world are having to “retain the trust and belief of the communities they once served. Social media platforms have been weaponised”, she said and went on to pose the question: If you don’t have facts, how do you have truth?”

She urged newsrooms and journalists to come together to take the role of gatekeeping seriously. Her reference to the basics of accuracy, fairness, objectivity and verification was a message reiterated through the conference by several speakers.

Concern was raised about governments using the real issues of disinformation and hate speech to unnecessarily restrict and regulate online content.

Missing from some of these conversations was the collective public responsibility in curbing the misinformation menace. Empowering society to be aware of risks and how disinformation can be harmful was a point raised by attendees. “Addressing these issues in Africa is a priority and not just the responsibility of media – it is key to empower society and youth in particular as they are propagating online information,” proffered Moez Chakchouk, assistant director-general for communication and information sector.

Tore Bergsaker of Norwegian fact-checking organisation Faktisk noted that: “we are grappling with information pollution whose aim is to sow mistrust by playing on racial, ethnic, gender and religious differences. The easy response is to regulate, but it is not the solution. Fact checking is only part of the solution – the real tool is to increase media literacy and raise [the] critical thinking [of readers].”

At various points the term “fake news” was dismissed as both inaccurate and subject to manipulation, with “information disorder” and “information pollution” offered as alternative and more useful descriptions.

Praise for Ethiopia – but not only praise

Mention was repeatedly made of Ethiopia’s impressive rise of 40 places in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Rankings. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abid Abey, Ethiopia’s landscape has transformed dramatically, releasing all jailed journalists, unblocking websites, opening up the media space, allowing restricted journalists to work again and agreeing to media legal reform.

However, the lavish praise was tempered by Tsedale Lemma, editor in chief of The Addis Standard, who hailed the changes on the landscape, but flagged the danger that media in Ethiopia were focussing on survival, and serving purposes other than the globally recognized principles of free, independent and strong media.

Fellow Ethiopian exiled journalist Simegnish Mengesha warned of the “wave of media outlets that are taking sides and serving as a tool to set a certain agenda. In a transitional period when we are experiencing ethnic tensions, I fear that such a press could be a danger in creating a more polarized society.”

Artistic expression

Unique to the declaration for WPFD 2019 was the inclusion of a resolution that specifically addressed the concerns of artists which resolved to:

Put in place transparent and effective systems to protect journalists, including press cartoonists, artists, ‘artivists’ and others who are at risk of attack for exercising their right to freedom of expression, thereby ensuring that they can carry out their public watchdog role effectively, including during elections.

This followed two concluding sessions: Artistic Freedom and Freedom of Expression at the Tip of the Pen, and Enlarging Choices: Artistic Freedom and Diversity of Contents.

Under the banner of Cartooning for Peace, cartoonists from around the globe showcased their work in the AU lobby – a showstopper display of satire that participants were able to contemplate as they moved from one session to another. Press cartoonists were also part of a discussion on press freedom and artistic freedom in democratic debate,  informed by “testimonies from those whose work and violations make them true « barometers of freedom of expression».”


UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom prize

The most poignant moment was when Prizi Thura Aung accepted the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom prize on behalf of jailed journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Wa Lone’s soft-spoken brother Aung told guests: “All they ever wanted to do their job…. “Now they want to return to their family members and to the work they love.”

As it turned out, the choice of these two journalists was momentously significant, as they were freed from prison in Myanmar just 5 days later. Their release was celebrated around the world.

A fitting end to the UNESCO WPFD commemoration was the capture of concerns, issues and ideas raised over the three days in the Addis Ababa Declaration.

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