Letter from America: Celebrating World Press Freedom Day
Emily Badger: Letter from America: Celebrating World Press Freedom Day
29 Apr 11

UNESCO will convene its annual World Press Freedom Day conference this weekend in Washington against the backdrop of rapidly evolving revolutions throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa that are changing long-held views of who’s in the media, how it uses technology and what access to information means.

The United States is hosting the conference — which Index on Censorship will attend and cover — for the first time, in conjunction with more than a hundred events internationally celebrating press freedom and focusing attention on the corners of the world where it does not yet exist.

“Until recently, when we were talking about freedom of expression and the media, we were talking also about monopolies and the concentration of ownership of some media,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in a conference call with attending media this week. “Now with new technology we have an entirely different picture.”

Even in the few months since UNESCO first unveiled plans for this year’s events, news around the world has dramatically altered the range of issues at stake. Bloggers are now jailed alongside professional journalists. New-media tools that have helped connect dissidents are now just as likely to be used to track and crack down on them by repressive regimes. Technology has made possible both more sophisticated firewalls and circumvention tools that can be funded and developed from afar. And social media sites have become a live source for worldwide news – but in a world where access to digital information can be blocked with the pull of a plug.

Millions of people around the world who possess neither television, nor computer, nor newspaper subscription are also now accessing information in the palm of their hands.

“In Africa, it’s well-known for a fact that they may not have electricity as widely as they have mobile phones,” Bokova said. “New technologies are not only changing the media landscape, they’re changing the way we look at teaching and all of our access to knowledge in general.”

The conference in Washington — focusing on “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers” — will also examine censorship in the digital age and global access to the Internet. Imprisoned Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi will also be honored with the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. Zeidabadi has been in jail since mass protests following Iran’s 2009 disputed election first presaged the uprisings now sweeping the region.

“What we saw was the fact that one single person can make history with a kind of very direct impact on political developments,” Bokova said of events over the last three months that give this year’s World Press Freedom Day additional urgency. “Who would have thought some months ago that one single young unemployed Tunisian in the market in a small town, that his reaction would have such an enormous wave of revolutions and repercussions. It was exactly because of these of social media, these new technologies.”

Index will blog here throughout the discussion, but you can also follow along with Twitter hashtag #WPFD.