MAY 4 — Once again, we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, an annual occasion since it was first designated in 1993 by the United Nations.
We really have to celebrate this every day for our own right to freedom of expression.
But May 3 is an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
The media is the fourth estate in government and plays an important role, as noted by the UN in the Declaration of Windhoek which gave birth to World Press Freedom Day May 3.”Consistent with article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.”
In Malaysia, we have seen the progress of our media from print, radio, television and now the Internet.
The state-owned media speaks for the government of the day, unlike in other nations where public-funded media speaks for the nation. Privately-held media too speak for vested interests and their political masters while party organs naturally speak for their organisations.
All have flourished in a system where there are licensing requirements and laws which impinge on the freedom of expression and press freedom. We have moved from getting news hours or a day later to reading, watching, hearing and being alerted as it happens.
But how do we tell the difference between news and propaganda, analysis and opinion when we believe in the freedom of the press, the freedom of expression? What makes a newspaper authoritative or a television station insightful or a website influential?
The answer is simple. Its the people, the policies and passion to stick to the principles of freedom of expression which is the basis for press freedom. Such freedoms rise from mutual respect for both the reported, the reporter and the reader.
I bring this up not because I believe there should be controls. I believe in an unfettered media that is free to speak and to inform but not free to lie or not give the right to reply. And I bring this up due to events in Penang since Pakatan Rakyat formed the government in March 2008.
Let me quote from the International Principles of Professional Ethics in Journalism issued under the auspices of UNESCO 10 years before the first World Press Freedom Day.
From its 10 principles, let me talk about, “Principle V: Public access and participation. The nature of the profession demands that the journalist promote access by the public to information and participation of the public in the media, including the right of correction or rectification and the right of reply.”
The American Convention on Human Rights in 1969 also referred to this in its Article 13. “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or though any other medium of one’s choice.”
“The exercise of the right shall not be subject to prior censorship but shall be subject to subsequent imposition of liability, which shall be expressly established by law to the extent necessary to ensure . . . Respect for the rights or reputations of others, or . . . the protection of national security, public order, or public health or morals.”
But the late Dr Geoffrey Francis Fisher, the Baron Fisher of Lambeth who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1945 to 1961 lamented about press freedom advocates.”Some of the press who speak loudly about the freedom of the press are themselves the enemies of freedom. Countless people dare not say a thing because they know it will be picked up and made a song of by the press. That limits freedom.”
We have had run-ins with the press, specifically one newspaper called the New Straits Times. We do not wish to hamper the work of their dedicated journalists but just as they have a freedom of expression and the right to report, we too have the freedom of expression and the right to reply.
Let this be the basis of celebrating true freedom of expression and our rights. I would like to mark World Press Freedom Day 2009 with a call to respect such freedoms and rights.
And despite the proliferation of various medium of communication and information, let me quote the American dramatis Arthur Miller (1915-2005), who said “ A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself”.Lim Guan Eng is the Chief Minister of Penang and DAP secretary-general.