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WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY 2008: FOCUS ON ACCESS AND EMPOWERMENT

You have to wonder what is left to celebrate in Zimbabwe on the eve of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May. More than four weeks and counting, Zimbabweans still don't know who won the presidential elections. Instead, President Robert Mugabe has raised his iron fist to try to avert threats to his 28-year rule, from arresting journalists in an attempt to silence their questions to attacking opposition members.

"Defeat can be hard to accept, but at the very least, the people of Zimbabwe have the right to know the result of their vote," says ARTICLE 19, which is urging the Zimbabwean authorities to back away from the chaos and "move towards reason and the rule of law" to settle the election.

A timely demand to make, as journalists and others from around the world converge nearby in Maputo, Mozambique to celebrate UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day, the theme of which this year is empowerment and access to information.

"Press freedom and access to information feed into the wider development objective of empowering people by giving people the information that can help them gain control over their own lives," says UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura, from "engaging in public debate to holding governments and others accountable."

But like in Zimbabwe, a lot stands in their way.

Freedom of information (FOI) laws, which give access to public information, are considered one of the most important pieces of legislation to reduce and eventually beat corruption - the "primary obstacle to development," says UNESCO.

Despite some problems with poorly crafted laws, laws that aren't implemented, and new laws promoting secrecy in the global war on terror, upwards of 70 countries around the world have comprehensive freedom of information acts, and another 30 have FOI laws in the works, says ARTICLE 19. And the movement to adopt them is growing: witness Jordan's step last year to become the first country in the Middle East to have a right to information law, or Liberian citizens marching to Parliament this month to present a draft FOI law nearly four years in the making.

"But the media can only play their part in empowering people, if their consumers have the necessary literacy skills to analyse and question the information they receive," says UNESCO.

While the Internet has helped the media reach more people in more places and allowed regular folks to become citizen journalists - last fall citizen reporters were at the forefront in informing the world of the Burma protests - a whopping 80 percent of the world's population still have no access to basic telecommunication facilities, says UNESCO. One of its goals this year is to implement measures that will allow people to make use of new technology, such as more training and respect for different languages.

Cue traditional community media. Community radio is recognised as one of the best tools to reach and empower the poorest and most marginalised populations of the world, says the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC). Besides being cheap to produce and access, it can also have a far reach and overcome illiteracy.

Even with the best access, the media must tackle a whole lot of obstacles in getting the news out. Journalists often face threats, intimidation and actual violence on the job. Jassem al-Battat, a journalist for Al-Nakhil, the broadcasting mouthpiece for the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, was gunned down last week in southern Iraq, reports Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Reporters don't have to be working in a war zone to be at risk. Mexican investigative journalist Lydia Cacho, this year's UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize laureate, has been the target of death threats, sabotage, libel suits and police harassment because of her work uncovering prostitution and child pornography rings.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports 65 journalists were "killed in direct connection with their work" in 2007 - the highest number since 1994. Too often the crimes do not go adequately punished.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day 2008, UNESCO asks us not only to pay tribute to journalists like al-Battat, Cacho and the journalists in Zimbabwe who have put themselves in danger to keep us informed, but to remember the crucial role a free press and the right to information play in empowering people - as long as they have access.

Visit these links:
- IFEX World Press Freedom Day page: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/242/
- UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2008 page: http://www.unesco.org/webworld/en/wpfd2008
- AMARC: http://www.amarc.org/
- ARTICLE 19, "Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey": http://tinyurl.com/2lkjxh
- ARTICLE 19 on Zimbabwe: http://tinyurl.com/5qbnrk
- CPJ on journalists killed in 2007: http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2007/killed_07/killed.html
- RSF on al-Battat: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=26722
- Privacy International's Freedom of Information page: http://tinyurl.com/6ylth6
- "The UNESCO Courier" devotes its next issue to 3 May, available in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian on 30 April. Don't miss an exclusive interview with Cacho: http://www.unesco.org/courier
(29 April 2008)

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