Tuesday, April 23, 2024

World Press Freedom Day 2023 - Role of free press in protection of freedom of expression

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Dharmendra Jha 

Kathmandu, 3 May (2023) - Various formal programmes are being organized today across the globe this year to observe the World Press Freedom Day as in previous years. Besides, several informal events have also been held to commemorate the Day. Several programmes related to this occasion are being hosted in Nepal on May 1-4 this year. 

May 3 has been celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom Day since 1993 following the proclamation of the Day by the United Nations General Assembly on the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference. May 3 marks the anniversary of ‘Declaration of Windhoek for Free and Plural Press’ which was released by a gathering of African journalists in Windhoek city of Namibia on 3 May 1991 in response to the increasing number of attacks on journalists and media. Nepal has not yet officially observed the day on behalf of the government sector. But, the non-government sector has been marking the day since 1995. 

Various organizations related to media and communications have been organizing several programmes on the occasion of the Day in Nepal. The trend of celebration is continuing this time too. 

Nepal is a member of the United Nations. Besides, Nepal is a also a state party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1998 and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966. Also taking this into consideration, the Government of Nepal has to place priority to the observation of World Press Freedom Day as other days called by the UN. The government needs to think to this end. 

The day bears special importance for entire journalists of the world who have been discharging their professional duty amidst myriad of complications and obstructions. On the occasion, it is the responsibility of all media persons to pay homage to the journalists who sacrificed their lives in the struggle for the freedom of press and expression by fulfilling their professional duties. On the very day, we have the onus of responsibility to continually protect and preserve the precious gift left among us by our media predecessors who laid down their lives for free press in the past. 

Independent press is the first and foremost need and condition of democracy. It is barely a claim to have democracy in absence of free press. In this light, it is the obligation of entire media fraternity to keep on preserving the indispensable instrument of democracy. We all have to realize that journalism and democracy would not be functional without a capable journalist. Democracy would in no way be consolidated when journalism is not independent, professional and effective. In absence of continuous reform of democracy, it is certain the fundamental freedoms of the people would also not be secured. 

UNESCO sets a theme for the celebration of the day every year and also hosts related events throughout the year. The UN agency encourages other states and citizens organizations to conduct dialogue events to highlight the essence of the day.  This year, in 2023, the theme for the day is - ‘Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights’. The theme itself is spectacular. 

The Constitution, 2015 has enshrined press friendly provisions. There are still some questions in regard to the implementation of the constitutional arrangements. However, there should be no discontent if constitutional provisions are evaluated based on this year’s UNESCO theme for the day. The insertion of ‘full press freedom’ in the preamble of the constitution itself is a testimony to Nepal’s official commitment for free press. 

The Constitution’s Article 17(2) (a) has guaranteed the right to freedom of expression and opinion. Likewise, Article 19 has guaranteed the Right to Communications which explains ‘no publication and dissemination of any news, editorial feature article or other reading, radio and audio-visual material through any means shall be censored’. Article 27 has specified the Right to Information. Being based on the provisions, Nepal’s Constitution should be taken as a very progressive. Yet, there are several legal bottlenecks to implement the constitutional provisos on press, expression and information. Some necessary laws have not been framed while some existing laws have confusing arrangements. 

Freedom of expression and its corollaries – freedom of the press and right to information are crucial constitutional base for citizen empowerment.  The strengths of democracy of any country can be assessed based on the citizen participation in governance and effectiveness of media. In this context, the UNESCO theme for the year 2023 is equally relevant in Nepal as it is not merely associated to the free press but also to protect, use and consolidate all kinds of human rights. But, the role of press should not be overlooked as a frontline defender of human rights. 

There shall not be any disagreement to state that freedom of expression is the fundamental right of general people. Some also term the right as negative right in light of the state role in implementing the right. The state sometimes may also face negative impact while allowing citizens to exercise the freedom of expression. However, the state cannot refrain from its primary responsibility for protecting the right. 

Freedom of expression is associated to the right to make and articulate opinion. So, accessing information is the key basis of opinion-making. If UNESCO theme is something to go by, it has at least attempted to shed light on the assurance of the right to receive and apply information, make opinion and exercise free expression. Importantly, all these assurances have been also made in the Article 19 of UDHR and ICCPR to which Nepal is a signatory country. 

The role of press is pivotal in the exercise of freedom of expression. It is because press is deemed as a free and shared platform for expressing opinion. If the press is not free, it would lose its role of free and common platform in terms of the people’s freedom of opinion and expression. Provided that the press fails to play its role to offer a free platform in nay pretext, it may herald a situation wherein free expression would be suppressed. 

A fearful, resource-striped and puppet of political corporate and criminal groups cannot definitely present itself as a free and common platform. This would resultantly lead to a situation where people’s freedom of expression is compromised. It would shut the windows of opportunity for the people to publicly express their opinion and curtail the chance for mutual dialogue between the state and the citizens. This situation would very indeed erode the democracy and probably fuel an environment to the rise of autocratic regime. 

With this in background, the state apparatuses should enable environment conducive to the unobstructed exercise of freedom of expression as a priority. Implementation of constitutional and legal provisions, realization of pluralistic society, and formulation of necessary laws, adoption of international standards and best practices and safety assurance would definitely contribute to create enabling environment to this direction. 

The World Press Freedom Day may further inspire all Nepali journalists and stakeholders to honestly engage in their duties. Also, it is a need of the hour to conduct debate on the afore-mentioned issues and reach to a constructive conclusion. May this day embolden and empower Nepali media workers to continue their profession being not intimidated from fear and threats from any sides, thereby contributing to the guarantee of the commoners’ right to free expression. 

(The author is Executive Chairperson of RSS and former Central Chairperson of Federation of Nepali Journalists) 

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