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Free press for an engaged society

By Tara D. Sonenshine

Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media

World Press Freedom Day is marked every May 3 to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom and to honor journalists who have lost their lives in pursuit of their profession.

But as many human rights activists and journalists and people of conscience often ruefully declare, every day should be World Press Freedom Day. That’s because – as I write this – almost 250 journalists are languishing in prisons worldwide.  Many more are harassed, intimidated and even murdered.


According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, throughout the world nearly 600 journalists have been murdered with impunity since 1992 – and last year, 2012, was the deadliest of all for journalists since they began keeping these records.

What are their purported crimes? Doing what journalists should in any free society:  reporting to all of us what is going on in their communities and in their countries.

Too many political leaders around the world wrongly equate freedom of the press with a compromise in national security. In some countries, including Uganda, there is often a failure – from government and from citizens – to appreciate that a free and independent press is essential to building a transparent, well-informed, and engaged society.

As a result, many governments exploit or create criminal libel or defamation or blasphemy laws in their favor. They misuse terrorism laws to prosecute and imprison journalists.  They pressure media outlets to shut down by causing crippling financial damage.  They buy or nationalize media outlets to suppress different viewpoints.  They filter or shut down access to the Internet. And as the statistics I cited underscore, they can do much worse.

Media freedom is the moral equivalent of oxygen.  It is how any free, healthy, vibrant and functioning society breathes, and it is essential to building civil societies.  That applies to everything we say in public squares or type on our keyboards online; everything we print in newspapers, blogs, texts or tweets. When this right is denied, aspirations choke, economies suffocate, and countries are unable to grow.

The US government supports press freedom everywhere, including Uganda, and we work to advance Internet freedom around the world as part of the universal rights of freedom of expression and the free flow of information.

It should be said that the press – including here in Uganda – has its responsibilities to improve the quality, accuracy, and fairness of its reporting.  A failure to observe the ethics and basic tenets of professional journalism will create mistrust from the public.

With a negative attitude towards journalists, they will not be inclined to speak out against harassment and abuses. Just as critically, they will lose the opportunity to get useful, accurate and timely information that can enhance their lives and futures; and democracy in Uganda will be severely compromised.

We also support the professional development of journalists, editors, and media organizations everywhere. For example, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), with funding from the US government,  is implementing exchange programs for journalists from four African countries, including Uganda, and the US to examine the important role the media plays in society.

I am also rightfully proud of the State Department’s Foreign Press Center reporting tours that allow journalists from around the world to better understand the foundations that shape American foreign policy.  In fact, a Ugandan journalist is currently participating in a program specifically on the topic of press freedom.   Tools gained while on these and similar programs will help journalists become stronger advocates for press freedom.

A government that has faith in its own citizens and believes in the democratic process will protect the many voices of the people. It will create, embrace and enforce laws and reforms that guarantee the basic rights and freedoms of all people including media freedom. This is a fundamental freedom for all people, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in Uganda’s own constitution.

We urge Uganda to take greater steps to protect and defend press freedom, and to hold individuals who violate this freedom accountable.  We call on members of the press to make certain that their comments can be trusted as fact.   And we urge all political leaders and citizens to speak out for protection of journalists and to support their vital role in open societies.

The author is the US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

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