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May 2, 2013

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, some 250 journalists are now in prisons worldwide and nearly 600 have been murdered since 1992.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, some 250 journalists are now in prisons worldwide and nearly 600 have been murdered since 1992.

By Jane Morse
IIP Staff Writer
May 01, 2013

Media freedom is a human right and the moral equivalent of oxygen, says Tara Sonenshine, under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Speaking at an April 25 event sponsored by the independent advocacy group Human Rights First at the State Department’s Foreign Press Center, Sonenshine said press freedom “is how any free, healthy, vibrant and functioning society breathes, and it is essential to building civil societies. Without it, aspirations choke, economies suffocate and countries are unable to grow.”

Sonenshine’s remarks came as a prelude to the 20th-anniversary World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, World Press Freedom Day is meant to inform citizens of violations of press freedoms and to remind governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom.

Although Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, declares that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression” and “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media,” media freedom is severely circumscribed in many parts of the world and journalists continue to be threatened or killed by repressive governments.

“According to the Committee to Protect Journalists,” Sonenshine said, “nearly 600 journalists have been murdered with impunity since 1992.” Currently some 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide, and in 2012, 10 journalists were killed, she said.

“Some governments are too weak or unwilling to protect journalists and media outlets,” Sonenshine said. “Many others 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. They detain and harass — and worse.”

News organizations, civil society and policy research institutions, political leaders, scholars and citizens of every faith and ethnicity must call for accountability and demand that governments enforce human rights that protect journalists, Sonenshine said.

For its part, the U.S. government funds programs to provide media organizations and journalists with the resources they need to produce high-quality stories without fear of retribution. According to Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, the State Department, since 2007, has provided almost $1.1 million in assistance for investigative journalists, bloggers and other media professionals who are under threat.

“Our Internet freedom programs,” Zeya said, “support technologies that enable citizen journalists and activists to report on human rights developments and to protect themselves from threats online and offline. These tools give bloggers access to the Web when they would otherwise be shut off from the rest of the world.”

Speaking with Sonenshine at the Foreign Press Center, Zeya said the U.S. government works actively to engage governments publicly and privately on media freedom. “This includes,” she said, “addressing specific cases of imprisoned journalists, new legislation that restricts certain types of expression, and existing legal frameworks that sanction the locking up of journalists in the name of security.”

“We remind governments that allowing free expression increases, rather than diminishes, their chances of long-term stability and prosperity,” Zeya said.

The United States, Zeya said, works in multilateral forums to hold governments accountable to their human rights obligations and supports U.N. resolutions on freedom of expression, such as the 2012 Human Rights Council resolution on the Safety of Journalists and the 2012 resolution on Internet Freedom.

Sonenshine added that to focus world attention on the problem of media repression, the State Department is highlighting on its Web pages for human rights individual cases for a two-week period leading up to World Press Freedom Day .

Learn more at Free the Press: The Shrinking Space for Media Worldwide at the State Department’s website HumanRights.gov.