Defending press freedom: the essential pillar of democracy and human rights
03 May 2023
An opinion piece written by the Director of the United Nations Information Centre for the Caribbean Area in observance of World Press Freedom Day.
On 17 December 1986, journalist Guillermo Cano Isaza was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper, El Espectador, in my home country of Colombia. He was targeted because of the news stories he was pursuing as a journalist.
On World Press Freedom Day every year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) honours his legacy by awarding the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to a person or entity anywhere in the world that has stood up for press freedom — especially in the face of physical danger.
Today, as we observe the 30th anniversary of the proclamation of World Press Freedom Day by the UN General Assembly, I reflect on the story of Guillermo Cano Isaza, which made me aware for the first time in my youth of the risk members of my own family faced doing their jobs as journalists, and the risk I too would face if I decided to follow in their footsteps.
Remaining steadfast in my mission, I would go on to develop a career as a news producer in Colombia where I would meet two brave colleagues who I now pay tribute to on this day: Jaime Garzon, a journalist, comedian, and peace activist who was murdered in 1999 and Orlando Sierra Hernández, a columnist and deputy newspaper editor who was murdered in 2002. Both deaths, according to UNESCO’S Observatory of Killed Journalists, have been linked to the performance of their duties.
These first-hand experiences have shaped my view on press freedom as a fundamental human right which must be defended, protected, and expanded in all contexts. This view is supported by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
When journalists are intimidated and fear for their safety, the fourth estate is weakened, leaving the citizenry that journalists serve without the ability to hold those in power accountable. And such threats to the freedom of journalists and media workers are growing daily. From global health to the climate crisis, corruption, and human rights abuses, they face increased politicisation of their work and attempts to silence them from many sides.
According to UNESCO, 2022 was one of the most dangerous years to be a journalist with 86 journalists and media workers killed around the world — a year-over-year increase of 50 per cent. Moreover, even against the backdrop of global conflicts in Ukraine and other parts of the world, the deadliest region to be a journalist last year proved to be Latin America and the Caribbean. This is a reflection of the outsize risk journalists in the region face when covering topics such as crime, corruption, gang violence, and the environment. The three countries that saw the most killings of journalists last year according to UNESCO were Mexico (19), Ukraine (10) and Haiti (9).
As Haiti struggles with a multidimensional crisis caused by three consecutive years of economic recession, a political impasse, and unprecedented levels of gang violence, the level of risk incurred by journalists working in the country has increased, a reality reflected by the deadly statistics. Prior to this crisis, 2020 to 2021 saw one journalist killed carrying out their duties in Haiti. The drastic increase to nine in 2022 shows how quickly the status of press freedoms in any country can change, and should remind us all of the need to remain vigilant and proactive in defending, protecting and expanding press freedoms.
Despite a less lethal work environment in many other Caribbean countries, there are still places where the media is not free to report and investigate without fear of retribution. Journalists across the region report incidents of intimidation, harassment, and even physical violence, all of which undermine the fundamental principles of democracy.
To address these challenges, governments the Caribbean must continue strengthening measures to protect press freedom and implementing laws that provide journalists with legal protection and uphold their physical safety.
Citizens can also support press freedom by demanding transparency and accountability from their elected officials. By denouncing censorship and supporting independent journalism, citizens can help create a more open and democratic society.
Globally, the wider international community must also participate in advocacy for press freedom in their individual countries as well as collectively, across the world. This includes holding governments accountable for their actions and ensuring journalists can carry out their work without fear of retribution.
Let us never forget that it is the responsibility of journalists to expose human rights abuses and advocate for the rights of vulnerable populations. Without a free and independent press, these abuses can go unnoticed and unchallenged. As someone who knows what it is like to work in an environment where press freedom is constantly under threat, I pledge my personal support and that of the United Nations Information Centre for the Caribbean Area for the defence of press freedom in the region.
Liliana Garavito Canon
Director, United Nations Information Centre for the Caribbean Area (UNIC Caribbean)