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Sunday, 1 May 2011





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World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday:

New frontiers in 21st century media

More than a decade ago, while attending a training course conducted by a reputed international news organisation, I was told that ‘no story is worth your life’. Yet, journalists around the world risk their lives every day to tell the complete story, take the complete picture. In fact, 16 journalists have been killed around the world so far in 2011 and in 2010, the figure was 44.

However, obstacles to freedom of expression are only a part of the story. Journalists and journalism itself are facing another challenge which is also an opportunity. There are so many types of ‘new media’ which are competing with traditional media to catch public attention, from Facebook and Twitter to mobile phone apps and websites.

It is in this backdrop that we are celebrating this year’s World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday. Every year, May 3 is a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom and examines critical issues affecting the media.

The theme this year is, appropriately, ‘21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers’. Events are planned in more than 100 countries to celebrate the Day, which also marks the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration for the promotion of free and pluralistic media.

Adopted in 1991 after a conference held in Windhoek on the development of a free African press, this declaration emphasises the importance of an independent press for the development and preservation of democracy and economic development. Two years later, the UN General Assembly established the World Press Freedom Day.

A special event is planned for May 4 at the United Nations headquarters in New York to mark the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration.

This anniversary will be celebrated in Windhoek with a regional conference to review the future of the media in Africa. A publication, So this is media freedom? 20 years after the Windhoek Declaration on press freedom, analysing two decades of media freedom in Africa, will also be launched.

An international conference is being held in Washington from today till May 3 on the theme for the Day, organised by UNESCO, the US State Department and over 20 civil society partners. (Incidentally, this is the first time the US is hosting a World Press Freedom Day event).

Social networking

The conference will be held at the Newseum, a museum devoted to the history of the press and to freedom of expression worldwide.

Discussions will focus on the increasing role of the Internet, the emergence of new media and the dramatic rise in social networking and blogging and their immense power and reach. 'Actual' journalists are not alone, citizen journalism is thriving on the Net, portraying the power of the masses.

Indeed, the focus of the celebration is on the potential of the Internet and digital platforms as well as the more established forms of journalism in contributing to freedom of expression, good governance, and sustainable development.

The word ‘press’ used to be just that - conventional newspapers. With the increasing dominance of radio and television, the word ‘media’ found favour. But now it is changing again.

The arrival of the digital revolution, the rapid development of the Internet, the emergence of new forms of media (interactive iPad editions of newspapers are an example), and the rise of online social networks have reshaped the media landscape and made ‘the press’ of 2011 vastly different from that of 1991, when the Windhoek Declaration was signed.

While new media platforms have made it possible for almost any citizen to communicate to a large global audience, not everything out there on the Net is the gospel truth. Separating the wheat from the chaff is a challenge under these circumstances.

There are security, safety and privacy issues too. As UNESCO notes, the challenge is to fully optimise the potential of the Internet and digital media while not compromising civil liberties including the right to freedom of expression and privacy.

But one cannot deny the immense power of the Net and Net-derived phone apps to inform and enlighten the world in a flash.

For example, bloggers around the world are challenging authorities and expressing their opinions via the Internet.

These new types of media have enriched news and information resources and made inroads into the realm of print press, radio, TV and news agencies.

But reports of the death of the traditional newspaper (at least in its present dead tree form) are greatly exaggerated.

Newspapers represent a US$ 190 billion business globally with 1.6 billion readers a day in hundreds of languages.

Newspapers are the world’s second largest advertising medium, exceeding the combined budget of radio, outdoor, cinema, magazines and yes, the Internet. Combined with magazines, print is the world’s largest advertising medium with a 42 percent share.

Life in print

There is life in print, yet. But in the long-term, print media may find it extremely difficult to survive without going electronic in one form or another - Web, Kindle, iPad etc.

A look at the book industry, where both paperback and hardback book sales have been overtaken by e-books, confirms these worst fears. Ideally, newspapers need to complement their print editions with a wide variety of other outlets, with or without paywall systems.

These very issues will be addressed under the theme ‘Taking Publishing to the Next Level’ at the World Newspaper Congress and the World Editors Forum in October this year in Austria.

Print journalists too must adapt to these changes without essentially being bound to the print medium.

For example, some print journalists already carry small SD card-based video cameras with stills capability to shoot short videos which can be uploaded to their interactive, full multimedia Web and iPad editions.

On the other hand, many radio and TV journalists have their own blogs.

Thus the distinction between print and electronic media is already blurring, which is a healthy overall development for the media.

Humble reporter

May it be print, Web, new media, radio or TV, the humble reporter is the heartbeat of the media. It is his or her courage (an increasing number of journalists and media workers are women) that helps to keep the reader or viewer (again, the distinction is blurring) informed.

Although other pertinent issues are discussed, the World Press Freedom Day is their day, above all else.

From a war correspondent working for a global media giant to the health reporter of a small regional newspaper, their duty is to tell the story, the truth, as it is, in a responsible manner. To recognise their courage, UNSECO annually presents the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, created in 1997.

Each year it honours a person, organisation or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the defence and/or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world, and especially when this has been achieved in the face of danger.

It was established on the initiative of UNESCO’s Executive Board and is formally conferred by the Director-General of the Organisation, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, on May 3.

The prize is named in honour of Guillermo Cano Isaza, a Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper, El Espectador, in Bogota, on December 17, 1986. This year’s recipient is Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi.

We cannot predict what the media will be like 20 years hence.

Technology moves so fast, but the will and the courage to tell the story shall remain.

All should thus ensure the freedom of the media and protect the public’s right to information.



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