Watch the full panel session here
A diverse panel at the 2023 OGP Summit in Estonia discussed the vital importance of media freedom – not only as a pillar of democracy and human rights, but also for ensuring governments make the right decisions.
The high-level panel session “Media Freedom as a Catalyst of Open Government, Dialogue, and Accountability”, held on 6th September, featured senior representatives from governments, journalism and civil society. It was organised by the Media Freedom Coalition and the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with UNESCO.
The Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Margus Tsahkna, pointed to the media coverage of the massacre in the Ukrainian city of Bucha as a turning point for support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.
“Only stories touching us personally reach our minds,” Minister Tsahkna said. “That’s why media freedom is crucial. So the leaders of countries can make their opinion.
“This kind of information and news is changing the governments’ attitudes.”
Ricardo Avelar, a journalist at the El Salvadoran online independent outlet Factum, highlighted in the discussion that media freedom and democracy cannot be taken for granted.
“In democracies there are no happy endings,” Mr Avelar said. “This is not a fairy tale in which we see a democracy grow and we leave it on its own. Access to information, media freedom, accountability – those things do not grow on their own.
“It’s like a bicycle, you need to keep pedalling in order to keep advancing forward.”
Another speaker at the event, Sarah Wesonga of Article 19 Eastern Africa, made clear how critical access to information can be for journalists and citizens. Access to information is a key theme in the open government field.
“The right information can be a matter of life and death,” Ms Wesonga said, explaining that during the COVID-19 pandemic there were calls for citizens to receive credible information, with significant, even deadly, implications from the spread of dis- or mis-information.
Ms Wesonga added that citizens having universal open access to information on what their administrations are doing means they are able to hold their governments to account. She said that this is a key part of the fabric of democracy.
Speakers at the event stated that for open access to information to work, governments need to trust citizens, and they affirmed that citizens can be trusted.
Catherine Gicheru, who is a veteran journalist, ICFJ Knight Fellow, and Founder/Director of the Africa Women Journalism Project, said while moderating the session: “At the root of this, human beings are essentially good. If you give us information, it doesn’t mean we’re going to cause chaos. We’re going to use it for good, for ourselves”.
Government speakers explained how MFC members are undertaking measures to protect media freedom and journalists under threat.
This includes issuing emergency visas for journalists threatened for their work, so that they can find safe refuge.
Minister Tsahkna said that, as of this year, Estonia issues 35 residency permits annually for journalists at risk globally. It also provides humanitarian visas to threatened journalists from regional neighbouring countries Russia and Belarus.
“What governments can do for journalists and free media is to create [the] conditions” for them to continue their work, he said.
Allison Peters, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, said that MFC governments are also supporting technical assistance programmes, for example, the USAID-funded programme Reporters Shield, that provides legal support to journalists.
Ms Peters said this was just one such programme by MFC countries, who, when combining forces to invest in such protections, reach greater outcomes.
“The Media Freedom Coalition is so critical because not only are we raising awareness about the threats that we are seeing to media freedom globally but we are responding using all the tools in our collective toolbox,” Ms Peters said.
“When we combine forces, we are a powerful force. We can raise awareness of the threats, we use our tools of diplomacy to intervene in specific cases, and we can also provide technical assistance to journalists under threat, whether that be legal assistance, or training around digital security issues.”
Giving opening remarks, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, Dr. Tawfik Jelassi, spoke of UNESCO’s support for more than 5,000 journalists in over 100 countries through the Global Media Defence Fund. The fund was founded by, and continues to be supported by, a range of MFC member states.
UNESCO has also been working on ensuring citizens’ access to information, working with dozens of countries to draft legislation to this end, he said.
And it has begun an initiative to draft regulatory guidelines for digital platforms to protect people from harm online – including disinformation, cyber bullying and hate speech.
“[It’s] not regulation in the sense of censorship,” he said. “We need to regulate to try to combat the harmful content online, while safeguarding free speech online.”