HRF’s Tim McBride introduces the inaugural UNESCO (NZ) Freedom of Expression Lecture by Professor Mark Pearson

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Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou, katoa

UNESCO is the only UN agency with a specific mandate to defend freedom of expression and press freedom. It is one of the organisation’s overarching goals.

UNESCO’s constitution, adopted in November 1945, states that the organisation will ‘collaborate in the work of advancing mutual knowledge and understanding of all peoples, through all means of communication’ and ‘promote the free flow of ideas by word and image’.

I find those uplifting words remarkable both in their vision and in their relevance for us gathered here today.

Today is World Press Freedom Day. The date of May 3 was chosen to celebrate the historic Declaration adopted at a UNESCO meeting of African journalists in Namibia, on 3 May 1991.

The Declaration states that press freedom is ‘only possible in a free, independent, and pluralistic media environment. [That] is a precondition for journalists to be safe to practice their craft …’

In a keynote address to a World Media Freedom Day conference in Brisbane in 2009, UNESCO’s current Director-General, Irina Bokova, emphasised its role as ‘a champion of freedom of expression and the right to know’.

‘These’, she said, ‘were indispensable for the attainment of all human rights and fundamental for strengthening democracy’.

That statement serves to remind us that the fundamental human right to freedom of expression has two key components –

  • the right to seek relevant information [ie, without it how can you express an informed point of view?]; and
  • the right to impart information and ideas of any kind through any form of media.

The D-G’s statement also serves to highlight that the right to freedom of expression is very much a right from which other rights may flow. Without it other fundamental human rights – for example, the right to freedom of association; and the right to peaceful assembly (ie, protest) – may not be able to be exercised effectively.

This year UNESCO’s focus on World Media Freedom Day is ‘… on ensuring the physical and psychological safety of journalists on all media platforms … and ‘addressing the high impunity level of crimes against media freedom…’.

What does that mean? I interpret it as meaning that most people and organisations – state or private – who commit crimes against journalists (eg, murder, assault, kidnapping; to name a few), do not get caught; and even when they do, seldom suffer any meaningful form of punishment.

According to UNESCO’s D-G, over 600 journalists have been killed (ie, murdered) in the last 10 years, while reporting news to the general public. That’s approximately 1 journalist a week. Last year alone 121 journalists were killed; almost double the annual figures for 2010 and 2011.

All these journalists had one thing in common – they were all exercising what many in our society appear to take for granted; perhaps even trivialise – the fundamental human right to freedom of expression.

These journalists were murdered for simply doing their job. That is why we honour their immense courage and commemorate their tragic sacrifice on World Press Freedom Day.

This audience needs no convincing of the value of freedom of expression? But how widely shared is that view?

Despite its legal recognition in international human rights law and in our Bill of Rights Act of 1990 (s14), how well is the value of freedom of expression nurtured and protected in our society?

If asked, what rationale would you give for asserting its importance in our rapidly-evolving society?

I have always been attracted to the idea that it is essential, among other things, for the discovery of truth and the exposure of falsehood – to paraphrase, rather crudely, the great English poet, John Milton’s noble sentiments.

Milton was confident that in ‘a free and open encounter’, ‘truth’ would prevail. Some of you may have less confidence these days, given the controls governments around the world place on the media; and the ever-greater ownership, and increasingly control, of major segments of the media in ever-fewer hands.

In recent years in New Zealand there have been numerous instances of high- profile people, for example, so-called ‘celebrities’, causing offence to some by their public utterances. While some of the views expressed struck a chord with me; others I found unpleasant, distasteful, offensive, call what you like.

However, when I was tempted to join in a chorus of condemnation, privately at least, I reminded myself, just in time, of what freedom of expression is really all about.

As George Orwell once said – ‘freedom is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear’. More recently, Noam Chomsky reminded us that ‘if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all’.

He was echoing the oft-quoted words attributed to the legendary French thinker, Voltaire – ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.

Freedom of expression purists would say that there should be no limitations on its exercise. That’s not the case in the US, despite its cherished First Amendment. Nor is it the case here.

As one of our leading media lawyers said to me recently – ‘believing in the value of freedom of expression is the easy part; the more challenging inquiry is determining just what the justifiable limitations on its exercise should be’.

New limitations on the exercise of freedom of expression in particular situations keep appearing – most recently in the proposed laws on cyber-bullying. How many of you regard this as a serious issue that requires some form of legal response?

I suspect that for many in this audience it is the breath-taking potential of the ‘new media’ that is subject of their keenest interest. It is therefore most appropriate that we have a distinguished speaker on the implications of this subject to speak to us tonight.

I note that Professor Pearson is intending to make some reference to the responsibilities of people using these new media platforms. As columnist, Simon Cunliffe, writing very recently in the Sunday Star-Times, said –

‘With new technology comes responsibility. Like it or not (he said), the new media should have boundaries’ (21 April 2013).

To conclude – just a very brief word about this event also being the inaugural UNESCO (NZ) Freedom of Expression lecture.

 Our National Commission for UNESCO has made freedom of expression the highest priority for its communications programme.

It enthusiastically endorsed a recommendation from its Sub-Commission on Communications that there be an annual lecture on the value of freedom of expression.

In this regard I wish to acknowledge the persuasive advocacy of our chairperson until recently, leading journalist and author, Paul Smith.

The inaugural lecture was to be held in Christchurch. Then the series of devastating earthquakes occurred. The lecture had to be postponed, not once but twice.

Thanks to Professor Robie and his hard-working team, NZ’s National Commission for UNESCO and the Pacific Media Centre – working together in partnership – are finally able to stage the inaugural Freedom of Expression Lecture on World Press Freedom Day. How timely and appropriate.

We thank also AUT for its willingness to host this very special occasion. What an impressive venue in their grand new building.

Thank you