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The Price of Press Freedom

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Message Rory OConnor
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Thursday is World Press Freedom Day, a day when all of us – citizens, media professionals, governments, non-governmental organizations and what has come to be known as “civil society” - should remember and celebrate the crucial role a free press plays in democracy and development. Throughout the world, May 3 also serves as a much-needed annual reminder that our human right to freedom of expression is all too often violated — and that many journalists face jail or even death to give us our daily news.

And yes – let’s never forget that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, as outlined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that 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.”

World Press Freedom Day is meant to remind both citizens and governments that they need to reaffirm this right “as an essential foundation of the information society.”

Originally proclaimed by the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1993, the occasion has also been marked since 1997 by the awarding of the annual UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to a deserving person, organization or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the defense and promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world — especially when this has been achieved in the face of danger. Significantly, the Prize is named in honor of Guillermo Cano Isaza, a Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper, El Espectador, in Bogota, in 1986 for denouncing the activities of powerful drug barons in his country.

Twenty years later, journalists like Cano are still dying simply for doing their job. In fact, last year saw a record number of journalists and media workers killed or thrown in prison around the world, with dozens dead in Iraq alone.

With reporters being killed or held hostage by groups in conflict, with governments jailing, threatening and censoring journalists and cyber dissidents for promoting democracy or political debate, and with drug traffickers, corrupt local politicians and other criminals getting rid of reporters investigating their whereabouts, members of the media are literally risking their lives just to get the story. Every year it seems there are more and more dangers to be overcome. And more and more journalists are paying the ultimate price – losing their lives - simply to protect our right to know.

That’s why it is fitting that the late Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya is the recipient of this year’s UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize – the first journalist ever to receive the award posthumously. Here’s how Kavi Chongkittavorn, President of the UNESCO/Guillermo World Cano Press Freedom Prize jury of fourteen professional journalists and editors from all over the world, explained the jury’s choice:

“Anna Politkovskaya showed incredible courage and stubbornness in chronicling events in Chechnya after the whole world had given up on that conflict. Her dedication and fearless pursuits of the truth set the highest benchmark of journalism, not only for Russia but for the rest of the world. Indeed, Anna’s courage and commitment were so remarkable, that we decided, for the first time, to award the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize posthumously.”

This year — the 10th anniversary of the Prize — World Press Freedom Day will be marked in Medellin, Colombia, the home city of Guillermo Cano. The occasion will focus on the safety of journalists and the problem of impunity of crimes against journalists, such as the unsolved assassination of Anna Politkovskaya.

Born in 1958, Politkovskaya studied at the school of journalism of Moscow State University. She was a columnist for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. An outspoken campaigner for human rights, Politkovskaya was particularly well known for the hundreds of articles she published on the conflict in Chechnya. Her work was recognized nationally and internationally. She received the Golden Pen of Russia award, a Special Diploma of the Jury of the Andrei Sakharov Prize “For the Life Sacrificed to Journalism” and the Olof Palme Prize, among many honors. She was murdered in the entrance of her home in Moscow on October 7, 2006.

Politkovskaya, along with Paul Klebnikov, an American journalist of Russian descent who was editor of Forbes Russia when he too was gunned down in 2004, are among the most prominent of the many journalists murdered in this century. Many others are languishing in captivity, such as Alan Johnston, the BBC’s Palestinian Territories correspondent, who was kidnapped on March 12 and has been held hostage in the Gaza Strip ever since. Others still, however, are less-known but equally deserving of our recognition, our praise, and our remembrance as we mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day, and their sacrifice on our behalf: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
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Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at
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