Journalists Say Johannesburg Summit Must Boost Democracy and Press Freedom

  • Free Journalism a Key to Development

  • Fundamental Rights as Well as Trade Deals

  • Global Controls Needed Over Corporate Power

Journalists around the world today warn that unless there is a new global commitment to press freedom and democracy, the lofty aims of the Johannesburg world summit 2002 on sustainable development, which takes place from August 26 until September 4, will never be achieved.

"The grand design of the organisers to save the environment and eradicate poverty will not be realised unless there is a commitment to involve all citizens - including the world's poorest people - in the debate about change," says the International Federation of Journalists, the world's largest journalists' group, in a statement.

"Human rights, democracy and freedom of expression are not on the margins of the discussion about sustainable development," says the IFJ, "People must be free to speak their minds and they must have access to the information they need to make decisions about the future."

But the IFJ says that in many regions where the toughest challenges exist, media are not free, human rights are routinely violated and journalism is a perilous and high-risk profession. "There are great fears that the Johannesburg summit will be a gigantic talking shop," says the IFJ. "If it means business, it must confront the crisis of democracy and human rights around the world and ensure that the campaigns for sustainable development, poverty reduction and environmental protection go hand in hand with building democratic and pluralist societies."

The IFJ warns against the Johannesburg agenda being hijacked by free market interests. "In the era of free markets there are ever larger and more powerful global corporations," says the IFJ "and valid questions are being raised about how these great institutions are run, who controls them, and to whom they are accountable."

The IFJ says the crisis of confidence caused by recent corporate scandals is only one dimension of the failure to monitor transnational companies that are driving the process of trade globalisation. "It is not enough to call for higher accounting standards and a crackdown on corporate misrepresentation, there is an urgent need to tackle the palpable failure of companies to meet their responsibilities to employees, the environment and the local communities around them."

The IFJ supports calls from Global Unions worldwide for new international mechanisms to make global corporations - including individual business leaders - more accountable. "Influencing the corporate agenda is essential when private companies are gaining ever greater control over essential public goods and services," says the IFJ.

French company Vivendi, for example, is one of the world's largest media companies and it is also supplying water - the most essential of all public goods - to 110 million people around the world. "Vivendi is a company with a troubled past and present," says the IFJ citing the fact that it has been implicated in bribery scandals and that its Puerto Rico subsidiary has been fined more than $6 million for various violations of environmental laws.

"The time has come for the creation of a culture of corporate citizenship, which would require company directors to consider the effects of their actions on the environment, on human rights, on local communities and on their workforce," says the IFJ. "We need new global institutions to defend rights, to promote development and democracy and to rein in the power of the unelected corporate elite that dominates world trade," says the IFJ.

The IFJ says that constraining the power of multi-nationals, channelling foreign direct investment into socially-inclusive and ecologically sustainable wealth creation, and expanding the Johannesburg agenda to include democratic reforms in favour of press freedom are essential to combat corruption and to give credibility to the movement for reform.

"Johannesburg creates an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration and cross-fertilisation of experience and aspiration at a practical level," says the IFJ, "but if governments who deny people their fundamental rights are not challenged and if global corporations are not reined in, then it will be an opportunity missed."