Defending Media Freedom in the Arab World: A debate on WPFD

Next week the International Federation of Journalists will be marking World Press Freedom Day by co-hosting an event in Casablanca on how best to protect media freedom and journalists’ rights in the Arab region.

On the programme are two key papers for debate, the first a declaration on the principles of media freedom and the second a draft proposal for establishing the mandate of a special rapporteur to be appointed to monitor and report on all violations of press freedom and journalists rights.

This effort mirrors previous initiatives for establishing similar mechanisms with the African Union (Commission on Human and People’s Rights), Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Organisation of American States, and the UN’s own special rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. It challenges participants to decide if and how it may be possible to establish something similar for the Arab region.

Certainly the need is there. Media freedoms and rights of journalists are in a parlous state in the region and threaten to recede further as autocratic governments respond to the security crisis with ever tighter restrictions on human rights including free expression.

Journalism is crying out for a strong, independent regional institution that can monitor, report and hold governments to account for their record on media freedom. It is far from the only means to protect press freedom, but the models have proved effective and a crucial ally for media freedom campaigners where they have been established in other regions.

How can it be done though and how can media stakeholders have faith in a structure whose existence depends on the very governments that journalists seek protection from?

Such a question might be asked about any intergovernmental organisation which by its nature is made up of governments that are both responsible for protecting the rights of their citizens as well as having members that fail to do so. It is not surprising therefore that regions where there is the greatest need for such support are also regions where governments have some of the worst records.

The League of Arab States is the regional intergovernmental equivalent to the UA, OAS and OSCE, but has an institutional record of being used to subvert democratic initiatives and human rights. Indeed the human rights charter that is a product of the LAS is so weak that some national governments refused to ratify it on the grounds that it endorsed a far too limited view of human rights and would therefore be more of a repressive tool.

If the LAS is not a credible host for a media freedom mechanism what are the alternative structures that could be approached? What are the minimum criteria for hosting a special mechanism?

Could the Inter-parliamentary Union, or the human rights institutions, provide an adequate home for the mechanism, or could an alternative proposal emerge during the consultation process such as a mechanism mandated by a minority of states or a structure based on civil society groups entirely independent of government?

These are some of the questions that will be put to participants at next week’s meeting in what will be the broadest regional consultation process for media freedoms on record.

At the heart of the exercise, before the technical challenges are confronted, will be the endorsement of a regional Declaration on media freedom that will form the basis of any mechanism. This will be as strong and robust a charter as can be found anywhere else in the world and any structure offering to host the mechanism will need first to endorse the declaration on which the position is founded.

Were the league of Arab States to endorse the charter it would be a remarkable achievement in itself. More likely though is that several governments (some of whom have already indicated their intention to do so) will be ready to set up their own structure for its implementation as a first step to a fully regional mandate.

For 90 years the IFJ has been campaigning for the protection of journalists’ rights, in some cases establishing, and always demanding respect of, the highest international standards for media freedom.

While much of the work building up to this conference, including developing the proposals with leading international and regional experts and running national and open public consultations, has been led by the IFJ, the IFJ has not yet formulated its own position.

For that we will, as always, be guided by our member unions from the region and the broader media stakeholder community. We are looking forward to a lively and robust debate over the coming days.

Jim Boumelha, IFJ President

For more information, please contact IFJ on + 32 2 235 22 16

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 139 countries

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