Opinion Editorial by Eric Falt, the Director of UNESCO New Delhi Cluster Office and UNESCO Representative to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
UNESCO is on the frontline of global efforts to promote press freedom and the safety of journalists. On 2 May 2019, we co-organized the first ever South Asian celebration of World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) in the Maldives. The regional event was held in partnership with Addu Women’s Association, the Maldivian Democracy Network and Facebook, and was supported by the Maldivian Government and the United Nations in the country.
The global theme for WPFD this year is ‘Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation’. The theme is especially pertinent to the South Asian context where several countries have gone – or are going – to the polls in 2018 and 2019. Last year, elections were held in Bhutan, Bangladesh and the Maldives. In neighbouring India, general elections are taking place through April and May 2019.
For us at the UNESCO New Delhi Cluster Office, the Maldives appeared to be the natural destination for our commemoration of WPFD 2019 because of the many positive signs we have recently witnessed with respect to the country’s changing environment for media freedom.
Following his party’s landslide victory in the Maldives’ parliamentary elections of 2018, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih made a bold assertion that ‘the work to strengthen our democratic institutions [and] end impunity starts now’.
Upon assuming office, President Solih convened the Commission on Investigation of Murders and Enforced Disappearances, fulfilling his election promise to investigate unresolved deaths and disappearances, including those of journalists and bloggers in recent years. Moreover, the Government’s manifesto states that ‘freedom of expression and freedom of the press will not be revoked at the discretion of the state’ and that ‘freedom of expression and freedom of the press will be open to its furthest reach’.
President Solih’s commitment to press freedom and journalists’ safety appears to run deeper still. As recently as a week ago, the President and the First Lady joined a solidarity march in Male with the parents of Yameen Rasheed and Ahmed Rilwan and hundreds of their supporters. Previous marches after Rilwan went missing in August 2014 and Yameen was brutally murdered in April 2017, saw their family members arrested, pepper sprayed and sacked from their jobs. However, this year, amid renewed signs of hope for answers, the Government is leading from the front the fight to end impunity against journalists in the Maldives.
This proactive stance has begun to bear fruit. As Dr Arvind Mathur, the Acting UN Resident Coordinator observed during the WPFD event, the Maldives has ‘already jumped 22 places in the Reporters without Borders’ annual press freedom index’. Actors across the Maldives and UNESCO applaud these historic moments.
Journalism itself is at a crossroads today, with traditional challenges to the profession merging with newer threats. The media industry is being shaken to the core with the rise of digital networks and the social media. Media accountability and credibility are being questioned. Online, there is a blurring of lines between advertising and editorial material, and we see the emergence of private players such as mobile and Internet network providers as key intermediaries, leading to new forms of ‘private censorship.’ These challenges, combined with the phenomenon of ‘fake news’, are continually raising questions that strike at the heart of free and independent journalism.
UNESCO believes that gender equality in the media sector is a critical precondition for press freedom. Women journalists in South Asia are no longer willing to accept workplace harassment or discrimination thanks to the media’s powerful #MeToo movement that has swept the region. It is profoundly encouraging to see that the Maldivian Government’s manifesto emphasizes that ‘gender equality must be ensured’, and that ‘all genders must be treated fairly and equally …’ UNESCO is proud to have partnered with Addu Women’s Association to conduct the first ever baseline study of the status of women in the media in the Maldives in 2017–18. This is the first step of a larger programme of advocacy and action to empower women media professionals in the Maldives in order to strengthen press freedom.
The gains with regard to women’s agency within media organizations in South Asia are sometimes overshadowed by the fact that the region is still the most unsafe and deadliest region in the world for journalists. Between May 2017 and April 2018, this region saw 35 journalists killed, 1 journalist abducted, almost 70 jailed or detained, over 40 attacked, 15 threatened, and nearly 100 occurrences of Internet shutdowns. Clearly, much still needs to be done to ensure the safety of journalists and to end impunity from crimes against journalists. As Target 16.10 of the SDGs urges us to do, we must make every effort to ‘Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms’.
Although the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity was launched in 2012, unfortunately very little has actually changed for journalists’ safety and security in South Asia. On the occasion of WPFD 2019, UNESCO would like to call on Governments of the region, the United Nations and media stakeholders to establish coordinated national inter-agency mechanisms to handle matters related to the safety of journalists, and to fast-track the development of legislation favorable to freedom of expression and information, among other measures.
Outlining his vision for a progressive media landscape for the Maldives on the occasion of WPFD 2019, Mr Mohamed Maleeh Jamal, the Maldivian Minister of Communication, Technology and Science said, ‘We are here to ensure that the media takes its rightful place in society and becomes a trusted partner for democratic governance. For a democracy to be for everyone, the media should be for everyone.’
The IFJ’s South Asia Press Freedom Report 2018–19, launched at the event in Male, refers to the winds of change and promised media reforms in the Maldives as an ‘unequivocal bright spot’ for press freedom in South Asia. At UNESCO, we hope that the transformation of the Maldivian mediascape will become an example for other countries in the region and beyond.