Freedom of expression is complex right, we had ups and downs in last 20 years

Author: Žikica Stevanović 

"We haven't had a linear development of protection and promotion of freedom of expression in the last 20 years, when I started my career in this area. We had ups and downs, it's a complex right. So, some aspects of the rights have improved a lot in the last 20 years, other aspects are currently suffering important the challenges, including increased attacks from different angles and perspectives", chief of the section of Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Guilherme Canela Godoi, said in the interview for Youth Newsroom asked about the current state of media freedoms in the world in comparison to the time when he started dealing with this issue professionally.


"For instance, one important aspect of freedom of expression that normally is forgotten in some of the discussions, is the aspect of access to public information. In the beginning of the 90's, we had on the entire planet only 12 countries with freedom of information laws. Today we have almost 130 countries with freedom of information laws so you can see in the historical period of 30 years, which is nothing, we have jumped from around 12 with this kind of legislation. This is a fantastic improvement in the legal environment worldwide for the protection and promotion of freedom of expression. 


Another important development, 10 years ago we managed to develop and get approval from all UN agencies, funds and programs - the UN plan of action for the safety of journalists - the issue of impunity. In 2015, when the 2030 UN Agenda was approved, a particular goal was included to underline the idea of importance of protecting fundamental freedom - in this case freedom of expression and access of information. Also we have developed new challenges, and we have old ones, so unfortunately journalists are still targeted with different forms of violence, including killings for simply doing their jobs. 


So still see a considerable number of legislations being enacted that are not in line with international standards of freedom of expression, so this is another critical challenge. And those two that are not new, that are there for ever, and to them we add new challenges. For instance, the negative impact of the new technologies to the freedom of expression are important new elements in this equation. 


Damage that disinformation and misinformation or online hate speech or online violence against journalists can do to freedom of expression is a new element that makes our job to protect and promote such important rights more complex than it was in the past. Bottom line, it is not easy to respond to your question because there isn't a straightforward answer for that".


Western Balkans and Latin America – any similarities?


You spent part of your career in Latin America as Regional Coordinator of the UNESCO Initiative for the Promotion of Democracy and Freedom of Expression in judicial systems in Latin America. Do other continents and regions of the world, such as the Western Balkans, face similar problems as Latin America in the fight for freedom of expression and the safety of journalists?


“Each country and region have their specific challenges and particularities in terms of improving freedom of expression and protecting their rights. But I do think there aren't some similarities particularly when you take the case of Latin America, many of the countries of the region, until the beginning of the 80's and in some cases in the 90's, faced strong authoritarian regimes and then they, luckily enough, managed to enter the democratic phase. This example shows how those countries in Latin America under the umbrella of Inter-American Human Rights System have managed regional structures, institutions and cooperation to enhance and consolidate democracies and protect rights like freedom of expression. It is an interesting example. 


In Latin America there is a strong tradition of investigative journalism and it was quite relevant in fighting corruption, to enhance governmental accountability, to improve transparency and good governance. Investigative journalists from other regions can learn lessons from Latin America. Also, you have countries in Latin America that have developed interesting mechanisms for protection of journalism and those could also be an interesting example to look to." 


I drew the parallel between Western Balkans and Latin America because the Balkans faced a similar transition from the 90's onwards. So, do you find the same problems that the media sector of Balkan region encountes today as in Latin America?


"Although I'm for a year with these new global functions in UNESCO, I still didn't have time to be more familiarised with different challenges in the world, including the region of Western Balkans. It would be unfair to comment on something I don't know well. I do know the situation in the Latin America and the global landscape, but unfortunately I'm not familiarized with the situation in the Western Balkans."


The role of international community


How do you see the role of the international community in, let's say now, Latin America? Do you think that the international community uncompromisingly supports media communities in the fight for their rights or sometimes, because of its relationships with local governments, the international community makes compromises on those issues?


"Maybe there is an underlying assumption to your question that reaching some sort of compromise is necessarily bad, and I don't think so. The entire development of the international multilateral system after the Second World War was about peace, to build peace by trying to find some compromises under the umbrella of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights among countries that have different approaches, or think differently. So, this building of an international environment in Latin America, that is your question, does imply some sort of compromise based on human rights principles. Those international stakeholders, whether they are UN agencies or the Organisation of American States or other kinds of institutions like Inter American Press Association or Latin American Congress of Investigative Journalism, have different sorts of interests, mandates. And how they negotiate, trying to reach some sort of agreement in order to further protect and promote freedom of expression, is part of the game and it isn't a bad part of the game." 


Based on your experience in Latin America, can you recommend some measures that media communities elsewhere can undertake and improve their position in society in the short term?


"First, we need to realise that those ecosystems are complex and there aren't easy solutions to the problems we face. So what I can see as a good practice is first acknowledging what are the rules of the different stakeholders that we need to support or stimulate for what we want to achieve. For instance, we have a big problem regarding the safety of journalists that is impunity, regarding the crimes against journalists. Out of ten killings of journalists, nine are not solved and that is a big issue because impunity restarts the cycle of violence. 


So, why I'm a giving you this example, in order to tackle the issue of impunity, we need to acknowledge that the key stakeholder here are the judicial operators, prosecutors, judges - so we need to understand that here it is not only discussing with executive branch of government or with other other players such as media owners. To tackle this issue we need to engage in a dialog with the prosecutors, judges, law enforcements... So if the issue is to fight impunity, we need to further train prosecutors and judges to apply international freedom of expression standards. 


If the issue is about changing the legislation to be in line with international human rights standards, maybe we need to target parliamentarians and engage in dialog with them so we can have better laws. If the issue is about implementing better policy by the ministers of justice or interior, then we need to have discussions with the government. There are roles to be played by media owners themselves or by civil society or unions, so I'd say that the important element here is to understand that we have a complex ecosystem and the first step is to understand what we want to change and who are the relevant players to produce that change." 


Journalists are being killed even in Europe


Speaking of the issue of the security of journalists in the world, we have some examples in Europe such as murders of journalists in Malta and Slovakia. Is it enough to make good legislative changes to punish the perpetrators or is there space to work on prevention of murders?


"Definitely it is not enough only to produce news legislation. The approach we recommend in order to improve the safety of journalists is a comprehensive approach that we call "the policy of the three P". We need to have prevention elements in those policies, we need to have protection elements and we need to have prosecution of the crimes elements. If any of those "three P" are not present in the national or regional policy for enhancing the safety of journalists, experience shows that in some point these will fail. There are specific programs that can be implemented that can improve the prevention against those crimes and these are super relevant because we actually prevent the crimes from happening. But if there are risks that journalists are facing, then we need to put in place mechanisms of protection. 


In some countries, for instance, journalists receive specific law enforcement protection because they are receiving threats and these have actually prevented a series of killings. But, when the crime actually happens, it is not enough to have prevention and protection, you need to prosecute the crimes. And the prosecution of the crimes against the journalists is specialised kind of prosecution. So we need to empower prosecution services to investigate those crimes accordingly and have an initial hypothesis that those crimes were connected to the profession. In the nutshell, it is not enough to adopt only one of "P", we need to have a comprehensive approach where the "three P" are included."