Draft proposal on media freedom sparks lively debate

The Daily Star

Ghinwa Obeid

Freedom Of Expression

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A group of media experts discussed Thursday a “Draft Declaration on Media Freedom in the Arab World,” a first-of-its-kind project attempting to attract the signatures of countries across the region to uphold the principle of a free press. Despite worries about the possibility of implementing such an undertaking, the draft declaration consists of 14 principles of press freedom that cover a wide array of media issues from safety for reporters and best practices for journalists to accurate reporting and the legal framework regarding the press.

“In the Arab World, there is no regional agreement that clearly talks about what media freedom is,” Monir Zaarour, Coordinator for the International Federation of Journalists, told The Daily Star. “This declaration clarifies vital points. ... It will be signed and approved by the countries; there are a number of countries who expressed [a desire] to sign ... and adopt it.”

Further discussions will be held during a regional conference this May in Casablanca, Morocco, hosted by UNESCO. Zaarour was speaking on the sidelines of the meeting looking at “Special Mechanisms for Media Freedom in the Arab World.”

The event was organized by the European Union-funded MedMedia program and cohosted by UNESCO and the Samir Kassir Foundation. “It is part of a regional discussion launched in 2014 by IFJ to pave the way for a mechanism and the establishment of the position of ‘Rapporteur of Media Freedom in the Arab World’ to [advocate to] strengthen media freedom in the region,” said a statement on the project.

The declaration’s principles were at the core of an active discussion between the attendees of the meeting to get views on the draft for further amendment before its release. Attendees sparked a lively debate about the draft proposal, highlighting areas that they feel need amending before the declaration is published.

One issue raised by a number of participants was the fact that the draft tackled some key issues in a very general way. There were also questions raised over whether the draft could be implemented equally and fully, without taking into consideration country-specific factors.

“The issue of [local considerations], when it comes to general principles, should be refused,” Zaarour said, adding that a uniform declaration is needed, otherwise it erodes the principles of the declaration. “The idea of difference is an idea to restrict the rights [in certain countries]; this decreases the overall rights and isn’t acceptable.”

Journalists’ right to access information was also underlined in the draft. One of the draft’s points outlines the need to access information held by public authorities, adding that “the right to information ... is an integral part of the right to freedom of expression and an important underpinning of media freedom.”

Access to information is vital for journalists’ work, but isn’t always available. A recent example of the challenges of access to accurate public information is in Lebanon’s ongoing trash crisis, which has been affecting the country since July 2015.

Some issues in waste management are shrouded in mystery and vagueness, creating significant challenges for journalists covering the issue.

There was a call among the delegates to change the title of the principle that addresses issues of privacy and reputations, safeguarding journalists’ reporting on individuals while balancing this with personal privacy. It also suggests areas where the state needs to address issues of mass surveillance. Some attendees believed that reputation and privacy were two issues that need to be discussed separately.

“We don’t have any other option than be positive and work on all levels that might make us reach what we are aiming for,” said Nassim Abi Ghanem, program coordinator at SKF, during the discussion.

“We might be frustrated to a certain extent,” Abi Ghanem said, but added that it is important to continue this work in a way that would ensure its implementation.

“We realize that this is a long process that needs effort and the participation of active groups in all countries,” Zaarour said.

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