The Windhoek Declaration a decade ago stood at the start of a process in which press freedom in the world was both broadened and deepened.
It all started with the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989. That event cut the heart out of the Soviet-backed drive by authoritarians the world over to establish a "New World Information and Communication Order" to justify press controls.
The new winds of freedom blowing across Eastern and Central Europe inspired the group of leading free press groups in the Coordinating Committee of Press Freedom Organizations to challenge UNESCO to sponsor the first group encounter between the East European journalists emerging from the underground with their Western counterparts.
That challenge in December 1989 fit so neatly with UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor's press freedom-oriented "New Strategy" for the Organization's Communication Program that he immediately accepted the idea. And the meeting was organized in record time, at UNESCO's Paris Headquarters at the end of February 1990. The purpose was to explore what assistance was needed to help the journalists -- who were used to publishing for restricted circles of dissidents with as many carbon copies as would fit into a typewriter -- to put out fully fledged aboveground newspapers and magazines.
The interest and expectations aroused by that meeting were so strong that, while it was under way, African representatives in Paris assailed Mayor with expressions of hope that UNESCO would not abandon the stress it had previously laid on improving the lot of Third World news media, especially in Africa.
Responding just as swiftly as he had to the request to bring together Eastern and Western journalists, the Director-General pledged to the informal East-West gathering that he would organize a similar seminar the followingyear in Africa.
Windhoek was chosen as the meeting site because of its symbolic significance as the capital of the newly independent Namibia, just freed under the auspices of the United Nations auspices from South African overlordship.
For the first time, UNESCO saw to it that those speaking about help for the press in Africa were not Information Ministry officials -- saying what governments claimed was in the best interests of the press -- but free and independent African journalists pressing to enlarge what had been the meager space of press freedom on the continent.
With their Declaration on May 3, 1991, that "the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation," the tone was set for all the subsequent regional journalists meetings that were to follow under UNESCO's patronage.
Each of these meetings broadened and moved forward the definition of press freedom. And each journalists' Declaration coming out of those meetings was to be explicitly endorsed in resolutions passed by the member states of UNESCO, adopted at the biennial sessions of the Organization's General Conference in Paris.
Instead of telling journalists what to do, governments were for the first time in the history of the UN system following the lead of the journalists in defining the terms of press freedom.
As someone who took part in the preparations for each of the regional seminars in the Consultative Committees of Non-Governmental Organizations of the free press that UNESCO put together, I can testify personally that the ultimate outcomes were what the UNESCO Secretariat hoped for. It was not easy. There were many difficulties and complications along the way. There were strong pressures every time to water down the results. But the organizers stood fast, region by region, meeting by meeting, on the side of more press freedom than before. The Windhoek Declaration called upon the UN to recognize that censorship is a "grave violation of human rights falling within the purview of the Commission on Human Rights." In short order, the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva created the post of Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression focused on abuses against press freedom.
In the spirit of Windhoek, UNESCO's own International Program for the Development of Communication provided that governments would not be the only source of assistance projects but that they could come from free press organizations and that -- just as tellingly -- the establishment or reinforcement of the independence of the press should be a leading criterion for the selection of such projects.
Windhoek was followed in October 1992 by the UN/UNESCO Seminar on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Asian Media, in Almaty, capital of Kazakstan, newly independent from the Soviet Union. There, Asian journalists called for State-controlled broadcasting to be converted into "journalistically independent public service broadcasting."
The impact of the Windhoek Declaration was such that in late 1993, just two years after that text was adopted, the UN chose its anniversary of May 3 as the date for the annual commemoration of World Press Freedom Day.
Next, in 1994, came the turn of Latin America and the Caribbean to hold a regional UN/UNESCO journalists’ seminar. That meeting, in Santiago de Chile, provided in its final Declaration that "State authorities should make publicly available in a timely and reasonable manner the information generated by the public sector" and that "no journalist should be forced to reveal his or her sources of information."
The Declaration of Santiago also called for creation of an annual World Press Freedom Prize to be chosen by a jury of distinguished personalities dedicated to freedom of the press. That request, previously made by press freedom groups as well, was honored by Director-General Mayor with the creation in 1996 of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in memory of the assassinated publisher of the Colombian newspaper El Espectador.
The following May 3, 1997, the first World Press Freedom Prize was awarded by Mr. Mayor to Gao Yu, a Chinese journalist in prison for reporting economic development statistics that her government had classified as state secrets. Resisting official Chinese threats to suspend participation in UNESCO, the Director-General established with that first award the principle of the complete independence of the jury's choice for the prize. His successor, Koïchiro Matsuura, has reaffirmed his attachment to the jury's independence.
Arab journalists, holding their regional seminar in Sana'a, Yemen, in January 1996, spoke out in their Declaration against the setting by governments of informal "red lines" or taboos that create extralegal limits on what the press may cover. They also called for court suits against the news media to be tried under civil law, not as criminal cases. Public media, they said, should be internationally funded "only where they are editorially independent" and enjoy constitutional press freedom guarantees. And, the Arab journalists said, State-owned broadcasters and news agencies should have "statutes of journalistic and editorial independence". Each of those demands would, if followed, represent a minor revolution for press freedom, not only in the Arab world. Governmental endorsement of those principles has set them down as guidelines for the international community.
Finally, European journalists closed the cycle of regional meetings in Sofia, Bulgaria, in September 1997, with a call for the then-emerging news media using the new information and communication technologies such as the Internet to be "afforded the same freedom of expression protections as traditional media." The European journalists stated that "any attempts to draw up standards and guidelines should come from journalists themselves" -- not from governmental authorities. Broadcasting regulatory authorities, they said, "must be fully independent of government."
The European journalists also called upon the UN to make Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights binding on the world's governments: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, and regardless of frontiers". That call to implement and to put into practice the promise of Article 19 was a fitting conclusion to the round of regional journalists’ seminars called to reinforce the independence of the press. The principles contained in the successive Declarations fleshed out in concrete and contemporary terms the meaning of Article 19.
It is hard to measure in precise terms the practical effect of the Windhoek Declaration in the world beyond Africa. But what is clear is that it created a dynamic in which journalists everywhere could feel that their press freedom demands had the support of their colleagues elsewhere and the legitimacy of formal backing by the world's governments through their representatives in the UN system. While authoritarians continue to try to curb the press, the Windhoek and subsequent Declarations have created counterpressures against would-be press controllers.
Much remains to be done. The press controllers keep inventing new pretexts to limit press freedom. Many old forms of limitation need to be further challenged. But, thanks to the process in which Windhoek was seminal, new energy has been given to the uphill struggle to maintain and enlarge press freedom in the world.
The press in more countries is free or freer than it was ten years ago, even if there have also been setbacks. But the pressure has clearly been building on the side of more freedom of the press. It must be maintained, and the spirit of Windhoek has given heart to those who would keep up that pressure.