The African Union is celebrating this year, 2012, as the year of Shared Values. These values are accepted and shared by all member States of our Union. Among them, there is one which is a fundamental human right entrenched in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights: Freedom of Speech. This value is of critical importance because it feeds democracy and consolidates good governance, which our world needs.
The demonstrations that occurred in 2011 in several African countries, mostly in North Africa or the more recent mobilization of the Senegalese people during the February and March Presidential election confirm, once more, that freedom of speech is indeed one of the most invaluable human rights, and a source of social transformation.
Most importantly, all those who believed that their societies could evolve and develop without freedom of speech learned, at their own expense, that progress must follow the path of freedom and the respect of human rights, otherwise their citizens might turn against them.
Meanwhile, the freedom of speech that was suppressed, for too long, made way for the freedom of the press that we are celebrating today. In this context, I can only fully embrace the theme that was chosen by the United Nations for this year’s celebration: « New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies ».
Indeed, new and louder voices are always heard and their number is constantly increasing in the streets and particularly through traditional media and social networks to demand that their voices be taken into account and their rights respected, so that the people may regain their dignity and enjoy their citizenship. Voices have been raised to demand change regardless of the risks and perils, and have succeeded.
I would therefore, at this point, pay my respects to those who lost their lives in breaking the wall of silence to inform their fellow citizens, moved by the desire to see their society evolve into something better. It is through access to information, freedom of speech and freedom of the press that citizens feel that they are part and parcel of the life of their countries; since they are in a better position to perceive the social, political and economic agendas of their environment.
With new technologies such as social media, the people and the youth in particular, are rising to protest against all forms of injustice imposed on them and especially against infringements on the freedom of expression and human rights. For it is above all, by words and messages, that human beings exist. To deny this right is simply to suppress the whole concept of democracy. In deed, popular uprisings have introduced a new dimension in relations as well as in communication between the government and the governed.
The “Arab Spring” of the year 2011, marked a turning point with regard to freedom of speech and the press, and I welcome the progress made. Popularizing the use of media and social networks is a valuable opportunity to address the issues raised by the people.
Today, all children aged 7 to 17 years have one or more knowledge of the many social networks available. In addition, the campaigns launched on the web have shown the significance of these new means of communication through their accessibility, their comprehensiveness and their simplicity. They offer the opportunity to share information, facilitate access and dissemination, for greater transparency.
The celebration of World Press Freedom Day is also an opportunity for us to condemn in the strongest terms, attacks and unacceptable treatment practiced here and there, on journalists just because they have attempted to do their work well; this commemoration gives us an opportunity to honor all those who have lost their lives in carrying out their mission.
The African Union, which has signed the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI), at the end of the first Pan African Conference on Access to Information, held in Cape Town in September last year, will spare no effort to help strengthen the security and protection of journalists along with freedom of expression which are the natural nurseries of freedom of the press; We will also continue efforts in the cooperation with Member States, to adapt to the new realities and needs of the populations, in monitoring the laws enforced in the States, on access to information and freedom of expression.
* MESSAGE FROM DR. JEAN PING, CHAIRPERSON OF THE AFRICAN UNION COMMISSION, ON THE OCCASION OF WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY – May 3, 2012