World Press Freedom Day

By Ivan Arturo Ebergenyi Thorpe

The difficult task of writing history in the present

The United Nations designated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day in 1993. As its name suggests, it is a day set aside to honor the principles of freedom of press and is intrinsically bound to two historical events which took place at different times and in different places.

Far from random, May 3rd was chosen to coincide with the day the Windhoek Declaration which was put together and published in 1991 by African journalists. The resulting statement was produced as a result of a seminar held by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Windhoek, Namibia, in the context of burgeoning democracy movements taking place after a series of political crises which broke out all across Africa in the 80s. In this document, the principles of free, independent press were referenced as essential to the development and consolidation of healthy, participatory democracy, which seemed like the direction the continent was heading at that moment. Consequently, World Press Freedom Day was declared by UNESCO in 1993, based on the same principles elaborated in Windhoek.

WPFD logo

The other event upon which World Press Freedom Day hinges is the murder of Colombian journalist Guillermo Cano Isaza at the hands of local drug barons in 1986. An unwavering reporter for the Colombian daily El Espectador, Cano’s coverage sparked the ire of several elements of the Colombian criminal underworld. In his honor, UNESCO created the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 1997, to be granted to journalists who have made outstanding contributions to the defence and/or promotion of press freedom around the world.

Journalism can be said to be as old as history itself. From ancient Roman Acta Diurna, to Chinese Han dynasty tipao, to the 16th Century Venetian Notizie scritte, to the 20th Century New York Times. This field has occasionally been described as the work of “historians of the present”.

Mexico’s experience with journalism, in its more modern sense, begins with town heralds in the local squares of the cities of the viceroyalty of New Spain in the 16th Century. The arrival of the printing press in 1539 allowed for the production of hojas volantes (lit. “flying papers”), such as the Mercurio Volante, which covered scientific and historical subject matter, edited by local intellectual Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora. The first official newspaper to be founded in New Spain was the short-lived Gaceta de México y Noticias de Nueva España in 1722, which lasted less than a year.

Independence came for Mexico in 1821, with a new Emperor, Agustin de Iturbide, to take the reins of the new nation-state. The Constitution of 1824, enacted after the Emperor’s overthrowing, officially guaranteed freedom of press. Much easier said than appropriately enforced, it is in fact during the multiple Presidential terms of the liberal Benito Juárez, during the second half of the 19th Century, when the Mexican press is believed to have been at its freest and most fruitful, in spite of the fact that not all outlets inclined towards the country’s leader. It is in this period that we see Manuel Payno’s analysis on public debt; Miguel Lerdo de Tejada’s work on economy and commerce; and Melchor Ocampo’s perspectives on the relationship between the State and Church. It is in this period that the press became appreciated as the “Fourth Estate” by Mexican society at large.

During the presidency of Porfirio Díaz (forcefully seized in 1876), the “subsidizing” of papers was resorted to as a clever alternative to flagrant shutdowns, in order to prevent criticism of his lengthy administration.

The same revolution which would depose the Porfiriato would ironically also result in a media establishment which was more professional yet more guarded when it came to criticism of the government. The 90s would see this gradually shift with the end of what seemed like a 70 year single party rule. Journalism can be said to have changed along with Mexico itself, with the 2000s seeing increasing government efforts to usher in a culture of transparency.

It would be naïve to think that it still has been anything but an uphill battle for journalists in this country. The field has experienced many changes for the better and the bolder, especially in Mexico City and its environs. Yet smaller newspapers are still frequently the targets of “offers” of “plomo o plata” (Lit. lead or silver). When they are given a choice, that is.

In our effort to show a side of Mexico that does not usually conform with the – occasionally excessive – negative portrayals from mainstream media outlets, we at México News Network take pains to ensure that our content is reliably sourced and does not fall into “whitewashing” complex or outright negative events. We must be frank in acknowledging that this places our company in a setting that is very different from the very real threats faced by rigorous and uncompromisingly honest members of the press covering delicate matters. We also need to be clear that our efforts to show a different side of this country are in no way meant to lessen this extremely important – and often dangerous – work. Indeed, Reporters Without Borders cites 80 Mexican journalists who have been murdered and 17 disappeared in the last decade.

Indeed, we can be thankful that Mexican journalism has seen the likes of Lydia Cacho, who stands out for her publishing of prominent businessmen and governors’ involvement in pedophilia rings in 2004. Not to mention her ongoing efforts to uncover corruption and to look out for the government’s duty to safeguard the rights of its citizens. The work of people like Cacho is without a doubt a refreshing change from a decades-long culture of government untouchability.

In another more recent and perhaps more disappointing example is the case of Carmen Aristegui. Disappointing, not in her work or principles, but rather because of her recent termination from one of Mexico’s largest radio networks, MVS Radio. Being no stranger to hard-hitting reporting herself, Aristegui headed a team recently best known for revealing the existence of a million dollar home officially owned by Mexico’s first lady and custom built by a contractor with several million dollar contracts for public works projects.

We covered how Aristegui’s (now former) employer, cited her team’s unauthorized use of the company’s logo to endorse MéxicoLeaks – essentially the Mexican version of the more widely known Wikileaks. Aristegui has since declared her intentions to proceed with legal action.

Though each party will of course be entitled to present their own account in a court of law, not a few special reports from other media outlets have cited direct government influence – concerned with her team’s meddling in government books – in securing her termination.

This year, UNESCO has declared the focus of World Press Freedom Day to be the ensuring of independent and accurate reporting; addressing gender imbalance in the field; and the increasingly relevant matter of digital safety.

As inferred by the 1991 Windhoek Declaration, freedom of the press is essential to a healthy participatory democracy. The key word here is participatory. Reflection and the honoring of icons, living or otherwise, is important, but will be for naught if audiences – here read as the citizenry – do not go beyond mere preservation of independent media. In a changing world, we must ensure its evolution.


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