Press freedom is a human right

I attended a potluck reception for my daughter’s first-grade class last week, and amid the banter about the economic meltdown and arranging play dates I spent a lot of time answering the inevitable questions about what I do for a living.

I’m used to it. Defending the rights of journalists around the world is not a normal job description.

But I’m always happy to talk about CPJ and the important work that journalists are doing in gathering the news in so many repressive countries. I was struck, however, when a very well informed parent asked me if press freedom was a human right.

It reminded me that 60 years after the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the anniversary is Wednesday), and 27 years since CPJ was founded, we have a great deal of work to do to raise awareness that the work of the media is protected under international law.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “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.”

It is this language that gives CPJ standing to raise our voice on behalf of our colleagues when they are jailed, attacked, or killed because of their work.

The language is also prescient. A few days ago CPJ released its annual imprisoned list, showing for the first time that nearly half of journalists jailed around the world worked online. We should be thankful that the authors of Article 19 used language anticipating the rise of new forms of communication and a global media.

Article 19 has special meaning for me because I believe that freedom of expression is the underpinning of all other political rights. Totalitarian societies are structured to control information because repressive leaders know their greatest enemy is an informed public.

Today, there are 125 journalists in jail around the world in places like China, Cuba, Eritrea, Burma, and Uzbekistan. This is a reminder that we have a long way to go to turn the stirring words of Article 19 into real protection for the world’s journalists.

Yes, press freedom is a fundamental human right. It’s our job at CPJ to make sure the world knows it.