CPJ urges free expression be part of post-2015 MDG agenda

H.E. Mr. Macharia Kamau
Ambassador of Kenya to the United Nations
Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kenya to the United Nations
866 United Nations Plaza, Room 304
New York, NY 10017

H.E. Mr. Csaba Kőrösi
Ambassador of Hungary to the United Nations
Permanent Mission of the Republic of Hungary to the United Nations 
227 East 52 Street
New York, NY 10022 

April 23, 2014

Dear Ambassadors Kamau and Kőrösi,

I am writing to you in your capacity as the co-chairmen of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals.

Your work and the recommendations of your group will help frame the discussion in the coming year as United Nations member states seek to agree a set of objectives to succeed the Millennium Development Goals beyond 2015.

We at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) believe it is vital that your report to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later this year include freedom of expression and access to information and independent media as part of the post-2015 agenda.

For more than 30 years, CPJ, an independent, nonprofit organization, has advocated for press freedom and defended journalists worldwide. In that time we have monitored and recorded press freedom conditions globally and observed the correlation between media freedom and economic and social development.

There is a growing body of research by academic and multilateral institutions, including UNESCO, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the World Bank, that sees free, independent, and diverse media as the bedrock upon which such vital development outcomes as poverty eradication, economic growth, transparency, gender equality, strong institutions, and vibrant civil society are built.

We were heartened to see that the 27 prominent political leaders and experts commissioned by the U.N. to suggest ways of ending poverty placed freedom of expression and access to information at the center of any strategy to improve the way people are governed and served by the state. More than 190 civil society groups have similarly called on the U.N. to ensure government accountability and independent media are at the heart of the new global development framework.

The Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda published in May last year laid out a path to end extreme poverty. Titled “A New Global Partnership: eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development,” the report suggested 12 new goals, the tenth of which is the promotion of “good governance and effective institutions.”

Two of the targets linked with that goal are to: “ensure that people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest, and access to independent media and information,” and “guarantee the public’s right to information and access to government data.”

We note that your working group has reflected this goal in its document, which lists focus areas currently under discussion. The last of these, focus area 19, states: “Governance, rule of law, capable institutions are both outcome and enabler, advancing all three pillars of sustainable development and the post-2015 development agenda.”

Below this heading you list a number of objectives including:

f.          improved public access to publicly owned information;

j.          freedom of media, association, and speech;

CPJ believes that good governance should be a distinct focus area in its own right in the report that you send to the secretary general, given its crucial role in all forms of economic, political, and social development.

Underpinning good governance are freedom of expression, which is already enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, access to independent media, and access to information. These and other elements contribute to creating the enabling environment that allows societies to thrive. They should be duly recognized in your report.

The link between economic and social development and press freedom has long been recognized and referenced in the works of such Nobel laureate economists as Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz and senior U.N. advisers like Jeffrey Sachs. Sen says a free press gives the poor a voice and provides the information necessary for rational economic decision-making. The World Bank has published studies showing that press freedom ensures that scarce resources go to those who need them most.

Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn often underscored the connection between press freedom and increased transparency and accountability which helps fight corruption, improve public health efforts, support market development and improve incomes, infant mortality, and adult literacy. As he wrote in a 2004 op-ed: “A free press not only serves as an outlet for expression, but it also provides a source of accountability, a vehicle for civic participation, and a check on official corruption. A free press also helps build more effective and stronger institutions.” As far back as 1999, in a speech to the World Press Freedom Committee, he noted: “A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption, and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.”

In 2006, Harvard professor Pippa Norris tested the assertion of a link between media freedom and governance and concluded: “Overall the analysis lends considerable support to the claims of liberal theorists about the critical role of the free press, as one of the major components of both democracy and good governance.” She adds: “The study therefore confirms many of the assumptions about the role of independent journalism… including the core argument that the free press matters, both intrinsically and instrumentally. Policies which eradicate limits on the free exchange of information and communication, whether due to state censorship, intimidation and harassment of journalists, or private media oligopolies, therefore have important consequences for those seeking to strengthen both good political and human development.”

As recently as last month UNESCO published a discussion brief that gave the “policy arguments as to why the international community can, with confidence, acknowledge the connection between free, pluralistic, and independent media, and sustainable development.” And the OHCHR has called for the post-2015 agenda to include “a strong accountability framework anchored in human rights standards” and in particular the guarantees of freedom of expression and information.

We believe that these and numerous other studies not only highlight the fact that access to information in all its forms and freedom of expression are measurable, but also point irrefutably to the connection between independent media and access to information and good governance. A free press acts a watchdog, providing scrutiny of those in power both in the public and private sector; as such it helps furnish the transparency that multilateral institutions and direct foreign investors demand in this new, interconnected world.  A free press also provides citizens with independent information, data, and knowledge, and serves as a platform for cultural expression, political debate and empowerment of minorities and the poor. Any set of development goals that did not take this into account would be hobbled from the start.

Your excellencies, we believe that U.N. member states have an opportunity to address an omission in the 2000 Millennium Development Goals which did not include good governance and the conditions necessary for its achievement. Since those initial goals were set, the world has undergone an information technology revolution. Hundreds of millions of citizens below the age of 30 now expect access to independent information and a multiplicity of voices thanks to the Internet. Technology has given them the chance to participate in their national economic, political, and cultural lives in innovative and profitable ways.

We urge you to serve this growing constituency and unleash the talents of billions of people by including freedom of expression and access to information in your recommendations.


Robert Mahoney
Deputy Director