IREX Europe side event discussion at UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2015

The event was a fruitful discussion exploring the common challenges facing freedom of expression in the Eurasian region with experts coming from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Moderated by Mr David McCraw, Vice President & Assistant General Counsel of The New York Times Company, the discussion touched upon numerous key topics relevant to the current crackdown on freedom of expression in the region. The issue of propaganda vis-a-vis the Russia-Ukraine conflict was central to the talk. Taras Shevchenko from the Media Law Institute in Ukraine presented his views on the dangerous role media can play in times of conflict. Taras holds some media from both sides responsible for fuelling the conflict, pushing ordinary citizens to take arms through falsification of events and propaganda. There was discussion over the rights or wrongs of blocking and banning media channels with some in the audience arguing that whilst absolute freedom of expression is paramount, there is a point at which media may no longer be considered as media but as “organs of State Propaganda”, therefore justifying their exclusion. Arzu Geybullayeva, our speaker on Azerbaijan, described the drastically declining human rights and freedom of speech situation in Azerbaijan, highlighting the numerous imprisoned activists and journalists. Jauhien Valoshyn, a reporter with Euroradio from Belarus, exposed the difficulties of conducting investigative reporting under the Lukashenko regime, particularly with regards to exposing corruption. Nadia Azhgikhina, Vice-President of the European Federation of Journalists explained how strengthening legal action in Russia helps promote freedom of expression, and emphasised the importance of solidarity not only within the larger international community but also amongst journalists in Russia and the region.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental principle of any democratic state. International law requires governments to protect this freedom, even when these are seen as a criticism of the government itself. This year’s World Press Freedom Day event, which took place from May 2nd-4th in Riga, Latvia, was centred on the theme "Let Journalism Thrive! Towards Better Reporting, Gender Equality, and Safety in the Digital Age."

The side event discussion was organised in the context of the EU funded Media Freedom Support project and funded with support from the European Union.

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Every year, on May 3rd, UNESCO celebrates press freedom. It is an occasion to inform citizens of violations of press freedom, a sober reminder of the numerous countries around the world where publications continue to be censored, while journalists, editors, and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained, and even murdered.

The event is also an advocacy tool to remind governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and it is a day of support for media, and media professionals worldwide. World Press Freedom day also honours those journalists who have lost their lives in pursuit of the truth.

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