HH Sheikha Mozah Nasser al-Misnad made an impassioned argument for freedom of the press and expression yesterday.
Addressing the closing ceremony of the Unesco ‘World Press Freedom Day,’ Sheikha Mozah argued that “freedom is not an attribute specific to just one civilisation, but it is a human value – one that I believe is the driving force behind the making of human history.”
Sheikha Mozah was the last to speak at the event, which included a prize-giving ceremony during which assassinated Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga was posthumously awarded the Unesco/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for 2009.
Joe Thloloe, the chairman of the Unesco jury for deciding the winner of the prize, gave an emotional speech about Wickrematunga’s efforts to promote freedom of the press in Sri Lanka, as well as his unerring commitment to spreading the truth about the political situation in the country in spite of constant threats to his safety.
“We deliberated for two months about who should win the award, but the winner was head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates from the very start,” he said, adding “personal courage is at the core of all great journalists – he knew the risks but continued to tell the story of Sri Lankan suffering and mankind’s suffering.”
Thloloe also referred to the editorial Wickrematunga wrote before his death, talking about the way in which he often opposed the government, fully aware of the danger he was putting his life in by doing so.
“I hope one day that this award will not go to an assassinated or jailed journalist,” Thloloe argued, “just because there won’t be any in the world.”
Unesco Director General Koichiro Matsuura, in his speech, described the event as historical as it is the first time it has been held in the Arab region.
On the subject of Wickrematunga’s murder, Matsuura said: “His brutal assassination was not only a loss for his family, friends and country, but also for journalism and freedom of expression throughout the world.”
Unfortunately, Wickrematunga’s widow was unable to attend the ceremony due to unforeseen circumstances, but her niece collected the certificate and $35,000 prize and read out her emotionally powerful statement in her absence.
The discussion of Wickrematunga’s efforts to ensure the flow of information to his readers created a sense of poignancy when Sheikha Mozah took the floor. She gave a fitting defence of freedom of the press as a human value, which combined with education, serves as essential aspects of human identity.
“The role of a responsible and professional press, as well as the role of education, to bring positions closer and bridge the gap, is essential,” she stated, adding: “This in my view is the path towards achieving reconciliation among people and cultures.”
“Reconciliation, however, should not be tactical,” she continued, “rather it stems from a strategic vision aimed at achieving the objective of living in harmony on the planet. We should forget the past, but benefit from its lessons in order to build the future.”
“We cannot be interested in achieving the principle of education for everyone, raising its quality and supporting critical thinking and analytical research without having in parallel a journalistic path with the same objectives and beliefs,” she added.
Her Highness then referred to her “Towards Responsible Media” campaign, to combat media illiteracy for the next generation “who will carry the torch of combating the challenges of this millennium.”
She also mentioned the Doha Declaration – a document produced by the Doha Centre for Media Freedom and Unesco for this event, presenting recommendations for what needs to be done to improve press freedom throughout the world.
“The commitment to issues of righteousness, freedom and development requirements necessitates that issues such as armed conflict, the environment and the dangers threatening it, illiteracy, famine and HIV, and other issues, the existence and worsening of which contradict the values of this millennium, be given top priority on the media agenda,” argued Sheikha Mozah.
“This is the only way to achieve the committed, free, professional and responsible media which we are all seeking, without the influence of ideology or other factors – I hope this event can achieve this,” she concluded.
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