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Freedom of speech as a key element of the development agenda

Freedom of speech as a key element of the development agenda Efficient and effective governments, quality education, advanced public policies, and combating corruption are all central to the most developed societies, and are simply not possible without freedom of speech…

Guilherme Canela*/ Regional, July 2014

Versión en español | Versão em Português

What is development? This is a question that probably has a significant number of possible answers. In response to this situation, Wolfgang Sachs and his colleagues have created a dictionary in order to clarify a plethora of concepts linked to development.

Needless to say, the importance of freedom of speech for the development agenda depends on the definition placed on development.

However, if for us (as is the case of the United Nations) a developed society is one that among other aspects: (a) can be called democratic (guaranteed freedoms; free and fair elections; accountable governments, among other elements) and (b) promotes and protects human rights, then it is clear that freedom of speech and the press play a central role in propelling more developed societies.

The right to freedom of speech in its triple challenge of ensuring the search for, reception and transmission of information, ideas and opinions by any means and platforms offered and still offers everyone a set of tools that are central to the processes of development: production and distribution of information; production and distribution of knowledge; participation in the drafting of public policies; monitoring of governments through accountability mechanisms; and the protection of other rights.

Efficient and effective governments, quality education, advanced public policies, and combating corruption are all central to the most developed societies, and are simply not possible without freedom of speech. A comprehensive set of past and present thinkers, in the from Thomas Jefferson in his analysis of the initial formation of the U.S. government to Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in the Americas, John Stuart Mill in his general analysis of freedom and Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Robert Putnam in their numerous studies on development processes, have all been very clear: there is no democracy or development without freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

The media in general and journalism in particular play a critical role in driving development. Ideally, these include: a) reporting with context; b) contributing towards the inclusion of central themes of the public sphere of discussion in the agenda; and c) they are the watchdogs of government (and other actors in the development process) and therefore play a key role in the whole process of accountability.

Regarding this situation, the High-Level Panel appointed by the UN Secretary General to discuss the post-2015 agenda emphasized the importance of freedom of speech for the new development agenda:

«The rule of law, freedom of speech and the media, open political choice and active citizen participation, access to justice, non-discriminatory and accountable governments and public institutions help drive development and have their own intrinsic value. They are both a means to an end and an end in themselves”

In the Human Development Report 2013, the United Nations Development Programme adopted the same approach, stressing the importance of free speech in the construction of public policies.

“Unless people can participate meaningfully in the events and processes that shape their lives, national human development paths will be neither desirable nor sustainable. People should be able to influence policymaking and results—and young people in particular should be able to look forward to greater economic opportunities and political participation and accountability.” [which is why freedom of speech is key]

In their joint message for this year’s World Press Freedom Day, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, and the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, underlined the importance of the media in order to achieve these goals:

“World Press Freedom Day highlights the importance of independent, free and pluralistic media to protecting and promoting these rights.”

Global civil society is attentive to this process. More than 190 organizations signed a joint communiqué highlighting the importance of including these issues in the discussion of the post-2015 development agenda.

It is important to note that we are not talking about any form of freedom of speech. We are talking about that which is in line with international standards. It is to have full free, pluralistic and independent media; independent regulatory bodies for the implementation of laws regulating communications; an effective security policy for journalists; a fully operational democratic rule of law; a civil society that is strong and independent of economic and political power; to have a public, community and commercial media; to have good laws on access to public information; to have the right to demonstrate and guaranteed participation, along with open and accountable governments.

In this sense, the inclusion of freedom of speech in post-2015 development goals also requires a discussion on the mechanisms needed to monitor progress in this area. These are, for example, the Media Development Indicators and Journalists’ Safety Indicators, both provided by UNESCO.

The main focus, however, is to emphasize that in order to achieve more developed societies there is a need to have societies with greater freedom of speech and, therefore, in the discussion of the post-2015 agenda, it is essential to open more spaces so that this issue can be considered in all its complexity. New debates on freedom of speech and the future of the Internet and discussions regarding the World Summit on the Information Society offer more arguments for those who, like UNESCO, recognize the importance of considering the agenda of freedom of speech as a sine qua non variable in the post-2015 equation.

*Guilherme Canela, UNESECO communication and information advisor to Mercosur and Chile

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