Keeping the spirit of the Windhoek Declaration alive by reinforcing Information as a Public Good

Keeping the spirit of the Windhoek Declaration alive by reinforcing Information as a Public Good

The evolution of the Windhoek Declaration over three decades is reflective of how the media sector is able to understand the critical issues impacting on it and adapt itself to the changing landscape. Guilherme Canela and Andrea Cairola reflect on the opportunities the Windhoek+30 Declaration offer to reinforce values that will sustain its credibility and safely maintain its position as the Fourth Estate.

The Windhoek +30 Declaration was developed in the context of a media industry in crisis. Not only has the Covid-19 pandemic amplified ongoing threats to the safety of journalists and crackdowns on press freedom, but also intensified existential economic threats.

“Just at the time that we need an independent, credible journalism – a free press – the business model is being undermined,” said Nobel laureate economist, Joseph Stiglitz, at the launch event of The Highlights of the World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development report, itself guided by the principles of the Windhoek +30 Declaration.

These principles highlight the need to address the following key challenges: the economic viability of journalism; opacity of Internet companies; and the need to improve media and information literacy among citizens to foster informed engagement with digital communications issues. The 2021 World Press Freedom Day Global Conference thus highlighted the need for protecting information as a public good holistically, involving over 3,000 participants from over 150 countries representing a wide variety of stakeholder groups.

Given the urgency of the challenges facing our information landscapes, it has been encouraging to follow the impact and influence already achieved by the Declaration. Especially, considering the fact that it has been less than a year since the Participants of the 2021 World Press Freedom Day Global Conference adopted the “Windhoek +30 Declaration”, thirty years after the first landmark meeting that brought forth the 1991 Windhoek Declaration on Free, Independent, and Pluralistic Press.

Endorsed by UNESCO member states, acknowledged by the United Nations General Assembly, and used as a reference point for a wide variety of international actors, advocates for press freedom must build on the momentum of Windhoek +30 to continue making the case that information is a public good.

The history of the Windhoek process is in itself an illustration of the ever-evolving progressive movement to tackle challenges to media development and press freedom. This history can be traced to the first UNESCO seminar held in Windhoek in 1991, gathering African independent journalists which produced the original 1991 Windhoek Declaration on Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press, paving the way for a vast array of media reforms and progress. It was on 3 May and in its honour the World Press Freedom Day has been proclaimed – becoming an annual rallying point for all press freedom actors around the world.

The spirit of the Windhoek Declaration was not only carried forward in a number of subsequent regional declarations, but also through expanding its focus areas. In 2001, the Windhoek seminar adopted the African Charter on Broadcasting. In 2011, the Declaration turned its attention to right to information. For Windhoek +30, reflecting digital and economic changes in the media industry, the digital ecosystem was taken into greater consideration for the formulation of the Declaration’s key message that information must be protected as a public good.

Windhoek+30 as a catalyst for protecting information as a public good

“Today it is not just a reminder of the past, it is a commitment to keep the spirit of the Windhoek declaration alive”, said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of the Windhoek+30 Conference.

In November 2021, the Windhoek+30 Declaration also became the first of its kind to be endorsed by UNESCO member states during the organisation’s annual General Conference. Its impact has extended even further, contributing to build a growing coalition for a greater political acceptance of information as a public good. On the same month as the declaration’s endorsement, the UN General Assembly took note with appreciation of the Windhoek +30 Declaration, before approving by consensus the Resolution on the “Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.”

Earlier in the year, the African Journalists Leaders’ Conference (organised by the Federation of African Journalists) also endorsed the Declaration through specifically referring to it in the adopted Accra Declaration on Building Stronger Unions to Enhance Journalism and Media Freedom in Africa, urging African governments to support the implementation of its recommendations.

In September  2021, in the annual State of the Union address, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen also evoked:

“Information is a public good. We must protect those who create transparency – the journalists.”

The way forward

It is thus clear that Windhoek+30 has already resonated with its intended audience – governments, international organisations, civil society, academics, journalists, and all other actors implicated in the global fight for press freedom. That does not mean it is time to sit back and consider its implementation as a done deal. Thirty years of the Windhoek process has taught us of the need to constantly reevaluate global priorities and the methods we use to address them.

During this year’s World Press Freedom Day, taking place in Uruguay in May 2022, a specific conference track is foreseen to discuss the further implementation of the measures outlined in the Windhoek +30 Declaration on Information as a Public Good. It will be a multi-stakeholder approach, as it is vital that as many perspectives as possible – in terms of regional, thematic, sectoral, and gender diversity – are taken into account when transforming the principles into action.

It is also crucial to keep in mind how these principles fit in with broader long-term agendas. The Declaration itself emphasises that the concept of “information as a public good” is both a means and an end for the fulfilment of collective global aims, including the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

Indeed, information as a public good is but one puzzle piece in a wider agenda for ensuring that all people have access to the most fundamental building blocks of our societies. In the report “Our Common Agenda”, the United Nations Secretary-General supports the promotion and protection of global public goods that deliver equitably and sustainably for all in a variety of areas, including in the digital realm. Support for independent, public interest media is explicitly mentioned as a vital step for ensuring access to quality information for all.

The spirit of the original Windhoek declaration thus lives on. Not only in its updated iterations, but in the continuous and tireless work of global press freedom advocates who implement its principles – not least journalists themselves. It is our duty to continue this work to turn information as a public good from a headline to a reality.

About The Author

Guilherme Canela

Guilherme Canela holds the position of chief of the section of Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.