Today marks the last World Press Freedom Day of the twentieth century. On this occasion we issue a joint appeal to all governments, regional and local authorities to renew their commitment to guarantee the safety of journalists and to ensure that crimes against journalists do not go unpunished. Each time a journalist is killed or attacked, society at large suffers a grievous wound. For whenever one journalist suffers violence, intimidation or arbitrary detention because of his or her commitment to conveying the truth, all citizens are robbed of the right to think and act according to their conscience.
Press freedom is a cornerstone of human rights and a guarantee of other freedoms. It encourages transparency and good governance; it ensures that, over and above the mere rule of law, society enjoys the rule of true justice. There are, however, those who still question the value of freedom of speech to their societies; those who argue that it threatens stability and endangers progress; those who still consider freedom of speech an imposition from abroad and not the indigenous expression of every people's demand for freedom.
This argument is never made by the people, but by governments; never by the powerless but by the powerful; never by the voiceless, but by those whose voices are the only ones allowed to be heard. Let us put this argument, once and for all, to the only test that matters: the choice of every people, to know more or know less, to be heard or be silenced, to stand up or kneel down.
Freedom of speech is a right to be fought for, not a blessing to be wished for. But it is more than that: it is a bridge of understanding and knowledge. It is essential for that exchange of ideas between nations and cultures which is a condition for true understanding and lasting cooperation.
We issue our appeal at the end of a century marked by ceaseless struggle for press freedom. It has been a century of numerous abuses of the right to freedom of expression. The continued targeting of journalists demonstrates the need to pursue the struggle with increased vigour. As we prepare to enter a new century and millennium, a thriving local, national and international free press is more important than ever. It underpins the emerging information society and is a driving force for sustainable human development.
Our daily diet of accurate information, whether carried by satellite or ocean cable, still depends on the daily exercise of courage and integrity by journalists, on the tenacity of editorial teams, on the commitment of independent media to carry high the principles of a profession under permanent pressure. On this World Press Freedom Day, we salute their courage and their commitment to the universal pursuit of truth and knowledge.
Secretary-General of the United Nations
Director-General of UNESCO
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights