SRSG Lyons at the World Press Freedom Day 2021 ceremony

SRSG Lyons at the World Press Freedom Day 2021 ceremony

5 May 2021

SRSG Lyons at the World Press Freedom Day 2021 ceremony

3 May 2021 - KABUL- The following is a transcript of the closing remarks of the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, at the World Press Freedom Day 2021 ceremony

Closing remarks delivered by the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons at the at the World Press Freedom Day 2021 ceremony
[as delivered]

Your Excellency Acting Minister of Information and Culture

Deputy Minister of the State Ministry of Peace

Representatives from the Presidents Communications Committee

Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, NAI, UNESCO

Representatives of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission,

Distinguished guests, but most importantly, members of the media,

I think it’s rather appropriate that today we are celebrating World Press Freedom Day during the holy month of Ramadan, because Islam, and most certainly the Quran, emphasizes the importance of knowledge, of how we all most do our best to be as informed as we can be, so that we can contribute as much as we can, to society.  And where do we turn to often for knowledge, for awareness, for information? To our media, to our journalists, to the people who take the time to research an issue to understand it deeply and pull it together and present to us in a way that matters for us.

So, it’s appropriate that today and the holy month of Ramadan that we celebrate World Press Freedom Day. Around the world as we see media being challenged in many countries, as it is here in Afghanistan. I have to say that watching that incredible video just now was very moving, and I think the all of us, if the families permit, we should make sure that we are passing that video on to many others who we know need to see it. You just saw a video of my boss, the Secretary General of the United Nations. So, I will begin by quoting him, he said,

“When media workers are targeted, societies as a whole pay a price.”
These words of his where echoed many years ago now, but they are still true today, and they resonate for everyone here in this room and for Afghans. I am going to go further than my boss, the Secretary General, and I am going to say that when media workers are injured, the whole society is injured. And it can be a fatal blow.

When I look at the media landscape in Afghanistan, I see one of the most vibrant media communities in this region, made up of highly committed professionals that embody and express and voice the desires and the realities of their diverse population, that they represent and wish to support. But sadly, in spite of that incredible mission and vocation of Afghan media, I also see a shocking number of terrible crimes against individual reporters and an ongoing battle between responsible journalism, providing solid information to the citizens of Afghanistan and on the other side, disinformation and hate speech against professional journalists.

And I am also seeing a deepening economic challenge for the media industry, which we should all be concerned about.
All of this leads to what we must all be profoundly paying attention to, and that is the potential erosion of Afghanistan’s pluralistic, independent – one of the most pluralistic and independent in the region -  and respected media sector.

We need to recognize the threat and re-double our efforts to counter this threat. It is not just a threat to media, it is a threat to Afghan citizens, to Afghan society.  We all must play a role in nurturing and protecting the free press.
The ministries here today, I congratulate them and encourage them to continue in their work and equally the other representatives of the Government who we know are committed to following up on the many cases that have been mentioned today.

We all have a role to play here. The rule and truth must be that the protection of the free press is the protection of ourselves as citizens and the protection of society as a whole. I call on all, citizens, Government, political leaders, civil society, business community, to defend the rights of journalists. This work, your work, is so critical to help cut out a better future for all Afghans, and frankly not just for Afghans, but the whole world because the world does care about Afghanistan and is watching.
The United Nations is determined to play its part.

As an entirely civilian workforce in Afghanistan, and as a workforce that has been in Afghanistan for some 70 years, and as the Special Representative of Secretary General, let me state clearly: the United Nations will be staying the course with the people of Afghanistan and we will be working alongside you, the members of the media. Indeed we are going to be intensifying our our efforts to support the peace process, and so to in order to ensure that the peace process moves along, we will be deepening our efforts to work to support the human rights of every Afghan, and this most certainly, includes a free press.

We will continue our work in Doha on the peace process, we will continue to work here with the Afghan government and political leaders on the peace process with civil society, members of the media. We will be working with the regional countries as well, the neighbors, because for them a peace process must be also successful. We will continue to work with the international donors, to reaffirm a continued commitment to investing in peace in Afghanistan and we will be working with the Taliban and others to ensure that the peace table in Doha and potentially a future meeting in Istanbul continue. There is only one pathway, and that’s the pathway of peace.

Over recent months I have been deeply troubled by the number of Afghan media workers, including many women, who have been intimidated or killed and as well concerned about a culture of possible impunity. So, I was very happy here today when the Vice President spoke about the number of cases that are being investigated. I am encouraged by this, and all this need to continue to stand, to emphasize that this must never happen and when it happens it must receive a serious response from all the security agencies, from the Government and indeed from all of us.

You may know that, as documented earlier this year, the UNAMA’s Special Report on the Killing of Human Rights Defenders and Media Workers, identified an alarming level of harm inflicted on the media. Frankly, I was shocked by the results and we speak about it often in our discussions with the member States of the United Nations.  

The deliberate targeting of journalists has had a chilling effect because it doesn’t just impact the journalists, it doesn’t just impact the media, it impacts all of society because the media is a voice for society. And that voice cannot be intimidated, cannot be silenced. At a time when Afghans most need the media, most need an informed and open debate on the future that they want with the peace talks.

So, allow me to convey the United Nations’ deepest respect to those many journalists in Afghanistan who have lost their lives in the service to their people, and our heartfelt condolences to their families, some of whom you saw on the screen. We are in their debt.  And, I want to say that these losses they are no less heroes than those who have died in others’ service to the Afghan people.

Without better protection and more robust measures to hold perpetrators to account, it is not just individual reporters who suffer, it will ultimately be the vibrant media sector itself and of course, by extension, the people of Afghanistan, and free citizens around the world.

Let me restate, Press Freedom is a source of immense good for society.

A free and independent journalist, as the Secretary General said, is an ally of any free society.  Accurate and timely information, quite literally, saves lives, as we saw recently with the COVID pandemic. Throughout the world the media is helping to save lives by giving information to people about this pandemic in a timely manner.

A free press can hold to account as well, those who would aspire to assume or wield power and authority. Transparency, scrutiny, all of that, which the media works so hard to reveal contributes to an open society, bolstering good governance, curbing corruption, and building public trust in public institutions. We know this, we know that the media need to do this for us. We rely on the media as citizens, we rely on the media, as governments.

And, therefore, all public institutions need to display real leadership by proactively disclosing information that is of fundamental interest to citizens, who in times of crisis are looking to those public institutions, through the media, for trust, reassurance, and clarity. And so, again, I congratulate the State Ministry of Peace and the Ministry of Information and Culture for the work that they are doing to that end and working with the media. Being informed, builds up in the citizen, a sense of belonging and ownership of a shared future.

So today, on World Press Freedom Day, in this Holy month of Ramadan, I call on all to defend and protect the rights of journalists, whose work truly plays a critical role in building a better society not just for Afghans, but for citizens everywhere in the world.  
It’s hard for me to conclude my remarks without, after hearing some of the comments this morning, about your fallen colleagues, people who have given the ultimate sacrifice and those who have left because of the intimidation, they have had to leave Afghanistan. I must say that your dedication and your courage gives hope to all of us and makes us all to want to do better at the jobs we are doing.

So, all I can say to you is that you are needed now more than ever before, and we, members of the United Nations family, will be staying and working alongside you.

Thank you!