The most important function of journalism in a society is to deliver the information to the public. It is an important part of the democratic system, as it brings transparency and provides citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives and their governments. Press freedom is essential for ensuring public access to information. This freedom is imperiled by unpunished reprisals against journalists and civic activists, which the UN already documents, as it should.
Society is making it harder for journalists to remain credible. The world needs journalists because they are committed to finding truth and protecting citizens.
In many countries, the free flow of information is possible without recourse to attacks against independent journalists. In some countries, there are no independent journalists at all. And even in countries with considerable freedom of expression, there are often both formal and informal barriers against the disclosure, dissemination and discussion of what should be public information.
Journalists, civil society activists, and academic researchers are among the few who will use these legal tools professionally for public-service purposes.
Ensuring access to information will also require extensive training for independent media professionals so they can make the freedom of information requests necessary for investigative journalism, and for all areas of development reporting.
While more than a hundred of the UN’s member states have enacted their own access to information laws, most of these laws have been passed only recently and in many countries, effective implementation has barely begun. Even in the long-established democracies of the West, legal recognition of the public’s right to information is a relatively recent development.
This new commitment has potentially transformative implications for the free flow of information and independent media development worldwide. United Nations believes that everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state; and any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights. Ensuring access will require extensive training for independent media to make requests needed for investigative journalism.
The world’s governments have never before jointly recognized the principle that people should have the right to all information in government hands – unless officials can show why specific information should not be public, whether for privacy or national security or other demonstrably legitimate reasons.
This new commitment has potentially transformative implications for the free flow of information and independent media development worldwide.
That latter clause underscores the principle that “public access to information” should include access to any information relevant to people’s rights, and by extension to national and global development, including information from privately held corporations and other nongovernmental sources.
And just as all countries can do better in reducing inequalities or strengthening women’s rights and environmental protection, so too can all countries do more to “ensure public access to information.”
For most developing countries, and for many marginalized communities in more developed economies, ensuring public access to information will require more than just legal reforms. It will also require closing the digital divide, with the ultimate goal being universal and free (or at least affordable) internet services, and ensuring the world’s online information resources are open to everybody.
This objective is addressed by the new UN goals to “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries.”
UN member-states still have to agree on a set of indicators to monitor the sustainable development agenda’s goals and targets. This requires different national priorities, with different metrics, from expanding Internet access and legal reforms to systematizing the online publication of official information. These different national needs and starting points should be acknowledged in this UN reporting process. Let’s hope that the UN member states make promise of free and open information, by and for all and ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms.
It is common knowledge that American and Russian approach to journalism is very different. One of the biggest differences is in the amount of space given to international news. In Russia it still remains very high, although some trends suggest that the Russian media are concentrating more and more on internal issues.
Such a broad informational outlook, while very rare in the United States, is natural and common in the European context. The relative isolation and remoteness of the United States allows its population to be rather indifferent to the tiny nuances and intrigues that seem so overcomplicated and so far away from its day-to-day life. Perhaps for this reason American reporters routinely have to stress the precise location of the sites from which their news stories are being delivered.
Another significant difference between American and Russian journalism is the extent to which an editor will permit the expression of a writer's personal opinion. It is considered in bad taste and evidence of a lack of training for a reporter to impose her or his views on the audience in the U.S. and other democratic countries, where individual sovereignty, seen as encompassing intellectual independence, is valued most of all. Yet for the sake of fairness, we need to admit that such an attitude was not always evident in practice.
In the Russian press, the presentations of personal comments, evaluations, and remarks of reporters are still a common practice. Although some news services have taken the completely opposite approach, aiming for an objective account of events, this trend has not become dominant.
A third difference between Russian and American journalism concerns training and specialization. A reporter in the United States is typically considered to possess universal competence, implying that he or she can cover local news or entertainment, legal affairs or the economy, more or less successfully depending on the particular assignment. Russian journalists, on the other hand, confine themselves to a major area of expertise, which they choose early in their careers. Their training is thus quite extensive and within a rather narrow area of application, as opposed to the American standards by which reporters are usually armed with broader and more theoretical schemas. This advantage enables American colleagues to migrate from one subject of coverage to another and to adapt quite easily to the stylistic norms of their new beat. By contrast, Russians often demonstrate scholarly knowledge of their field, and it is not unusual for them to possess various relevent academic degrees.
I realize that generalizing in this way is dangerous because of the rapidly changing conditions in contemporary Russian journalism. Today, the government is not the sole owner and publisher of the media, as it used to be in the Soviet period, and intense competition impels reporters and editors to be the first to market their stories, sometimes leading to inaccurate or incorrect news presentations. As there is no longer the need to wait for somebody "up there" to approve information to be published, Russian news services have become more liberal and adept in competing with their foreign counterparts in breaking the story first.
Today, those Russian newspaper readers who are interested can benefit from a great variety of opinions and an occasionally unrestrained freedom of the press that far exceeds the limits accepted here in the United States.
I believe Russian mass media have on the whole managed to escape this problem by virtue of the academic background of those reporting on these issues, as well as the long history of Muslim peoples living inside the country.
Differences between the traditions of Russian and American journalism do exist; I hope I have suggested however that they are not entirely what they are commonly imagined to be. Whether it is possible or necessary to achieve a kind of uniformity in style of news coverage remains an open question. However, in light of the very different historical and social realities of the respective societies, the more interesting question may be if, for the time being, this is entirely desirable.