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Towards a “world free speech day”

No one could disagree with a global day dedicated to “press” freedom, as marked around the world on Saturday 3 May. Under the auspices of UNESCO, and as agreed by the UN General Assembly a decade or so ago, the 3 May every year is “World Press Freedom Day”.

An important cause, but the very nomenclature suggests a static, if not backward-looking, understanding. The concept needs updating. Because even if you allow that “press freedom” really means “media freedom” (i.e including broadcast and online), there’s still a partially archaic perspective at work.

Yes, of course, there are indeed institutions of mass communication (“media”) that need to have their freedom protected (or won, in many cases). This refers to not just mainstream media institutions, but also to community media.

And yes, it is also the case that “freedom” for media institutions specifically, still holds today even in countries where millions of new players have entered the “media” game -– especially through websites. Even there, institutions of mass communication¸ especially where they include critical journalism within their mix, need protection from all kinds of interference.

It’s also not just about protection for professional journalists, but also for the increasing numbers of people whose voices are being factored into the media via comments on media content (sms, or blog), or via citizen journalism contributions to the same media institutions.

Of course, all media also need not just freedom from problematic constraints (negative), but also freedom to do something, like becoming strong enough to communicate with optimum effectiveness (positive).

All that, however, is the world as it was … and, in some places, is now (for a temporary period).

What’s changing is that mass messaging is no longer the sole preserve of the media as institutions. Society more broadly is becoming mediatised.

But, on the principle that media freedom is not something greater than the freedom of individuals, so too it should apply to non–media persons engaged in publishing all manner of content (incidentally, or as a core activity) — such as publishing by businesses or NGOs, as well as individuals and social networks.

In other words, in an age where media are less and less the key institutions of the public sphere, there is less cause for singling them out. Instead, the day will come when rather than a “World Press Freedom Day”, it will make better sense to have a “World Freedom of Expression Day”.

Not everyone will be a journalist in the sense of producing ethical reportage and commentary; but huge numbers will be producing mass communications — practising free speech in the public arena.

To date, each citizen has had an indirect stake in press (and media) freedom; the future will give them a direct stake as well.

That’s something like Thoughtleader writ large — and great cause to celebrate, and defend, as an integral part of 3 May.