Centenary oration by Irina Bokova

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova gave University of Queensland Centenary Oration at the opening ceremony for World Press Freedom Day. The text of her speech on May 2 follows. Watch the full speech on the WPFD Livestream channel.

Your Excellency Madam Governor, Honourable Attorney General, Professor Bromley, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am truly honoured by the invitation to deliver this Centenary Oration to mark the University of Queensland’s 100th Anniversary, on this, the eve of World Press Freedom Day.

First, allow me to express my gratitude to the Vice-Chancellor, who is not with us today, for his gracious invitation to take part in the anniversary celebrations of this prestigious institution.

I would like to congratulate all those, past and present, who have contributed to making this seat of learning a hub of academic excellence, renowned for its world-class research, and its welcome to students from all over the world
I note that above one of the entrance-ways, in the magnificent sandstone Great Court, are the words “Great is Truth, and Mighty Above all Things”.

This is a noble statement, and an ambition that all of us here today can take to our hearts. No matter where we come from, the acquisition and transmission of knowledge and truth are essential missions for all who strive for freedom of expression and the right to information … rights we celebrate on the World Press Freedom Day.

I am very pleased to acknowledge the presence of so many visitors from the nations of the South Pacific. This is a region that has a proud history of press freedom underpinned by a practical belief in freedom of expression and the peoples’ right to know.

I also express my sincere gratitude to the University’s School of Journalism and Communication, for being instrumental in organizing this year’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day, and indeed for the valuable work it does all year round, teaching the journalists and communications professionals of tomorrow.

Today I will be addressing a subject that is very important to UNESCO, and that is dear to me personally, “Freedom of Information: the right to know.”  I will also take some time to set this in the context of my vision for UNESCO in the 21st century.

UNESCO has been mandated by the United Nations to promote the universal right of freedom of expression and its corollaries: freedom of the press and freedom of information, universal access to information and knowledge.

These are indispensable for the attainment of all human rights, and they are also fundamental for strengthening democracy, facilitating peace and fostering sustainable human development.

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

These words of James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America and principal author of the US Constitution, are as fresh and as pertinent today as when they were written in 1822.

They also have particular relevance for this World Press Freedom Day’s “freedom of information” theme.
A strong, fully-functioning democracy cannot exist if populations are deprived of key information underpinning their choices in elections – this we all understand. 

It is clear, also, that in a more direct way, individuals are seriously hampered in their everyday affairs if they do not have access to information that affects or has the potential to affect their lives.

Wherever you are in the world, when you have lived through a period of history during which your “right to know” was severely restricted, you have a special grasp of what its absence entails - and you tend to have a very high regard, indeed, for freedom of information.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, championing freedom of expression, and its corollaries, all over the world is at the heart of UNESCO’s mandate. UNESCO fosters freedom of expression, press freedom and the right to know in a multiplicity of ways, often working behind-the-scenes with governments to help improve their policies and build their capacities. We also seek to raise public awareness of these important issues.

To that end, World Press Freedom Day was first proclaimed by the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1993, following a recommendation by UNESCO’s General Conference. Since then, every 3rd of May we celebrate press freedom and reflect on its status worldwide.

Because the work of journalists is so fundamental to press freedom, each year we honour those media professionals who have lost their lives or paid in other ways while defending our right to be informed.

In 2009 alone, 77 journalists lost their lives worldwide. Most of these were not war correspondents, they were local reporters covering news about sensitive topics such as corruption or criminal activity.

In March this year, I submitted a report on the safety of journalists and the danger of impunity to UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Council of the International Programme for the Development of Communication. The Council requested UNESCO’s General Conference to proclaim a minute of silence in news rooms every year on World Press Freedom Day. I will also personally invite all those commemorating the occasion around the world tomorrow to solemnly observe a minute of silence.

UNESCO has been attributing UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize since 1997 to a person, organization or institution that has made a notable contribution to promoting or defending press freedom.  
It will be my great pleasure tomorrow to present this award to this year’s winner, the Chilean journalist Monica Gonzales Mujica. This truly remarkable woman endured harassment, imprisonment and an attempt on her life while endeavouring to report on the military dictatorship in her country.

The ill-treatment of journalists undermines the “right to know” of all of us. This is why UNESCO is determined to foster more resolute efforts against impunity, by seeking synergies with Member States, civil society organizations and other actors working on media safety issues. Ultimately, however, national authorities must take responsibility for ensuring that those who harm journalists are brought, swiftly, to justice.

While the battle against impunity is far from won, we must acknowledge the many significant advances in “freedom of information” that have been made all over the world.


Changes sweeping the globe have undoubtedly contributed to growing acceptance of this important right.

Rapid advances in information technology have also changed the way societies relate to and use information, and they have caused us to place ever greater importance on access to information.

Global concerns such as climate change and preservation of the environment also underscore the need for us to disclose and to share knowledge with one another. Being prepared for, and being able to respond swiftly and appropriately to a natural disaster such as a tsunami or an earthquake, simply isn’t possible without the free flow of information.

When we take a look at what has been achieved, there is indeed cause for optimism.


Australia was one of only a few countries in the world to have recognized the importance of the right to know when it adopted freedom of information legislation back in 1982.

By 1990, only 15 countries had taken legislative measures to strengthen “freedom of information”.

Today, more than 70 countries have such legislation in place, and the number is growing every day.
It is becoming widely accepted today that public bodies hold information not for themselves, but on behalf of the public, and that this information must be available to all, unless there is an overriding public interest for it to be withheld.

While passing laws is crucial to providing a firm and lasting guarantee that “freedom of information” is respected, laws are not enough on their own, even for the best-intentioned of governments.  Let us look at this for a moment in terms of supply and demand.

An effective supply of public information at all levels of administration presupposes strong political will from the top. It requires a profound change of mindsets within bureaucracies.  It also requires that governments deploy adequate resources for the provision of information.

An active demand for public information calls for a critical mass of individuals fully aware of the importance of their right to know. It calls for an active and engaged civil society, in which citizens’ groups mobilise on social issues. It calls for an adequate level of information literacy within societies: one that ensures that users of public information can distinguish between different types and levels of information – from up-to-date, official, validated data to unverified, outdated or biased reports.

All of this implies the development of human and institutional capabilities, the setting up of adequate processes to respond to requests for information, to disclose information proactively and to archive it efficiently.
Above all, it requires a fundamental shift from a culture of opacity to one of openness.

A thriving information environment requires a significant commitment among political leaders, accompanied by an indefatigable civil society that uses the law, creates awareness about it and undertakes efforts to monitor its adequate implementation.

The challenges to ‘freedom of information’ vary considerably from country to country.

In those countries with a long tradition of freedom of speech, media concentration is often a concern. For media to function freely and independently, news outlets need to be numerous, and they need to be owned by a multiplicity of both public and private interests.

Meanwhile, in many parts of the developing world, beyond the question of political will, the absence of structures and mechanisms for the dissemination of information can be one of the biggest obstacles to the right to know. The consequences of this can be immediate, and they can be far-reaching.

Social justice, empowerment, and development are all hampered if individuals do not enjoy access to information which relates, for example, to basic services and social programs they are entitled to, or to educational opportunities that have the power to transform lives.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

UNESCO has for years worked to support freedom of expression and freedom of the press, raising awareness of these issues among governments and civil society. We engage with legislators and civil servants to strengthen regulatory and legal frameworks and their practical functioning.

UNESCO also builds capacity to enhance professional and  ethical standards in journalism. We equip the media to do the best possible job of holding governments accountable through more effective investigative journalism. We foster the media’s own accountability through the development of self-regulation instruments and mechanisms.
It is only when equipped with the capacity to critically receive, assess and use information acquired through the media that the public can be truly empowered through it.

UNESCO has therefore embarked upon significant efforts to foster information and media literacy, which is a pre-requisite for individuals to be able to take advantage of many of the instruments that facilitate freedom of information today.  

In conflict and post-conflict situations, UNESCO carries out vital work promoting free and open media and structures that can contribute to democracy, peace and stability.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The terrible earthquake in Haiti in January highlighted the important function the media, and community media in particular, can serve in the event of natural disasters and humanitarian crises. As I witnessed myself during my recent mission to this devastated country, the media can disseminate crucial, life-saving information when disaster strikes and in its aftermath.

Let us not forget that in these situations, media themselves are also victims. UNESCO is actively engaged in re-building the capacity of Haitian local and community media, assisting with the local production of programmes and life-saving messages, with a view to enhancing their role in disaster prevention and the provision of humanitarian information. 

We have also provided crucial emergency funds to preserve seriously endangered documents held by the National Archives and the National Library, thus preserving the country’s documentary heritage as well as safeguarding Haitians’ right to know. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Information and communication technologies are at the core of today’s globalized world and they represent the drivers of knowledge-based societies. UNESCO tries to make sure that these technologies benefit everyone, all over the world, in our efforts to diminish the digital and knowledge divides, and also in our endeavours to preserve the precious heritage that is cultural diversity.

We seek to facilitate free internet access to valuable resources through projects like the World Digital Library, an online library of documentary heritage from all over the world, and the Memory of the World Programme, which indexes documents identified as being of world significance. The Endeavour Journal of James Cook, the Mabo Case Manuscripts, the Convict Records of Australia and “The Story of the Kelly Gang” -  the first full-length feature film produced anywhere in the world - are some of the Australian documents included in our registry.

I also wish to further UNESCO’s engagement with the ethical, legal and socio-cultural aspects of the so-called “information society”.  Our Organization will therefore continue to promote freedom of expression and freedom of information in an open and inclusive Internet, facilitating the opportunities that technology brings to each individual, in the framework of the implementation of the World Summit of the Information Society outcomes, including the Internet Governance Forum.  

Digital technology presents challenges, as well as opportunities, for “freedom of information”.

On one hand, it has facilitated the “free flow of ideas by word and image”, which is part of UNESCO’s mandate, and the storage of information, to an extent that we could not have imagined as recently as a few years ago.
However, new media have spawned new kinds of censorship - bloggers have been jailed or even killed - and cyber-espionage and other infringements of the right to privacy have emerged as new threats.

As we can see, “freedom of information” is indeed a right with many, many, facets, all of which deserve our keen attention if we are to extend its benefits to populations everywhere.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am confident that this Conference will generate vibrant and fruitful discussions on some of the issues I have addressed, which are at the core of UNESCO’s goal of facilitating universal access to information and knowledge.
I am delighted that such a distinguished group of experts from all over the world will be sharing their first-hand experience and knowledge with us over the next two days. I look forward in particular to learning more about the reform process that freedom of information is undergoing in this country, from the recently appointed Australian Information Commissioner John McMillan.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Economic, environmental, social and ethical crises affecting our world pose today specific as well as overlapping threats that have highlighted our fragility – and our interdependence.

They are also seriously threatening the achievement of the some of the most important and ambitious multilateral agenda of our age – I am referring to an array of Internationally Agreed Development Goals, including the Millennium Development Goals.

Urgent action is needed if we are to bring lasting and significant improvements to the lives of the world’s poorest by 2015, the deadline for many key goals such as poverty eradication, universal access to education and reduced child mortality.

Our Organization, like the United Nations, was born in the wake of the Second World War, and from the very onset was mandated to, I quote:  “build peace in the minds of men”.

The world has changed in ways that UNESCO’s founders could not have imagined. But this principle – of building peace in the minds of people – continues to inspire and guide our policies and actions each and every day. 

I firmly believe that UNESCO - the “conscience of humanity”, in the worlds of India’s great statesman Jawaharlal Nehru - holds the keys to providing the intellectual and humanist response that is needed to meet today’s multiple challenges.

I intend to ensure that UNESCO takes the lead in creating a more humane and democratic world, based upon the respect of human dignity and human rights, and the principles of equal access to the pillars of education, science and culture.

These ideals, and their practical application, form the bedrock of social progress and sustainable human development.  

UNESCO’s first priority is education. In 2000, the world’s leaders pledged to ensure that by 2015 there would be Education for All – a process for which UNESCO was designated as the lead agency. Since then, we have made significant progress. However, five years from the target date, 72 million children are still out of school. One out of six adults can not read or write. This is hampering development efforts in fields as diverse as health, sustainable development and democracy. UNESCO therefore helps countries to identify innovative ways of reaching those who are being left behind, such as mobile schools for nomadic populations or school feeding programmes in the poorest areas.

We also ensure that governments see education as  more than just about equipping people to find employment: it should also produce responsible and engaged citizens. An education of quality passes on values such as peace and tolerance, and stimulates critical thinking, problem solving, team work and creativity. Only in this way will we achieve a sustainable development based on respect for human rights and equity.

UNESCO also plays a key role in science. . It is the only Organization within the UN with a mandate for science.
Finding solutions to the most urgent challenges of today represented by climate change, biodiversity, natural disaster mitigation and the management of water resources is a priority for me. 

Our Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission co-ordinates four tsunami early warning systems, one of which for the Indian Ocean, established after the tragic 2004 tsunami.

It is my firm conviction that Culture, which is part of the fabric of our societies, also has a pivotal role to play in all areas of development, alongside education and science. It is apparent today that only a holistic approach to development can bring truly sustainable progress. Yet for the moment, this growing realisation has not resulted in changed priorities within development programming and funding.

In this International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures, we are focusing on the importance of cultural diversity and inter-cultural dialogue in fostering mutual understanding and building peace. 

The preservation of tangible and intangible heritage is also about preserving diversity, including the invaluable knowledge of indigenous communities, and it is pivotal to my vision of UNESCO’s role in engendering a new humanism.  This is one of the main areas of UNESCO’s cooperation with Australia.

I share Australia’s deep concern about the threats posed by climate change to the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural wonders of our world. I would like to state clearly that UNESCO will be unstinting in its efforts to bring these threats to the attention of the international community, and to mobilize efforts to preserve this unique site.

As these examples I have given you today illustrate, UNESCO’s mandate is far too extensive for it to be able to act alone.

In addition to the valued partnerships we already have, I am actively seeking to forge new strategic alliances and partnerships in the public and private sectors, with international and intergovernmental institutions, with non-governmental organisations and civil society.

We can and we must work together. I believe the scope is great for us to respond effectively to the challenges facing humanity. Let us rise to this challenge.  

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