By providing access to information, knowledge, ideas and opinions, libraries everywhere uphold the value of intellectual freedom as the basis of an informed, democratic society.
They do this both by acting as the guardians of manuscripts, documents and books, and as a place where anyone can access the information they contain.
Press publications already form a core part of many collections. But libraries are also increasingly realising their role not just as a place to access, but also to share and create information., including by supporting journalism and public debate.
Today, 3 May, we celebrate World Press Freedom Day to support, and raise awareness of the fundamental principles of press freedom and freedom of expression!
World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993 following a Recommendation adopted at the twenty-sixth session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1991.
It serves as an occasion to inform citizens of violations of press freedom, as well as a reminder of the censorship still seen in many countries today. It also recalls the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 19:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Librarians fighting for the right to speak up
Journalists, editors, publishers and librarians can often be targeted by those who wish to restrain press freedom and punished for bringing news and information to the public.
In a recent incident, a librarian in Kansas City, US was arrested simply for standing up for a library patron’s right to free speech during a public event featuring a former US diplomat at the library.
The library hosts between twelve and twenty speakers each month, and though some of the topics and speakers have been controversial, the events have always been peaceful.
None the less, both the librarian and the patron were faced with criminal charges. 6 months ago, the case went to trial and the librarian was found not guilty on the charges of obstruction, interfering with an arrest, and assaulting a police officer.
The Director of the library stated:
“The library, like the judge, has consistently expressed surprise that this ever went to trial, that a public event at a public library should result in the indictment of a librarian.”
Another recent incident is the cause of Natalia Sharina, former Director of the state-run Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow.
In June 2017, she was found guilty of ‘incitement of hatred’ toward Russian people and ‘embezzlement’ and handed-down a four year suspended sentence for holding ‘extremist literature’. Sharina has spent 19 months under house arrest, throughout the investigation and trial.
PEN International believes that the case against Sharina is politically motivated and calls for her sentence and conviction to be overturned. Not only is it far from certain that the books in question were part of the collection, but even if they had been, this should not be a cause for arrest and detention.
IFLA has been following the case and published a statement on the judgement calling for authorities in Russia, and around the world, to bring banning of books and the persecution of librarians to an end.
Unfortunately, these cases are not unique. Librarians worldwide are facing struggle in claiming the rights to freedom of opinion and expression.
Today, on World Press Freedom Day, we celebrate the right to freedom of expression and opinion, and we remind that the support is still needed, and there is still much more to be done.