Biography and History

The World Press Freedom Committee (1976-2009) was an organization dedicated to monitoring threats to press freedom, focusing on major intergovernmental organizations, especially UNESCO. The WPFC served as a watchdog against limitations on press freedom and provided practical assistance programs to journalists abroad, especially in developing countries, to enable them to establish and maintain a free press. Projects included providing training and equipment, producing publications, sponsoring conferences, and funding legal defense for journalists.

The concept for the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) originated from a discussion between the leaders of the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) at a conference in 1971. They saw a need for global coordination of free press advocacy to counteract the call by developing countries for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), a movement to regulate the international press in order to break the perceived domination by a few wealthy countries. NWICO was also supported by Communist countries that were interested in controlling the press. Of particular concern was a Soviet proposal before UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the lead UN agency on communications issues, that included giving governments control over media within their own countries. The WPFC was activated on May 9, 1976 at the IPI General Assembly meeting in Philadelphia. George Beebe, chairman of the IAPA Executive Committee and associate publisher of The Miami Herald, was elected chairman and James Canal (general manager of IAPA) and Paul Galliner (IPI director) were chosen as co-executive directors. Beebe became executive director, as well as chairman, in September 1977. Beebe stepped down as chairman to serve as IAPA president in 1979, although he remained as executive director. He was replaced as chairman by Harold W. Anderson, president of the Omaha World-Herald and a leading figure in international newspaper circles, who served as chairman until 1996. The founding affiliates of the WPFC were IPI, IAPA, Caribbean Publishing and Broadcasting Association, American Society of News Editors, Society of Professional Journalists, Press Foundation of Asia, Women in Communications Inc., and the National Conference of Editorial Writers. By the end of 1977, the WPFC encompassed 23 affiliated organizations on four continents.

Leaders of the WPFC and member groups appeared at major UNESCO conferences to speak out against NWICO and its detrimental effects on the freedom of the press. The Soviet proposal was defeated by a wide margin at the General Assembly conference in 1976 in Nairobi and the 1978 conference in Paris passed a declaration supported by the WPFC that affirmed journalists' right to access to information and omitted any mention of state control of news. The Soviet proposal was defeated in part because the developing countries were promised aid to establish better communications systems and a stronger press. To that end, the WPFC began a development campaign to raise funds for mounting and coordinating assistance projects, creating and distributing publications, and supporting training seminars, and also identified a group of experts willing to serve as advisors to colleagues in developing countries. The WPFC was financed entirely by private contributions, largely news media organizations and foundations, and received no government or intergovernmental funds or support. The WPFC made its first assistance grants in December 1977 for five projects: journalism training in Nairobi and Trinidad, conferences in Nairobi and Cairo, and to support the Partners in America journalist exchange program.

Demand for NWICO at UNESCO and its accompanying threat to the free press continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As a countermeasure, the WPFC sent representatives to every UNESCO conference and spoke out against it in the press. At times, the WPFC was the only voice at these conferences championing a free press. Through their involvement, many of the most egregious proposals were moderated or defeated entirely. In 1981, the WPFC also hired Ronald Koven, a journalist with significant experience in European and foreign news including a period with The Washington Post, to serve as their European representative in charge of monitoring UNESCO. His daily presence allowed the WPFC to become aware of potentially hazardous proposals in the early stages, to develop contacts within UNESCO, and to better anticipate the strategy of their opponents. The WPFC also challenged similar NWICO proposals at the UN Committee on Information in the second half of the 1980s, similarly attending every meeting until the issue was dropped in 1990.

In May 1981, the WPFC and Tufts University sponsored a "Voices of Freedom" conference in Talloires, France where leaders of independent news media drafted a set of principles required for a free press, the Declaration of Talloires, the first global statement of its kind. The WPFC and five other organizations from that conference went on to establish the Coordinating Committee of Free Press Organizations in July 1981. The Coordinating Committee served as a venue for leaders of each organization to coordinate responses to major free press issues and to administer joint programs, notably the Fund Against Censorship which provided grants for legal assistance to members of the news media being prosecuted by their governments. Also in 1981, Dana Bullen, editor of The Washington Star, succeeded Beebe as executive director and the WPFC moved their offices from Miami to The Newspaper Center (home of the American Newspaper Publishers Association) at Reston, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

The WPFC also continued with cooperative assistance projects to provide practical and useful aid to journalists and news media in developing countries. By 1982, the WPFC had completed 52 projects, and by 2002 had completed over 200 projects in all areas of the world. Projects included conducting or funding training seminars for journalists in developing countries, providing and sometimes producing textbooks for journalism schools and regional handbooks for journalists, and facilitating the shipment of donated printing equipment. Beebe served as director of projects from 1981 until 1987, when he retired and was followed by Malcolm F. Mallette, former director of the American Press Institute. Mallette also became the WPFC's most prolific author. The WPFC published more than 55 books, manuals, and monographs including scholarly studies, collected essays, conference proceedings, statements, and handbooks for journalists in several regions.

During the 1980s, the WPFC's role at UNESCO was as a watchdog, looking for and sharing information about threats and counseling delegates on the dangers of proposals. With the election of Federico Mayor, a supporter of free press, as Secretary-General in 1987, the WPFC was able to take a more proactive role. Members were invited to speak at UNESCO events and Mayor endorsed WPFC statements and removed proposals related to NWICO from consideration. Koven also advised UNESCO staff on free press issues when projects were in the beginning stages, helped write reports, and served on preparatory committees. It took some time to effect a change in such a large institution, but by 1993 free press groups agreed that UNESCO had turned around its stance to supporting free news media and independent journalism. During this period, the WPFC also began campaigning against "insult" laws which were being used in many countries to suppress criticism of government officials and released a study on "code words" used to mask government efforts to establish censorship.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it the need to support the transition for underground newspapers to become the established free press in their countries. The WPFC produced a Handbook for Journalists of Central and Eastern Europe and provided it free of charge and administered the East Europe News Media Aid Project for the Coordinating Committee. The WPFC also served as a clearing house of available aid and existing needs. By 2001, the WPFC had completed 72 assistance projects in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, including workshops, publications, the provision of equipment and model desktop publishing kits, and conferences on the principles of free press. The WPFC also remained active in developing countries, completing 22 projects during this period, notably a handbook for French-speaking African countries. The WPFC also produced the Charter for a Free Press in 1991, building off their 1987 Declaration of London, that outlined 10 universal principles for a free press which has been widely endorsed by UN and government officials and by free press leaders.

The WPFC experienced another leadership change in 1996. James H. Ottaway, Jr., senior vice president at Dow Jones and Company and chairman of Ottaway Newspapers, succeeded Anderson as chairman in April and Marilyn J. Greene, a veteran international affairs reporter for USA Today, became executive director in October. They also moved their headquarters to the American Press Institute building, also in Reston, Virginia. On September 17, 2009, the WPFC merged with Freedom House. By this time, WPFC included 45 affiliates on 6 continents.

Source: From the finding aid for MC241

  • World Press Freedom Committee Records. 1921-2009 (inclusive), 1975-2009 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC241

    The World Press Freedom Committee (1976-2009) was an organization dedicated to monitoring threats to press freedom, focusing on major intergovernmental organizations, especially UNESCO. The WPFC served as a watchdog against limitations on press freedom and provided practical assistance programs to journalists abroad, especially in developing countries, to enable them to establish and maintain a free press. The World Press Freedom Committee Records document the administration and activities of the WPFC for its entire period of operations and include project files, meeting minutes, correspondence, and publications.

  • World Press Freedom Committee Records. 1921-2009 (inclusive), 1975-2009 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC241

    The World Press Freedom Committee (1976-2009) was an organization dedicated to monitoring threats to press freedom, focusing on major intergovernmental organizations, especially UNESCO. The WPFC served as a watchdog against limitations on press freedom and provided practical assistance programs to journalists abroad, especially in developing countries, to enable them to establish and maintain a free press. The World Press Freedom Committee Records document the administration and activities of the WPFC for its entire period of operations and include project files, meeting minutes, correspondence, and publications.