History of international efforts to promote freedom of information goes back to 1893 since when many international conferences of journalists have been held. These meetings in the early stages did nothing more than pass resolutions or pledged themselves to promote freedom of information.
Little concrete action resulted, and whatever was accomplished was wiped out by propaganda and censorship during the World Wars. The first press congress attended by journalists from all over the world was held in May 1893 in Chicago.
The conference discussed topics like the international role of the press, the press as a defender of human rights and the press and public morals. International Union of Press Associations was established in July 1893 as a result of an international meeting of journalists in Antwerp (Belgium).
This Union sought to “organise common action between associations of journalists and newspaper associations of all countries in respect of professional matters of common interest and to bring about international conventions and agreements concerning journalism and literary rights and properties”.
During the next forty years, this union organised numerous congresses to discuss questions such as false news and the right of reply as a remedy for false news. This union, however, became inactive after 1935.
The first international organisation of working newspapermen called ‘The Federation International des Journalists’ was founded in 1921 in Paris. This federation was primarily concerned with working conditions for journalists. It however took various steps towards self-discipline within the profession, including the setting up of an International Code of Honour in Hague in 1931.
Contribution of the League of Nation:
The League of Nations initiated a series of conferences beginning in 1927 with a conference of journalists at Geneva, followed by two conferences of governmental press bureaus and representatives of the press in Copenhagen in 1932 and at Madrid in 1933. Sponsored by the Council of the League, the conference at Geneva was attended by 63 representatives of telegraphic agencies, newspapers, international organisations of journalists and official press bureaus from 30 countries. The purposes of the conference were:
1. To inquire into means of ensuring more rapid and less costly transmission of press news, with a view to reducing the risk of international misunderstanding;
2. To discuss all technical problems, the solution of which, in the opinion of experts, would be conducive to the tranquilization of public opinion in various countries.
The conference considered facilities for journalists, peace-time censorship, press rates, coding of press messages, technological press and communications improvements. Resolutions were passed on all these subjects, and legislation concerning the protection of press information was formulated. Most of these resolutions were later referred to the League Committee on Communications and Transit, and other resolutions, such as those concerning censorship in peacetime and the protection of news sources, were referred to the various governments.
The desire of the League to combat the spread of false information was expressed at the 1932 Conference of Governmental Press Bureaus and Representatives of the Press. The delegates from thirty-two countries agreed that the rapid spread of accurate and abundant news was the best remedy.
They insisted that measures taken to counteract inaccurate information must never be allowed to prejudice the basic freedom of the press, a freedom which, however, implied responsibility on the part of the journalist. The delegates also urged enactment of the resolution on peace-time censorship adopted by the 1927 conference, which indicated that very little had been done to carry out the resolution up to that time.
At the second conference of Governmental Press Bureaux and Representatives of the Press, the problems of false news and ways of combating its spread were again discussed.
The resolutions emphasised two main themes-freedom of the press and the need for prompt circulation of adequate and accurate information. Other resolutions recommended the creation of a committee of experts to consider technical and financial methods for combating the spread of false news, the feasibility of bilateral and multilateral agreements regarding the prevention of false news, and the influence of newspapers reports on previous international crises. Yet nothing concrete resulted from these resolutions.
The value of films and the importance of radio broadcasting were topics recognized by the League of Nations In 1933, it sponsored the Convention to facilitate the International Circulation of Films of an Educational Character. And in 1936, at Geneva, the League sponsored an International Convention concerning the use of Broadcasting in the cause of peace.
The latter convention began operations on April 3, 1938, and had been signed and ratified by twenty-two nations. This appears to mark the limits of the League’s efforts to promote any freedom of information on the international level.