It gives me great pleasure to welcome you here at the event designed to mark a concept and a practice that goes to the very core of any democratic society: freedom of the press. Given the crucial importance of this freedom, it is even a little surprising that the observance of World Press Freedom Day has such a short history. Although the United Nations affirmation of press freedom goes back to the early days of the Organization, World Press Freedom Day was instituted by the General Assembly only five years ago, in December 1993.
But "better late, then never", as the saying goes, and the past observances of this Day have proved to be meaningful occasions for reaffirming the principle of the freedom of opinion and expression and for raising worldwide awareness of its indispensability for the health and well-being of civil society.
This year's observance is especially symbolic since 1998 is the year marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is all the more appropriate that we have with us today Mrs. Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The direct and intrinsic linkage between human rights and press freedom was eloquently reaffirmed in article 19 of the Declaration, which proclaimed the freedom to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers".
Half a century later, we live, of course, in times that are markedly different from the world that was only beginning to heal the wounds of a devastating global conflagration just as it was getting into the deep freeze of a crippling cold war. Since then, the astounding advances in communications technology have rendered many of the old frontiers meaningless and barricades ineffective. With the help of satellites and the Internet, information can circle the planet instantaneously, turning theoretical constructs of the "global village" into a virtual reality.
For all the marvels of modern communications, however, the need to protect and promote press freedom has lost none of its urgency. The right to free expression in the media is a delicate and fragile liberty that can be easily trampled upon through a variety of means: outright censorship or insidious intimidation, physical threats to journalists or lack of unhindered access to media outlets, absence of constitutional protection or the vise of economic monopoly.
Despite recent encouraging strides towards democracy in many parts of the world, attempts to control the media and limit pluralism of opinion persist with alarming tenacity. No less troubling is the growing menace to press freedom from various extremist groups espousing religious or political intolerance, as well as from the organized crime, including drug traffickers, arms smugglers, the Mafia and the horde of modern-day robber barons.
So as we salute the achievements of the communications revolution, we should remain vigilant and determined in our efforts to protect the political, constitutional and legal foundations of press freedom as an inherent human right.
The international community should also make sure that advances in media technology are used for the benefit of all countries -- North and South, East and West -- be they rich or poor. While cyberspace has become an integral part of daily life in the industrialized world, many developing countries are lagging far behind and need support and assistance in strengthening their media potential.
Many of these issues and concerns will be the subject of forthcoming deliberations at the Committee on Information that begins its work today. Unavoidably, the role of the media in covering international relations and the work of the United Nations is bound to figure prominently in those debates. This is a matter of real, not purely academic, concern. We live in an age when CNN is called the sixteenth member of the Security Council. With their ability to deliver news of evolving conflicts often ahead of diplomatic dispatches, the media have become a major actor on the international scene. Their power to sway public opinion by dramatic television footage or graphic front-page photographs is a factor that cannot be ignored by politicians or diplomats.
Such an immense influence brings up the question of responsibility of the journalists before the international community. More than once, we witnessed how news coverage inflamed the emotions of the public which eventually led to public pressure for action when the latter was ill-founded and predestined for failure.
- 3 - Press Release GA/SM/38 OBV/45 4 May 1998
At times, the media tend to capture only the most breathtaking or dramatic international events without providing continuous coverage of issues and processes leading to them. All too often it fails to shed light on the matters affecting the welfare of local communities, as well as on such global problems as poverty, environmental degradation, human rights abuses, the empowerment of women and the welfare of children, which profoundly affect our global society.
It would not be an overstatement to say that the United Nations has been for years in the centre of all global events, be they dramatic and highly visible or less salient. At the same time, its day-to-day work aimed at helping people in their struggles for survival, dignity and prosperity has gone on for years without falling into the media's eye.
That is why, among expressions of admiration for the ability of the press to access trouble spots and show conflicts as they unfold, one can hear voices of dissatisfaction with the press for sometimes ignoring or under- reporting numerous aspects of the work of the United Nations.
Today, the United Nations is going through a process of far-reaching institutional reform designed to make the Organization better prepared for the tasks of the next millennium. As the United Nations is striving to enhance its effectiveness to help people around the world, there is a growing need for the public at large to have a deeper knowledge and better understanding about the whole scope of United Nations work. This is an area where it is hard to underestimate the crucial role that can be played by the media.
As we observe World Press Freedom Day, I would like to once again emphasize that a free press is an indispensable condition for peace and democracy. It is true that at times it may be wrong, irresponsible and sometimes risky, but history had ample evidence that denying a free press contains even greater risks for the society. In this regard, I cannot but fully subscribe to the words that Thomas Jefferson wrote more than a 100 years ago, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter".
As we gathered today to express our support and respect for the principles of a free press, let us reaffirm our commitment to nourish and advance press freedom and pluralism throughout the world. Working towards that goal is in the common interests of all of us.
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