Press freedom was a cornerstone of human rights, Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated, as World Press Freedom Day was observed at Headquarters this morning. He added: freedom of speech was a right to be fought for, not a blessing to be wished for.
Today's event -- a panel discussion on the topic: "Turbulent Eras: Generational Perspectives on Freedom of the Press" -- was organized by the Department of Public Information (DPI) in cooperation with The Freedom Forum and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
In introductory remarks, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Kensaku Hogen, recalled that the Day had been observed at the United Nations since 1993, and that this year's observance was being held at the dawn of a new millennium. The panel would discuss freedom of the press as it had been applied in their lives and as the participants saw it in the future.
Keynote speaker Stephen Rosenfeld, Deputy Editorial Page Editor and columnist, The Washington Post, said the cold war was now over and the new story was globalization, interdependence and peace -- those preoccupations put the United Nations right in the middle of things. The story was, however, not just about globalization as life and growth but about war and fear, the predatory aspects of the process. Journalists did not see just the debris of wars, they were also the debris, evidenced in colleagues everywhere who had died.
Robert Giles, Senior Vice-President, The Freedom Forum, and Executive Director, Media Studies Center, said while "we would like to think that everyday is World Press Freedom Day", the reality was different. The lists of journalists who had been jailed, beaten and killed was a sobering reminder that news reports depended on the courage of journalists who worked under the threat of violence and intimidation. On Wednesday at the Freedom Forum's
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"Newseum" in Arlington, Virginia, 29 new names were being added to a memorial bearing 1,150 other names of journalist who died covering the news. Adding new names enabled "us to bring to the attention of the world the plight of journalists in many countries who are willing to inform us at the greatest risks".
Taking part in that discussion were: moderator Daljit Dhaliwal, Anchor, World News for Public Television, ITN; Eugenie Aw, journalist, Partnership Africa Canada; Cameron Duodu, columnist, The Johannesburg Mail and Guardian; Anthony Lewis, columnist, The New York Times; Susan Meiselas, photojournalist, Magnum Photos; Tomoyo Nonaka, former anchor, NHK and TV-Tokyo and Visiting Professor of Communications at Chukyo Women's University; and Sam Younger, former Managing Director of BBC World Service and currently Director General of the British Red Cross.
Panellists discussed such topics as journalists in developing countries and coverage of Africa in the Western press. The importance of journalists having standards and being responsible in their work was also stressed. Mr. Lewis said the Western press should have told the world what was happening in Rwanda and shame it into acting, adding that maybe that was the role of the press -- to shame the politicians. "I think we have to keep doing it", he said.
World Press Freedom Day
World Press Freedom Day was observed at Headquarters this morning with a panel discussion on the topic "Turbulent Eras: Generational Perspectives on Freedom of the Press" organized by the Department of Public Information (DPI) in cooperation with The Freedom Forum, an international non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to freedom of the press, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
World Press Freedom Day was established by General Assembly decision 48/432 of 20 December 1993, on a recommendation of the Economic and Social Council and as an outgrowth of the seminar on "Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press". This seminar, co-sponsored by DPI and UNESCO, took place in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1991 and resulted in the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration. The Declaration states that "the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development".
In an introductory statement, KENSAKU HOGEN, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, welcomed everyone to the observance of World Press Freedom Day. It had been observed at the United Nations since 1993. This year the observance was being held at the dawn of a new millennium. The panel discussion would focus on the topic: "Turbulent Eras: Generational Perspectives on Freedom of the Press". The panel was made up of established journalists from all corners of the world. They would discuss freedom of the press as it has been applied in their lives and as they see it in the future.
In a videotaped message, Secretary-General KOFI ANNAN said press freedom was the cornerstone of human rights. It held governments responsible for their acts, and served as a warning to all that impunity was an illusion. Still, some questioned the value of freedom of speech to their societies, some argued that it threatened stability and endangered progress. There were even some who considered freedom of speech a foreign imposition, and not the indigenous expression of every people's demand for freedom.
That argument, however, he said, was never made by the people, but by governments, never by the powerless but by the powerful. "Let us put this argument, once and for all, to the only test that matters: Let every people choose freely. Would they want to know more or know less? To be heard or be silenced? To stand up or kneel down."
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Freedom of speech was a right to be fought for, not a blessing to be wished for, he said. Also, it was the essential vehicle for the exchange of ideas between nations and cultures, without which there could be no true understanding or lasting cooperation.
ROBERT GILES, Senior Vice-President, The Freedom Forum, and Executive Director, Media Studies Center, in his introductory remarks, said the grim accounts of danger facing journalists reporting on volatile events from distant places "reminds us of the continuing vigilance required to advance the ideals embodied in World Press Freedom Day". The Forum, in carrying forward its mission as an international, non-partisan foundation devoted to a free press and free spirit for all people everywhere, sponsored initiatives to help journalists sustain the ideals and realities of a free press around the world. "We would like to think that everyday is World Press Freedom Day." The reality was, however, different. The lists of journalists who had been jailed, beaten and killed was a sobering reminder that today's news reports depended on the courage of reporters and photographers who worked under the threat of violence and intimidation.
He said that at noon on Wednesday at the Freedom Forum's "Newseum" in Arlington, Virginia, United States, Press Freedom Day was being marked with a ceremony to rededicate the Journalist's Memorial. Twenty-nine new names were being added to a memorial bearing 1,150 other names of journalist who died covering the news. Adding new names enabled "us to bring to the attention of the world the plight of journalists in many countries who are willing to inform us at the greatest risks". In the United States, freedoms of press, speech and assembly were well established. "We are emboldened to reach out to the people of other countries who are fighting repression or who are nurturing fragile democracies. We are inspired by their resolve and desirous of assisting them in their task."
STEPHEN ROSENFELD, Deputy Editorial Page Editor and columnist, The Washington Post, delivering the keynote address, said during the cold war many journalists were enlisted by either side in the struggle. Large stakes, such as war and peace and validity of political systems, pervaded the times. Journalists were both observers and participants in the battle. Being on the right side was what counted. The cold war was now over and the new story was globalization, interdependence and peace -- those preoccupations put the United Nations right in the middle of things.
He said the story was not just about globalization as life and growth but about war and fear, the predatory aspects of the process. Journalists did not see just the debris of wars, they were also the debris, evidenced in colleagues everywhere who had died. In Kosovo, the war of guns had been supplemented by a war of words. Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Yugoslavia, used propaganda to mobilize people behind his ambitious and
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malicious political agendas. His countercharge was that the United States started a propaganda war to satanize the Serbs years ago. That did not just mean that the United States Government had used its official instruments of communication to serve a political agenda, which was true. Perhaps Mr. Milosevic also meant that the Western media had been recruited for counter-Serb news -- in other words, they were paid to lie. Ongoing coverage by the United States of Kosovo was good. Journalists were paid to tell the truth.
He said the earlier story of Serb bloodletting in Bosnia had been told. The war policies of William Clinton, President of the United States, was the other news story which was now being told. The media had the balance not to run with the current unproven suggestion that Muslims in Bosnia, including Albanians, had killed their own people. In the end, however, it came down to a cultural gap. Very few Americans were familiar with the cultural identity politics practised in Yugoslavia. His own personal exposure had led him to the conclusion that in addressing an international event, the American press tended to take years to move from glibness to understanding.
He wished that in the aftermath of the cold war there had been greater thought on how "our allies of two World Wars", the Serbs, were now turning into foes. The prevailing media tone was not respectful to Serbs and the Serbian American community had not provided the calibre of spokespersons to speak on their behalf. The bombing of Serbian media houses did not bode well for future coverage. The free press doctrine had been structured for peaceful times and did not translate well into the turbulent international times.
Moderating the panel, DALJIT DHALIWAL, Anchor, World News for Public Television, said ever since the United Nations established World Press Freedom Day, many prominent ideas had been put forward on why it was important to have a free press. She then introduced the panellists.
EUGENIE AW, journalist, Partnership Africa Canada, said that, to be a journalist in Africa in the early 1970s was to have the freedom to expand media coverage to present multiple voices. At one time, journalists in Africa used to practise self-censorship. The United Nations had encouraged journalists from developing countries to exercise freedom and present the truth. Women started taking a greater role in the media and many stories that were never presented before were suddenly in the media. Women could finally talk about the violence perpetrated by their husbands. They could also discuss political and economic issues.
She said that 20 years ago there were only a handful of radio stations in Africa; now there were more than 200 radio stations. However, repression
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remained in Africa. Economic pressures were still enormous. The new generation of journalists must protect the free exercise of the profession. The new generation must ensure that all voices were heard in order to accelerate the creation of public opinion in Africa.
ANTHONY LEWIS, columnist, The New York Times, said that 18 months ago he was sent to Yugoslavia to discuss freedom of the press with President Milosevic. A dictator like Milosevic could not tolerate a free press. The press often acts as a warning sign for terrible events to come. When the press was suppressed, it meant other repression was bound to happen. Press freedom was hampered in a number of less stark circumstances. For instance, in Croatia a number of press organizations had been in trouble for criticizing the President, and in Singapore any reporter who criticized the President was likely to find a massive libel case against him. Many tools were used to repress the media -- money, imprisonment and death. People in power did not like to be criticized and it was natural for them to stifle the press if tradition and laws did not prevent it.
He said that tabloid zeal last year in the United States had encouraged an out-of-control prosecutor in a campaign to destroy the President. It seemed fantastic that Americans spent 13 months traumatized about such nonsense as the Monica Lewinsky situation. In contrast, it was crucial that there were brave committed journalists in Bosnia when Serbs were shelling the city. If they had not stayed despite the snipers, the world would not have known about what was happening and nothing would have been done. In that regard, it would have been better if the Western press would have told the world what was happening in Rwanda and shame the world into acting. Maybe that was the role of the press -- to shame the politicians. "I think we have to keep doing it", he said.
SUSAN MEISELAS, photojournalist, Magnum Photos, said the key issue for photographers was to bear witness -- to document and find evidence. Photos resisted erasure and remained part of the historic record. Two places which came back to her today were south-east Turkey, where she had travelled a lot and been limited in access, and East Timor. The latter was about images people were not allowed to see. Foreign journalists had not only been harassed, but pushed and beaten. The struggle was still to witness, and to see what "we have been forbidden to see".
TOMOYO NONAKA, former anchor, NHK and TV-Tokyo, and Visiting Professor of Communications at Chukyo Women's University, said Japanese society as a whole was experiencing drastic changes and turbulence in terms of social, cultural and economic perspectives. During the past one or two years, aided in particular by the ever-expanding digital technological advances, those great changes had served as a catalyst towards further democratization and liberalization of the world. The Japanese language as a tool of communication
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was extremely complex. The application of the language's many variations required the complete understanding of social mores, the status of human relationships, the positions of titles within society and even the issue of gender.
She said another area of constraint arose from the traditional Japanese value in which individual interests were subordinated to those of groups. Journalists in Japan gave priority to being a member of an elite group of comrades, or sharing in common objectives. As a result, sectorial press clubs appeared to function with an unthinkable degree of dogmatism, authority and conformity, often with pre-agreed formats for press reports and news items. Her representing Japan today was, however, symbolic of the evolving progress in the freedom of the press in her country. "In this turbulent era, we journalists are supposed to discuss not only the contents of freedom of the press, but also how to spread it to all the people of the world".
SAM YOUNGER, former Managing Director of BBC World Service and currently Director General of the British Red Cross, said there was an ongoing debate on whether citizenship and national interest should be placed before journalistic interests. During his career he had developed a respect for those journalists who were relentless in their search for the truth, ignoring the interest of nations or their own interests. Nevertheless, there was also a point to saying that journalists did have a responsibility to national and other interests. The reporting of many media organizations had brought the profession into disrepute.
There was a danger that journalism standards would go so low that governments would be able to set restrictions on the media with the support of the people -- who did not think highly of the press, he said. The decline in standards or poor behaviour by journalists made it easy for those who would restrict press freedom to do so. He added that the real heroes in journalism was not the Western press, but those who risked their lives in situations of repression in relentless pursuit of truth.
CAMERON DUODU, columnist, The Johannesburg Mail and Guardian, said that in 1960 in Ghana, journalists thought they were living in turbulent times. Many countries became independent and massacres ensued. The United Nations was involved then as it was now in trying to bring stability to the region. Many United Nations personnel had died working for peace in Africa, including Ghanaians. There was no monument to those who died trying to make peace in the Congo and other places. Journalists should ask themselves how often they used their press freedom to pursue the truth, especially in regard to the oppression undertaken against Yugoslavia. Actions there had been undertaken without the agreement of the Security Council. Freedom of the press was not an abstract concept that should be pigeon-holed.
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Responses to Questions
Mr. YOUNGER, responding to a question on monopolies, said within such settings, there was a need to make sure that ranges of opinion were expressed. It was difficult to do that in a cut-throat commercial environment which was all about selling papers. In the context of the United Kingdom, such a reality highlighted the importance of continuing public services such as broadcasting.
He said ownership of the media did matter. Most people wanted to access local media. Although many of the Internet sites originated from the United States, in Europe, the ones which were popular were those that were local rather than those that originated outside.
Mr. LEWIS, commenting on monopolies, said that they reduced the sources for facts.
Ms. AW, addressing a question on access to information, said she did not think that the United Nations had played a major role in that process except when it was a major event. It would be interesting to see how African journalists could be provided with more information at the international level and also be given more access to African information.
Mr. YOUNGER, commenting on perception of the United Nations in the United Kingdom, said that in that country there was limited interest in global and international issues. People were more local in their interest. The second problem was the enormous complexity of the Organization itself and its agencies. That often confused people, along with complicated and often intractable nature of issues. The third factor had to do with expectations. There was often a knee-jerk reaction when it came to the Organization. Many felt that if it called itself the United Nations then it should unite nations.
Addressing the same issue of perception of the United Nations, Mr. LEWIS said the fact that the United States owed such and enormous sum to the Organization in dues was a reflection of the public attitude and that of those who held power.
Mr. DUODU said the United Nations should help promote Internet access because it was very important.
A question was then asked about the poor coverage of Africa in the Western press. Ms. AW said that, as a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) official, she tried to get press coverage of events and initiatives in Africa. Journalists would tell her that stories about Africa did not run unless blood was flowing. Readers did not care about Africa unless there was fighting. Africans themselves must work to change that -- they must produce
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information that reflects the way they see their countries. If Africans did not do that, then the major news networks were not going to give good coverage either.
On the same topic, Mr. DUODU said that State officials and ambassadors should also try to shame the press into better coverage. They have to learn the technique of writing letters to editors. They should make sure they had information officers that could write a letter that could be published. There was a need to improve coverage of Africa bit by bit.
On a question regarding the control of media companies and advertisers, Ms. MEISELAS said that press freedom began with individuals and then was transferred through media companies. Journalists need to stay independent, knowing that their companies were being driven by commercial interests.
Ms. NONAKA said that there was more freedom today to express views due to the Internet.
Mr. YOUNGER said that press freedom was defined by the nature of political society. It was determined by the media as well as leaders and the public. For example, the reason the BBC operated the way it did, was that it was rooted in the expectations of society. The government could put restrictions on the BBC, but it would come under a lot of criticism and it would think hard about doing that.
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