TENSION BETWEEN PROTECTING SECURITY, DAMAGE TO FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS
FOCUS OF WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY OBSERVANCE AT HEADQUARTERS
‘Covering the War on Global Terror’ Theme
Addressed by Speakers, Distinguished Panel of Journalists
“What I’m sure we can all agree on is that, in protecting our security, we must not risk damaging fundamental freedoms -– and that one of the most fundamental freedoms is freedom of the press”, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette told participants of the World Press Freedom Day observance at Headquarters this morning.
Only where freedom of expression and opinion was guaranteed could human beings feel at all confident of enjoying their other rights, she continued. The 11 September attacks had created a new world climate, however, necessitating
re-evaluation of press freedom and bringing new threats against it. Terrorism could not be fought successfully without news media that were free to inquire into the causes of terrorism, and the political and social conditions that allowed it to thrive. Equally, the media had important responsibilities in a society threatened by terrorism, in particular, the responsibility to report objectively, without giving way to public moods of hysteria or revenge.
World Press Freedom Day this year was devoted to the theme of “Covering the War on Global Terror”. Celebrated on 3 May, the event was established in 1993. The General Assembly’s decision to declare World Press Freedom Day stemmed from the 1991 UNESCO General Conference resolution on promotion of press freedom in the world, which recognized that a free, pluralistic and independent press was an essential component of any democratic society.
Milos Alcalay (Venezuela), Chairman of the Committee on Information, told participants that following the 11 September tragedy, it was important to address the question of the impact of such a new kind of warfare and its repercussions for the freedom of the press. Journalists had the duty to inform the public objectively. Many journalists had, in fact, died simply because they were trying to inform the public. It was important to pay tribute to the journalists who never ceased telling the truth and lost their lives in doing so. It was also important to condemn in the strongest possible terms those responsible for assassinations and intimidation of journalists.
Calling journalism one of the most dangerous professions today, James H. Ottaway, Chairman, World Press Freedom Committee, said understandable outrage against terrorists should not justify the violation of basic human rights or the
rule of law, or new forms of censorship. There was an inevitable tension between security and freedom of the press, particularly when their delicate balance was upset by a worldwide war on terrorism. More information was needed, not less, about terrorists, and the public needed to know more, not less, about what governments were doing to stop terrorists.
Michel Barton, Director of Public Information, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said that there was growing concern over the negative impact that anti-terrorism measures could have on human rights and on the media. Some countries had taken measures aimed at facilitating wiretapping, for example, and denying reporters access to conflict zones was becoming routine. Strident appeals to patriotism made it harder to question government policies or publish dissenting views. Propaganda and deliberate propagation of disinformation –- a common practice in times of war -– further reduced the media’s ability to cover events fairly and accurately.
Shashi Tharoor, Interim Head, Department of Public Information, moderated the observance, which was webcast live on the Internet. Organized by the Department, the event took place in the context of the meetings of the Committee on Information.
Mr. Tharoor told participants that, as the world was becoming a more dangerous place, the danger for the journalists also increased. In that context, it was important to address not only the issue of their safety, but also the question of their responsibility in fighting terrorism. “Can freedom of the press take a back seat to public safety of security concerns? he asked. Should the media have access to the trials of accused terrorists? When do we risk crossing the line where news becomes propaganda, or terror becomes entertainment?”
During a panel discussion that followed the opening remarks, distinguished print and broadcast journalists discussed freedom of the press in the context of terrorism, addressing such issues as national and international security versus freedom of the press, televised coverage of terrorism trials, balanced coverage and the safety of journalists. Panellists were: Hafez Al-Mirazi, Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Jazeera; Fred Graham, Chief Anchor and Managing Editor, Courtroom Television Network (Court TV); Maria Hinojosa, Correspondent, Cable News Network (CNN); Judith Miller, Senior Writer, The New York Times; and Chidanand Rajghatta, Foreign Editor, The Times of India.
Prior to the discussion, there was a screening of a videotaped interview with Mariane Pearl, widow of Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered earlier this year while on assignment in Pakistan. She said freedom of the press was not only freedom to access of information, but also independence of journalists within their own media. It also meant that the big media networks should not monopolize information. In the fight against international terrorism, journalists must overcome vested interests and narrow, nationalistic points of view in order to reach a global outlook in the world. Ultimately, the only way to get rid of international terrorism was to address the root causes of terrorism, and that was a role for the media.
Deputy Secretary-General LOUISE FRÉCHETTE said the right to freedom of expression and opinion, enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was a core value for the United Nations. Only where that freedom was guaranteed could human beings feel at all confident of enjoying their other rights. Each year brought new reasons to deepen the commitment to that value, as attacks on press freedom came from different quarters and new sacrifices were made by those in the front line. The last 12 months had produced a tragically long list of new names -- 30 in all -- of journalists who had died in the line of duty, and 118 journalists in jail at the beginning of 2002.
This year's observance focused on the war against global terrorism, on press coverage of it, and on its implications for press freedom, she said. The 11 September attacks had created a new world climate, with a host of new factors necessitating re-evaluation of press freedom and bringing new threats against it. The news that Daniel Pearl, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, had been kidnapped filled everybody with foreboding. His abduction, the confused demands put forward by his kidnappers, and then his brutal murder brought home “in the grimmest fashion” the risks media professionals face. He was a victim of terrorism, who died reporting on an aspect of the war against terrorism. Others might fall victim to acts of repression or restriction applied by States in the name of counter-terrorism.
She said measures were needed to protect society against terrorism, sometimes involving sacrifices of personal freedom. All the international human rights instruments made provisions for that. But counter-terrorism must not “become an all-embracing concept that is used to cloak, or justify, violations of human rights”, as the Secretary-General had said. Terrorism could not be fought successfully without news media that were free to enquire into the causes of terrorism, and the political and social conditions in which it grew. Equally, the media had important responsibilities in a society threatened by terrorism, in particular, the responsibility to report and analyse developments objectively, without encouraging panic or giving way to public moods of hysteria or revenge.
She suggested some questions for the panellists to address, such as: what price one was prepared to pay for security; whether the media had risen to the challenge of terrorism and its impact; and whether the media’s responsibility was limited to reporting the facts, or whether they should be actively engaged in the battle against xenophobia and group hatred. “What I’m sure we can all agree on is that, in protecting our security, we must not risk damaging fundamental freedoms –- and that one of the most fundamental freedoms is freedom of the press”, she concluded.
MILOS ALCALAY (Venezuela), Chairman of the Committee on Information, stressed the important role of journalists who covered wars in a time of conflict and terror. Of course, everybody remembered the scenes of terror the world had witnessed on 11 September. Following that tragedy, it was important to address the question of the impact of such a new kind of warfare and its repercussions for the freedom of the press. Journalists had the duty to inform the public objectively. Many journalists had, in fact, died simply because they were trying to inform the public. It was important to pay tribute to the journalists who never ceased telling the truth and lost their lives in doing so. It was also important to condemn in the strongest possible terms those responsible for assassinations and intimidation of journalists.
Only recently, Venezuela had experienced the anguish of terror as a result of a breakdown in its constitutional order, he said. Jorge Tortoza -– a journalist and photographer -- had sacrificed his life in an attempt to tell the truth during the spiral of violence surrounding an attempt to displace President Chavez. Last year, 17 journalists had been killed around the world, and 118 had been imprisoned. It was important to pay homage to all the photographers and journalists who had to confront world terrorism in an attempt to show the news and tell the truth.
Turning to the control measures that could be taken in response to the acts of terror, he said that the Security Council, in its resolution 1373 adopted on 28 September 2001, had called upon all States to establish mechanisms to prevent the use of communications technology by terrorist groups. Different measures had been adopted by different countries. The United States, for example, had introduced the Patriot Act, which allowed the authorities to adopt control measures. In accepting such measures, however, it was important to remember that extreme attitudes could sometimes block the vision of courage and liberty. “We must voice our solidarity with the journalists and free press”, he stressed. At the same time, it was important to avoid straying into the objectives of world terror. Attacks had been made on the freedom of expression, and it was necessary to defend the truth of information.
Regarding the “anti-values” that were assailing the world from all sides, he said that it was the duty of the international community to sound “a cry of anguish” for those who had suffered simply because they were performing their duties. It was necessary to create a fund to assist the families of the journalists who died in the line of duty. It was also important to guarantee ethical behaviour to block “the kind of news that could play into the hands of terrorists” and serve the purpose of providing disinformation.
MICHEL BARTON, Director, Public Information, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said that on his way to today’s meeting, he had received a message that several journalists had been imprisoned in Zimbabwe yesterday. That emphasized the importance of today’s World Press Freedom Day. Its theme this year, Media and Terrorism, deserved urgent attention for at least two reasons. The first was plain enough: media professionals were being intimidated, imprisoned, held for ransom and assassinated in growing numbers in a growing number of countries around the world. The evidence left no doubt that the majority of journalists killed in conflict zones in recent years fell victim not to crossfire or landmines, but to murder.
The other reason was the growing concern over the negative impact –- potential and actual -– which anti-terrorism measures might have on human rights, in general, and on the media, in particular, he said. Press freedom and pluralism remained a distant ideal in many parts of the world today, but, even more worrisome was the impact that new security concerns could have on press freedom in countries of long-established democratic tradition. Some countries had taken legislative or legal measures aimed at facilitating wiretapping, for example, or restricting the use of encryption software used by journalists, among others, to protect the confidentiality of their e-mail communications.
Denying reporters access to conflict zones for extended periods of time was becoming routine, he continued, making it hard or impossible to get to the unvarnished truth. Some of the steps taken by authorities had an indirect, chilling effect on freedom of expression, and strident appeals to patriotism made it harder to question government policies or publish dissenting views. They led to more or less conscious acts of self-censorship, which undermined the free flow of ideas and information. Propaganda and deliberate propagation of disinformation –- a common practice in times of war -– further reduced the media’s ability to cover events fairly and accurately.
The UNESCO was committed to the defence and promotion of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, because it recognized them to be the very cornerstone of the human rights edifice. There were no exceptions to the rule, according to which there was no democracy without free press. Written in 1947, UNESCO’s constitution stressed the need for information and communications within and between nations, linking the free flow of ideas to the broader objective of preventing wars and “constructing the defences of peace”.
JAMES H. OTTAWAY, Chairman, World Press Freedom Committee, said journalism today was probably one of the most dangerous professions. Today’s celebration of World Press Freedom had hit home in a very personal and emotional way, because Danny Pearl of Dow Jones -- his, Mr. Ottaway's, company -- had been covering the war on global terror when he was kidnapped and brutally executed. He was passionately dedicated to explaining the complexity of the issues and people involved in the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and global terrorism. He had made it clear that all Muslims were not fundamentalists, and all fundamentalists were not terrorists, but that all terrorists were human beings whose minds had been twisted. His widow, a French journalist, was also dedicated to building international understanding.
The understandable outrage against terrorists must not be used to justify the violation of basic human rights or the rule of law, or new forms of censorship, he said. There was an inevitable tension between national and international security and freedom of the press, particularly when their delicate balance was upset by a worldwide war on terrorism. The Secretary-General had said that security could not be achieved by sacrificing human rights. To do so would hand the terrorists a victory beyond their dreams. Terrorism was no excuse for censorship. More information was needed about terrorists, not less -- who they were, and how and where they were planning violent attacks on innocent people. The public needed to know more, not less, about what governments were doing to stop terrorists.
There were many ways to report more details of the war against terrorism without publishing important secrets or endangering troops or intelligence agents he said. But, in the United States today, such basic facts as what suspected terrorists had been arrested and what was being done to them could not be obtained. Press freedom was the oxygen of human freedom, which was taken too much for granted in advanced democratic nations. “We do not condemn often enough the constant violations of free speech in two thirds of the countries which are Members of the United Nations, but allow limited or no press freedom to their citizens”, he said. It was a sad fact that only 20 per cent of the world’s population lived in the minority of countries that guaranteed and enjoyed a free press.
During the panel discussion that followed, several speakers noted that the events of 11 September had emphasized the new challenges facing the press.
As the world was becoming a more dangerous place, the danger for the journalists also increased, the mediator said. In that context, it was important to address not only the issue of their safety, but also the question of their responsibility in fighting terrorism. “Can freedom of the press take a back seat to public safety of security concerns? Should the media have access to the trials of accused terrorists? When do we risk crossing the line where news becomes propaganda, or terror becomes entertainment?” he asked.
“Today, we might have heard more about terrorism than about the freedom of the press”, one panellist said. The lack of a clear definition of terrorism opened the door to those who wanted to restrict the freedom of the press in various countries. The problem of not knowing “the limits and the borders” was very serious. It was important to define such borders in covering the subject of terrorism in the press. Instead of presenting only the governments’ views, the press had the responsibility to give both sides a chance to express their views. Were Osama bin Laden captured, the press should provide him with a chance to present his views.
“Imagine if Osama bin Laden were to be captured by United States forces and brought to trial” –- another panellist said. “Unless the trial was televised, millions of people around the world, who either cannot read or who have access only to government-controlled newspapers, might be falsely persuaded that he had not been given a fair trial.” Many Americans believed that the ban on televised coverage of terrorist trials was unfortunate, because they were convinced that the trials would be fair, and that the world should see that they were fair. The Government of the United States had not joined in the movement to permit television coverage of trials, however. He understood the concerns of those who feared that televised trials could endanger witnesses, prosecutors and even judges, but modern technology allowed the press to avoid showing faces of those who might feel threatened.
One of the arguments was that the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, still in its pretrial stage, had already demonstrated why the world should see the trials of alleged terrorists. At his last hearing, Moussauoi had indulged in a 50-minute rant, in which he accused his own lawyers of conspiring against him, called for the destruction of the United States and urged that Muslims be returned to power in Spain. Why the United States was not clamouring to put that man’s trial on television was a mystery that had yet to be explained, a panellist said.
It was also pointed out that, in covering terrorism, it was important to understand what moved the terrorists. Following the initial shock of 11 September, it was important to evaluate how those events were colouring the coverage of world events. When the police had blocked the whole area of the World Trade Center, the press had not pushed for access, partially out of fear that it would be unpatriotic. The notion of what was patriotic or not patriotic when you were a journalist needed to be defined. The press needed to continue to present different views and perspectives.
Several speakers agreed that the press had the right to defend its sources and present various views. Participants also addressed the role of the Al-Jazeera network. When it played the tapes of Osama bin Laden speeches, many people wondered why it did not divulge his whereabouts, a panellist said. As a press organization, however, it had a responsibility to present information, which it received, and protect its sources.
While there was no justification for the 11 September attacks, the media really needed to look at terrorism and its root causes, a panellist said. At the same time, several participants stressed the importance of avoiding bias in presenting the news.
“People who blow up women and children are not martyrs”, a panellist said. “They are terrorists.” And yet, many members of the Arab media used that word in describing them. Words had consequences, and journalists had to be very careful in their use. No causes justified the violence that had become all too common and was even presented as defendable by some journalists. The journalists’ personal views should not prevent them from using neutral words in their news coverage and being sensitive to the consequences that one-sided coverage could produce. That was particularly true regarding the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In an exchange of views among participants, a panellist remarked that Muslim media were often quoted selectively in the West. In the Arab and Muslim world, 95 per cent of the population had condemned the 11 September attacks. Also, several questions were raised about the limitations media giants placed on journalists and self-censorship of journalists. One panellist said that the journalistic tradition of objectivity and fair coverage had eroded after
11 September and recent events in the Middle East. If that erosion continued, he said, the terrorists were winning an important victory.
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