Committee on Information                               PI/1413

Twenty-fourth Session                                         23 April 2002

2nd Meeting (AM)

 

 

UN MUST PLAY GREATER ROLE IN BRIDGING ‘DIGITAL DIVIDE’,

COMMITTEE ON INFORMATION TOLD AS DEBATE CONTINUES

 

 

The United Nations, particularly the Department of Public Information (DPI), must play a greater role in bridging the growing “digital divide”, the Committee on Information was told this morning as it continued its general exchange of views.

 

The Committee, the principal legislative body mandated to make recommendations to the General Assembly on the work of DPI, is holding its twenty-fourth session amid a comprehensive review of DPI intended to complete its reorientation.

 

The rapid development of information and communications technology, stated Cuba’s representative, bore a “bitter contradiction” -– the greater the developments, the wider the technological divide between developed and developing countries.  While there was talk of the use of the Internet in developing countries, for the vast major of inhabitants, the vital concern was not the latest software but rather securing a slice of bread.  The imbalance was becoming increasingly clear in information dissemination.  Thus, a “new world information order” should be created.

 

Noting that the United Nations could play a very important role in that regard, he commended the efforts being made by it, particularly by DPI, to develop the Web sites and spread the Internet to the remote corners of the globe.  It was also important not to cut back the meagre funds devoted to producing and promoting United Nations television and radio programmes, and efforts must be maintained to improve the Web site in all official languages.  He would continue to reject cutbacks in information services that damaged the great majority of delegations.

 

That fewer than 2 per cent of the world’s people were actually benefiting from the use of the Internet required immediate attention, stressed the representative of Pakistan.  That imbalance must be corrected so that its benefits were shared on a more just and equitable basis by all.  It was an area in which the United Nations should step in and on which the DPI should focus its energies.  While it was important to publicize the Organization’s work, it was equally important that the United Nations, through its relevant departments and agencies, concentrate some of its energies and resources in bridging that digital divide.

 

Regarding the ongoing reorientation of the Department’s activities, the representative of the United States said that for the people of the world to receive the maximum benefit possible from all United Nations programmes, United Nations activities must be carefully reviewed, rationalized and prioritized.  Programme managers must indicate “which programmes should be maintained, expanded or

 

(page 1a follows)

Committee on Informationi            - 1a -                     Press Release PI/1413

2nd Meeting (AM)                                         23 April 2002

 

 

eliminated”.  Among other things, he supported the efforts to eliminate the duplication and fragmentation of DPI’s functions to more effectively coordinate its activities with the substantive departments concerned.

 

Speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Jamaica’s representative stated that while there was a need for an evaluation process based on results-based budgeting, any evaluation must also take into account the impact that the Department’s work was having on certain regions.  Evaluations should not be based solely on the numbers crunch, but on the information, communication and educational impact that the Department’s activities were having on Member States, particularly those in the developing world. 

 

Statements were also made by the representatives of Japan, Nigeria, China, Morocco, Costa Rica (on behalf of the Rio Group), Mexico, Russian Federation, Jordan and Belarus.

 

The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. today to continue its general debate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(page 2 follows)

 

 


Background

 

      The Committee on Information, the principal legislative body mandated to make recommendations to the General Assembly on the work of the Department of Public Information (DPI), met this morning to continue its general debate.  The Committee is holding its twenty-fourth session amid a comprehensive review of DPI intended to complete its reorientation.

 

      For further background, see Press Release PI/1410, issued on 19 April.

 

      Statements

 

      MOTOHIDE YOSHIKAWA (Japan) said the importance of public information activities by the United Nations was widely recognized.  They were an essential factor in enhancing understanding and support for the Organization as it addressed not only issues related to international peace and security, but also economic and social issues such as poverty, the environment, human rights and HIV/AIDS.  At the same time, in the Millennium Declaration, Member States urged the Secretariat to make the best use of its resources in all its endeavours.  He appreciated that the Secretary-General’s report had been written with full recognition of that instruction. 

 

      He strongly welcomed the initiatives taken by Mr. Tharoor to review the Department’s activities.  Although the proposed mission statement for the Department needed further careful consideration, he endorsed the “broad direction of DPI’s reorientation” that the Department had commenced.  He welcomed, for example, the introduction of the concept of “customer needs” and “performance management” in the Department.  He encouraged the DPI to continue its exercise on prioritization among its activities. 

 

      Turning to the role of the United Nations information centres (UNICs), he said that since 35 per cent of the Department’s budget was used to maintain

77 information centres around the world, he welcomed a proposed cost-benefit analysis of the centres.  His Government highly appreciated the activities of the Information Centre in Tokyo and would continue to support it by making voluntary contributions both in money and in kind.

 

      ORLANDO REQUEIJO GUAL (Cuba), fully associating himself with the statement made on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the world was in the midst of a profound technological revolution in knowledge that influenced every sphere of activity.  The advances were astounding, but, unfortunately, they were not equally distributed.  It was indeed tragic that many peoples of the world continued to face the terrible fact that the gap between rich and poor was widening daily.  Technological and scientific advances were an important foundation of globalization.  Those yielded enormous benefits, but, unfortunately, they were not aimed at enhancing the economic and social development of all.

 

He said the rapid development of information and communications technology bore a “bitter contradiction” -– the greater the developments, the wider the technological divide between developed and developing countries.  While there was talk of the use of the Internet in developing countries, for the vast majority of inhabitants, the vital concern was not the latest software, but rather securing a slice of bread.  It seemed that the peoples of the world actually lived in different solar systems, light years away from each other.  That imbalance was becoming increasingly clear in information dissemination.  Thus, a “new world information order” should be created.

 

Despite such calls, those who owned the communications machinery had indicated that it was not possible to fight against that trend.  People were supposed to resign themselves to being passive consumers against those who bombarded them with stereotypical images aimed at ensuring political and economic domination.  The United Nations could play a very important role in that regard, and he commended the efforts being made by it, particularly by DPI, to develop the Web sites and spread the Internet to the remote corners of the globe.  It was important not to cut back at will the meagre funds devoted to producing and promoting United Nations television and radio programmes, and efforts must be maintained to improve the Web site in all official languages.

 

He would continue to reject cutbacks in information services that damaged the great majority of delegations.  Such action was “completely unjustifiable”, he said.  The scarcity of resources in developing countries made their peoples “victims of information aggression”, as the developed world imposed on them ways to dress, travel, and even think.  One example of corrupt information was the distorted broadcast of the coup d’état against President Chavez of Venezuela.  Lies were being put forward to imply that the President and Vice-President had voluntarily resigned.  In the midst of those reports, however, Cuban radio and television was, minute by minute, providing information about what was really happening.

 

Indeed, he continued, every week from the United States, 2,215 hours of radio and television broadcasting was sent to Cuba on 24 different frequencies. That amounted to between 309 and 315 daily hours of programming that had nothing to do with culture or scientific development, or even with balanced and objective information.  Of the 13 broadcasting stations, 11 belonged to organizations that promoted, or were directly related, to known terrorist elements that operated from United States territory with the full knowledge and consent of the federal Government.  A total of seven stations existed totally for the purpose of broadcasting anti-Cuban propaganda.  He forcefully rejected United States control over broadcasts to Cuba and would continue to do so.

 

      MASOOD KHALID (Pakistan) said the fact that fewer than 2 per cent of the world’s people were actually benefiting from the use of the Internet required immediate attention.  That imbalance in the global information and technology revolution must be corrected so that its benefits were shared on a more just and equitable basis by all.  It was an area in which the United Nations should step in and on which DPI should focus its energies.  While it was important to publicize the work of the United Nations to the outside world, it was equally important that the United Nations, through its relevant departments and agencies, concentrate some of its energies and resources in bridging that digital divide. 

 

      He said the importance of UNICs in disseminating information relating to the United Nations could hardly be overemphasized.  They served as a United Nations window, especially in developing countries, for disseminating knowledge and information on global affairs.  He was aware that the major chunk of the budget of information centres was eaten up by the rental and rent-related expenses.  However, he was surprised to learn that a large portion of those costs was being incurred in just five capitals.  He was intrigued by the desirability of maintaining those centres in high-cost developed countries rather than use the resources by opening information centres in some developing countries, where populations had little access to sources of information such as the Internet. 

 

      CHARLES ONONYE (Nigeria) said his delegation endorsed the Secretary-General’s efforts towards modernizing the United Nations communication system, especially in the face of financial constraint.  He urged the Secretary-General not to relent in his efforts, given that DPI was the principal arm of United Nations global outreach, providing services to the media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), educational institutions and the general public.  The DPI had succeeded in creating tremendous awareness about the United Nations.  Now, it was poised to reset its priorities, address its deficiencies and improve its working methods consistent with the Millennium Declaration.

 

      He said the Department should continue to emphasize areas such as poverty eradication, elimination of illiteracy, control of HIV/AIDS, women’s rights and the plight of children in armed conflict.  He respected the live radio project,  as he still believed that radio was the cheapest and most accessible means of communication in his region.  DPI’s outreach through broadcasting arrangement with the Federal Radio Cooperation of Nigeria had a record number of some 50 million listeners, making it the largest in Africa.  Every effort should be made to sustain the project because it educated and enlightened the population on the work of the United Nations.

 

      The provision of an adequate information infrastructure in all peace operations was crucial to their success, the safety of the peacekeepers and other international personnel, he said.  He, therefore, was delighted to note that DPI had continued to provide planning and operational support to information components of peacekeeping operations, including in Kosovo, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.  The United Nations information centres continued to serve as the “local voice” of the Organization throughout the world, but given the need to maximize the limited available resources, he endorsed the Secretary-General’s proposal to establish regional information centre “hubs” in areas where “linguistic commonalities facilitate regionalization”. 

 

      The daily press releases issued by the Department in English and French tremendously facilitated delegates’ participation and performance at numerous United Nations meetings, he said.  The press releases were particularly useful because they enhanced delegates’ capability, especially those from Africa with limited resources.  He, therefore, urged the Secretary-General to ensure their continuation.  He also commended efforts made to create a “virtual library”, with world outreach.  The library supported delegates and permanent missions in carrying out their duties.  Overall, “extreme caution” should be applied in the review exercise and allocation of funds, in order not to disrupt those very important services.

 

      M. PATRICIA DURRANT (Jamaica), speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said that dual role of DPI in providing information for Member States and in coordinating outreach activities in sending out the message of the United Nations should be emphasized.  There should be a clear relationship between the Secretary-General’s road map for the Millennium Development Goals and the focus on the activities of DPI.  The issue of peacekeeping and the improvement of the public information capacity of peacekeeping and other field missions also needed to be kept constantly in view. 

 

      While she supported the need for an evaluation process based on results-based budgeting, she urged that any evaluation also take into account the impact that the work of the Department was having on certain regions.  In other words, evaluations should not be solely based on the numbers crunch, but on the information, communication and educational impact that the Department’s activities were having on Member States, particularly those in the developing world. 

 

Among other things, she urged that the radio pilot programmes for the Caribbean be instituted on a more permanent basis.  Moreover, while the current programmes were of immense benefit to the region, additional programmes, which were more Caribbean in focus, could complement those.  Therefore, it was imperative that the requisite resources, including personnel, be placed in the Caribbean Radio Unit within DPI to facilitate that process.  She also called for the reinstatement of the Caribbean Magazine Programme, which was an invaluable resource tool for a wide cross-section of Caribbean society.  In addition, she urged DPI to continue with the production of press releases, which were of benefit to small permanent missions with limited staff in providing information on the various meetings taking place.

 

      PATRICK KENNEDY (United States) said the repositioning of DPI was indeed a difficult and complex task, for which he pledged United States support.  Since the comprehensive review was still under way, the Committee should meet in a resumed session later in the year to consider the final report, as well as the pending report of the Office of Internal Oversight Services on the United Nations information centres, and the report on the overall review of United Nations system library services.  For the people of the world to receive the maximum benefit possible from all United Nations programmes, United Nations activities must be carefully reviewed, rationalized and prioritized.  The comprehensive review must contain far-reaching recommendations and decisions, with accompanying explanations.

 

As the reorientation report stated, programme managers must indicate “which programmes should be maintained, expanded or eliminated”, he said. They should review mandates regularly and make recommendations on activities suitable for termination.  He was pleased to note the Department’s intention to focus on the effectiveness of programme activities and on the means to measure such effectiveness.  He also commended it for undertaking the task of defining the goal of each activity and developing indicators to evaluate whether they were achieving their goals.  He also agreed with the Department’s assessment that to successfully reset its priorities, certain low-impact activities should be discontinued.  Likewise, he supported the efforts to eliminate the duplication and fragmentation of DPI’s functions to more effectively coordinate its activities with the substantive departments concerned.

 

In that context, he continued, the UN Chronicle should have a closer look, with respect to its impact and readership.  It must be asked whether the professional time and other costs involved in producing it were justified.  Unlike the Yearbook, which was a comprehensive and authoritative review of all United Nations activities and the main reference work of record, the Chronicle generally contained information that readers could easily find elsewhere.  Financial resources should be reprogrammed towards other DPI activities, perhaps, for example, to enhance the multilingual nature of the Web site.  Concerning the Library, he was pleased to note that a reprioritization of functions was being contemplated.  The Library’s technical services functions, including cataloguing and indexing, should be automated and rationalized, and the considerable professional expertise in the Library should be devoted to priority Secretariat-wide information support activities.

 

On the question of United Nations conferences, he said he was pleased to note that the Department was looking at ways to better coordinate its activities with the substantive departments concerned.  On UNICs, the United Nations houses initiative, coupled with the contemplated regional information centre “hub” arrangement, had the potential to provide centralized and system-wide public information, educational and other outreach services to the 120 countries that did not currently host a UNIC or other DPI office.  He continued to be impressed by DPI’s continuing enhancement of the UN Web site, in particular, the creation of the multilingual “UN Action against Terrorism” page following the tragic events of 11 September, and the excellent “UN Works” page.  He continued to question the need for DPI to employ an outside contractor to rationalize it, however, since that should be done with DPI’s in-house expertise.

 

He said the linkage of the official document system (ODS) with the public and freely accessible UN Web site and the availability of parliamentary documents in the six official languages would significantly enhance the multilingual nature of the site and further the goals of the Organization.  His delegation would be circulating a proposal requesting the Secretary-General to report to the Committee at its next session on the impact on the functioning of the ODS, following implementation of the full multilingual support function and on the feasibility of providing free, public access to the ODS through a linkage with the UN Web site.  The Committee would also be asked to express its intention to decide to make the ODS freely and publicly available, following the expected successful completion of the trial period. 

 

He said his country agreed on the need for a systematic evaluation of the international radio-broadcasting project.  The Committee’s application of the   so-called “sunset provision” in deciding to continue the radio project for an initial two-year period, subject to further Committee evaluation, should serve as a model for Committee action when considering other programmes.  On the question of peacekeeping, he appreciated DPI’s efforts to enhance its support for peacekeeping operations, but questioned the Secretariat’s request for additional resources in the support account for backstopping peacekeeping operations.  That request should be held in abeyance pending consideration of the comprehensive review of DPI.

 

Finally, he said his delegation would be seeking the Committee’s support in adopting language reasserting the Committee’s role as the main subsidiary body mandated to make recommendations relating to the work of the Department and emphasizing the importance of ensuring that recommendations relating to the work of the Department be considered in the Committee.  Over the last few years, decisions had been taken in the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) on specific programme issues concerning DPI, which were not recommended by the Department or the Information Committee, including the establishment of two new posts in DPI.  Not only was that decision not recommended by the Department or approved by the Committee, it was not considered by the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) and the Committee for Programme  and Coordination (CPC).  Established procedures should be followed.

 

      LI TAIZHANG (China) noted that the United Nations Web site had become an important and effective tool for communications of the Organization in a short period of time.  With regard to the balanced multilingual development of the Web site, he noted that the Secretary-General’s report on the subject had stated that the number of pages available in Arabic and Chinese was low, and the usage of the sites in Arabic, Chinese and Russian were the lowest.  There was a need for the continuous development and maintenance of the Web site in all six official languages.

 

He said that in looking at the language structures, all six languages were lumped into one unit, which was not rational.  Also, a disparity could be seen in staffing for the six languages, such as the fact that there was no official post on the staff of the Chinese language site.  That, he said, would affect the balanced development of the Web site.  It was important for DPI to reorganize the management structure for Web site development so that all the language sites would develop in a balanced and comprehensive way.  He also expressed support for the Web sites developing independently for the gradual achievement of parity targets.

 

      MOHAMMED ARROUCHI (Morocco) said he supported the statement made on behalf of the Group of 77.  To the question about what Member States were expecting from DPI, a complete response would be to adapt all activities related to the dissemination of information in an efficient way, especially in the complex and globalizing world.  Priorities in the information field should be defined.   Evaluation of information dissemination had shown that many activities taken on by DPI were dispersed and not coordinated, meaning that no strategic vision had been defined.  That had been exacerbated by the accumulation of the Department’s many mandates.  Those factors had led to an evaluation of the relevance and efficiency of DPI’s activities, and had resulted in a budget reduction.  The Millennium Declaration was the reference point “par excellence”.

 

Owing to the extremely dangerous escalation of the situation in the Middle East, DPI must make the international community more aware of the daily suffering being endured by the Palestinian people, he said.  They had taken a historical path to ensure that they could exercise their inalienable rights and have their own State.  The DPI must not limit itself to transmitting information solely on United Nations activities and objectives.  In keeping with the Secretary-General’s report on reorientation, the Department must coordinate contacts made by the United Nations through appropriate intermediaries and must adopt the concept of a partnership with NGOs and the external media. 

 

The use of electronic media must not be to the detriment of the traditional means of transmitting information, he said, especially since Internet use had reached only 6 per cent of the world’s population.  Thus, traditional means must be maintained and strengthened.  Also important was maintaining the Library, as that was the appropriate tool for maintaining the “institutional memory” of the United Nations.  Regarding the Web site, it must be ensured that the six official languages were used, despite insufficient resources.  Finally, the activities of the Department should be evaluated in a systematic way, in order to enhance their impact.  Above all, DPI must strive to bridge the digital divide.

 

      BERND NIEHAUS (Costa Rica), speaking on behalf of the Rio Group, said DPI had indeed received an additional burden of work that had not been accompanied by greater allocation of resources.  He hoped that the Organization would preserve traditional methods of information dissemination to avoid any further broadening of the digital divide.  In that regard, he supported the upgrading of the Department’s television and radio capacities and emphasized the strengthening of programmes in Spanish, as well as the Spanish language site on the United Nations Web site.

 

He expressed support for a new world information order that was more just, and attached importance to the subject of multilingualism in the Organization.  Without multilingualism, there could be no plurality.  The ultimate objective should be for all communication activities of the Organization, especially the Web site, to be produced in as many languages as possible, at the very least in the six official languages.

 

The autonomous growth of the different language sites should be commensurate with the usage of the sites, he noted.  The growth in demand for the Spanish site surpassed the availability of material in that language.  More reflection was needed to incorporate other options to tackle the problem with creativity.  Also, in doing so, giving greater attention to the technological aspect of the problem to the detriment of the two basic objectives -- quality and diversity of the Web page, and making it available to the largest number of users -- must be avoided. 

 

      LUIS ALFONSO DE ALBA (Mexico) said he fully supported the statement made on behalf of the Rio Group.  The modernization of information transmission had been more quantitative than qualitative.  Better content was lacking for many recipients, and that was the Committee’s greatest challenge.  It must avail itself of new tools of information to provide information flows that contributed to the development of all countries.  That was at the heart of promoting the fundamental values of the Organization and obtaining the full support of the international community.  Greater information flows, combined with a favourable international political context, were conducive to a growing participation of civil society in solving problems related to international peace and security, and political, economic and social development.

 

He said the issue was not only the dissemination of information, but promoting and facilitating interaction between governments and civil society groups in efforts concerning poverty and racism, respect for human rights and democratic values, and the preservation of the environment, among others.  The proposed mission statement for DPI should be enriched and not limited to dissemination tasks.  He supported the Department’s traditional tasks of disseminating information through radio, television and the Internet, as well as the creation of training courses for journalists and active support for the registration of NGOs in United Nations conferences and meetings.

 

Of vital importance to DPI’s reorientation was achieving a balance among the Department’s many diverse functions and the needs of users, which ranged from permanent missions at Headquarters to communities and government ministries, he said.  It was particularly important to preserve DPI as a link with civil society, whose great diversity of international players worked in the international context to achieve United Nations objectives.  Approximately 3,000 NGOs had already established links with the United Nations Secretariat through the Department.  That constituted a broad and democratic base for the implementation of the Organization’s main goals.

 

His delegation was determined to achieve a greater balance in the use of the official languages, through all written and oral media and, in particular, through the Internet.  He supported the pilot programme for direct radio broadcasting, which had been very useful in improving civil society’s access to information.  Those programmes had reached new audiences and, for that reason, he encouraged its continuation.  He also supported the work of the information centres as a bridge between government and civil society groups, and academic institutions.  The centres should continue to both gather and disseminate information, and the Organization, in turn, could benefit from the information transmitted to it by the centres on local and regional events.

 

      BORIS MALAKHOV, Deputy Director of the Department of Press and Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, said that information    was an important means of forming national and international opinion.  It was gratifying to note that the United Nations had decided to enhance the effectiveness of all its information dissemination activities.  He welcomed efforts to consolidate the Organization’s communications potential and, in particular, hailed the creation of the United Nations Communications Group.  Also, he supported the Department’s efforts, within the framework of the Millennium Declaration, in the dissemination of information in cooperation with other relevant departments, on issues such as poverty, human rights and other economic and social issues.

 

      He noted that the Secretary-General’s report on the Department’s reorientation did not contain many specific proposals to resolve existing problems.  He hoped that the comprehensive review would serve to enhance the rationalization and effectiveness of the Department’s activities.  He hailed the creation of the section on the United Nations Web site on combating terrorism.  Under current conditions, it was a good time to intensify activities within DPI  in combating problems such as intolerance.  He expressed support for the second option for the independent development of the various language Web sites.  The Russian language site, he noted, had been able to supplement the page with additional information translated into Russian.  He would like to have more information on the second option proposed by the Secretary-General in his report.

 

      WALID AL-HADID (Jordan) said the role of DPI should be emphasized, in order to ensure that the United Nations was “heard” by all peoples and nations of the world.  The question of Palestine was among the most pressing issues.  In that


context, he hoped DPI would shed increasing light on the events occurring in the occupied Palestinian territories and the grave impact of the Israeli occupation, as well as on Israel’s constant violations of United Nations resolutions and humanitarian law.  He also underscored the importance of fully implementing the annual programme on the question of Palestine. 

 

He said that on the question of the development of the Web site in the six official languages, achieving parity must be emphasized.  Sufficient financial  and human resources should be allocated, on equal terms, among the different languages.  He supported the Secretary-General’s first option, contained in paragraph 33 of his report on Web site development (document A/AC.198/2002/6), concerning translating all materials and data bases into the six official languages.  Regarding the cost of that translation, it seemed, at present, that account should be taken of paragraphs 34 and 35 of the report, concerning the  need to set a target date for achieving parity among the official languages.  Presently, he would seek translation only of new data, and not of certain existing texts, such as the United Nations treaty series.  All documents and publications of the Organization should be issued in the official languages, simultaneously and without any delays. 

 

      ANDREI SAVINYKH (Belarus) said that given the digital divide in information and communications, there was a need for reorienting the Department’s activities. He expressed support for DPI’s close cooperation with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in the planning of peacekeeping operations and in the functioning of the information components of those operations. He was in favour of the independent development of the various language Web sites as presented in the second option contained in the report.  As his was a country with an economy in transition, he emphasized the need for the provision of objective information. 

 

Belarus was interested in broader cooperation with the United Nations in the information and communications field, he noted.  It was counting on cooperation with DPI to enhance the information component of the UN/UNDP office in Minsk.  He was grateful to DPI for the measures taken to ensure the provision of information on international efforts to overcome major disasters, such as the Chernobyl disaster.  He hoped that DPI would continue to provide the international community with information on efforts to mitigate the consequences of that tragedy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* *** *