|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Committee on Information
World Press Freedom Day Commemoration
FREE PRESS FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT, FOUNDATION OF DEMOCRATIC SOCIETIES, SAYS
UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL, AT HEADQUARTERS OBSERVANCE OF WORLD DAY
Press Freedom Event’s Theme: Media, Development, Poverty Eradication;
Speakers Urge Governments to Reaffirm Commitment to Freedom of Expression
After a year in which 47 journalists were killed or injured in the line of duty, and with harassment of media professionals becoming almost routine in some countries, United Nations officials today in New York marked World Press Freedom Day with a call on Governments to reaffirm their commitment to freedom of expression and to allow journalists to exercise their fundamental rights, free from threats and intimidation.
Kicking off a day of events at Headquarters, Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said the Day reminded everyone that a free press was not only an essential human right, but a foundation of all democratic societies. Disputing the idea that journalists were simply messengers, he said that, indeed, the media possessed great power: journalism could kindle the dialogue that helped free societies to function effectively. It did that by speaking truth to power and exposing injustice, he said.
“It is tragic and unacceptable that the number of journalists killed in the line of duty has become a barometer for measuring press freedom”, Mr. Tharoor said, reading out a message on the observance from Secretary-General Kofi Anan. Declaring his firm support for the universal right to freedom of expression, Mr. Annan said many members of the press had been killed, maimed, detained or targeted in other ways for pursuing that right in good conscience.
Noting that, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 47 had been killed in 2005 and 11 had lost their lives this year, he urged all Governments to reaffirm their commitment to the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”, as set out in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the same time, he called on the media to exercise that right responsibly. “Media should not be vehicles for incitement or degradation, or for spreading hatred. (See Press Release SG/SM/10436-OBV/554-PI/1713, issued 28 April.)
Delivering a message on behalf of General Assembly President Jan Eliasson ( Sweden), Acting Assembly President Hamidon Ali ( Malaysia) echoed that sentiment, noting that recent events demonstrated that with freedom, came responsibility. It might be one of the downsides of the globalized world that cartoons published in one local newspaper in one country could, just a few months’ later, result in prolonged protests around the world, the loss of lives, and a lingering sense of alienation and anger on all sides, illustrating the need to strike a balance between press freedom and responsible reporting.
Mihnea Ioan Motoc, Romania’s Ambassador and Chairman of the Committee on Information, said the Day was a stark reminder that press freedom and the right to free information was not a reality everywhere, and that journalism in the service of humankind came at a very high price. It was also an opportunity to acknowledge the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA). The daily contribution of United Nations correspondents sustained a deep, commonly held belief that a global dream and global house for that dream -- the United Nations -- could actually work.
UNCA’s President, Masood Haider, said many parts of the developing world had witnessed an unprecedented expansion of freedom of expression. Privately owned third world print and electronic outlets were making enormous progress, “having gained the confidence of their people through objective and unbiased reporting on topics that were taboo in the past”. People in the third world were increasingly turning to their own media, breaking the monopoly of some international channels. “The process has begun, and it seems irreversible”, he said.
Leading off a panel discussion “Media As a Force for Change”, moderated by Mr. Tharoor, Helene-Marie Gosseling, Director, Office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said this past year had been one of the most violent for journalists and said that her agency would continue to call on world leaders to end the “culture of impunity”, to investigate and punish those responsible for attacking journalists and to support all the measures possible to protect journalists.
She called media freedom an “indispensable cornerstone” of a comprehensive and hopefully more effective international development strategy, and emphasized the strong correlation between freedom of expression and improved quality of life, including higher incomes, adult literacy and lower infant mortality, as had been stated in the outcome of the World Summit on the Information Society. Independent media served as conduits to good governance, participatory populations and responsive elected officials, she added.
“Wherever there is an independent media, there is bound to be friction with the Government”, said Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which documents the number of journalists that were killed, imprisoned, threatened or harassed for their work. She said CPJ also recorded some 500 annual cases of attacks on the press -- by Governments, drug lords, criminal mafias, or others with reason to silence critical, independent reporting. In 2005 that number had been 47 and, while not a record, it was unacceptably high.
She added that it was also unacceptable that, after journalists were murdered, in far too many cases, absolutely nothing was done; there was no justice, no vigorous investigation, no prosecution. Indeed, in the past decade, 85 per cent of the murders of journalists had been committed with impunity. “It is a terrible record and one with terrible consequences ... unless Governments take up their responsibility to find and punish those who kill journalists”, she said, calling the failure of justice in such cases was the most urgent threat facing journalists worldwide.
A prerequisite for the media to play a meaningful rule in the process of campaigning for political change in any society was the guarantee by a Government of a free public press, said Geoffrey Nyarota, Laureate of the 2002 UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize. Such guarantee was often non-existent and the primary task of the media in such cases had been to campaign for the establishment of a media climate that was conductive to the free flow of information.
He said that authoritarian Governments customarily formulated strategies to establish total control over the print press and the electronic media, including more recently the Internet, while they sought to entrench themselves permanently in positions of uncontested supremacy. But at the same time, where true democracy and the civil rights of citizens were effectively undermined, the media, when supported by a courageous and determined civil society, could play a vanguard role in fighting for basic rights and freedom.
Mariana Sanchez, Venezuelan Correspondent and reporter for Al Jazeera International, said that covering the news in conflict zones was not only a dangerous business: it was sad, frustrating and physically demanding. She had covered conflict on many fronts, the Balkan wars in the 1990s, as well as conflict in Peru. “Is dying to get to the truth worth it?” she asked. “It is. We have an obligation. I am convinced we contribute to making life better.” Indeed, journalists could contribute to making solidarity a global concept. They could contribute to bringing awareness about poverty, as well as other ills, to all the world’s people.
The Department of Public Information (DPI) this morning sponsored the formal observance of World Press Freedom Day. The event, which is also part of the weekly DPI/NGO briefing programme, will include a panel discussion entitled, “The Media as a Force for Change”.
The General Assembly in 1993 declared 3 May as World Press Freedom Day (decision 48/432 of 20 December). That action stemmed from the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which, by a 1991 resolution on “Promotion of press freedom in the world”, had recognized that a free, pluralistic and independent press was an essential component of any democratic society. The General Conference had transmitted to the General Assembly the wish of UNESCO member States to have 3 May declared “International Press Freedom Day”.
That date commemorates the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press, adopted on 3 May 1991 by the Seminar on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press, organized by UNESCO and the United Nations in Windhoek, Namibia.
Opening the observance, SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said the Day existed to remind all that a free press was not only an essential human right, but also a foundation of all democratic societies. It drew attention to the fact the press had a right to do its job, and the observance was also a reminder of why the work of journalists was so important to the world. Journalists took enormous risks. It was a sad fact that 47 journalists had lost their lives last year in their pursuit of the job. He disputed the idea that journalists were simply messengers. Indeed, the media possessed great power. Journalism could help kindle the dialogue that helped free societies to function effectively. It did that by speaking truth to power and exposing injustice.
Truth was not simple, however, and communication not always straightforward, he said. The world needed a press that did not shy away from stories because they were difficult to tell. The Day was an opportunity to remind journalists that they were possessors of loud voices and powerful pens.
KOFI ANNAN, United Nations Secretary-General, in statement read out by Under-Secretary-General Tharoor, noted that with the proliferation of so-called new media, new technologies and new ways of distributing content, information had become far more accessible. It was also becoming more diverse. Mainstream media reporting, for example, was being supplemented by “participatory media” such as blogs.
But as media and journalism evolved, certain bedrock principles remained paramount, he said. On World Press Freedom Day, he declared his firm support for the universal right to freedom of expression. Many members of the press had been killed, maimed, detained or targeted in other ways for pursuing that right in good conscience. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 47 had been killed in 2005 and 11 had lost their lives this year. It was tragic and unacceptable that the number of journalists killed in the line of duty had become a barometer for measuring press freedom. He urged all Governments to reaffirm their commitment to the right to “seek, receive and imparted information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”, as set out in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At the same time, he appealed to everyone to exercise that right responsibly and, where possible, proactively. Media had a powerful influence on human behaviour. As such, and as the General Assembly had reaffirmed in its recent resolution establishing the new United Nations Human Rights Council, they had “an important role to play in promoting tolerance, respect for and freedom of religion and belief”. Media should not be vehicles for incitement or degradation, or for spreading hatred. It must be possible to exercise discretion without encroaching on fundamental freedoms.
On the observance of the Day, it was necessary to recognize that national and global media not only reported on change, but were themselves agents of change, he said. All should be grateful for the work and imagination of the press. He trusted old and new media alike would be able to continue their work, unencumbered by threats, fear or other constraint.
HAMIDON ALI (Malaysia), Acting President of the General Assembly, delivering a message on behalf of General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, said the Day was an annual reminder to the international community that freedom of the press and freedom of expression were fundamental rights that needed to be defended as cornerstones of democracy, and the made a true difference in peoples’ lives around the world. It was also an opportunity to pay tribute to those who had lost their lives in the line of duty over the past year. “We need to strengthen our resolve to ensure the safety and security of journalists around the world”, he said.
The theme for this year’s observance, “Media, Development and Poverty Eradication”, drew attention to the role of media in eradicating poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Media -- free and independent, and with unhindered access and free flow of information -- could help inform and educate the public and check corruption and mismanagement, thus, contributing to the process of development.
As recent events had demonstrated, with freedom came responsibility. He said that it might be one of the downsides of the globalized world that cartoons published in one local newspaper in one country could, just a few months’ later, result in prolonged protests around the world, attacks on diplomatic missions, the loss of lives, and a lingering sense of alienation and anger on all sides. That illustrated the need to foster global tolerance and understanding and to strike a balance between press freedom and responsible reporting.
The message went on to say that freedom was intrinsically related to human rights and democracy. In recent months, the General Assembly had made important decisions in that regard, setting up the Peacebuilding Commission and creating the new Human Rights Council. One of the main functions of the Commission would be to support the rebuilding of democratic institutions in countries emerging from conflict. The new Council signalled a new beginning for the promotion and protection of human rights around the world. With those two new institutions, the United Nations would be better equipped to work for peace, development and human rights for all.
MIHNEA IOAN MOTOC ( Romania), Chairman of the Committee on Information, said the Day was a stark reminder that press freedom and the right to free information were not a reality everywhere. World Press Freedom Day was also a reminder that journalism in the service of humankind came at a very high price. This year’s awarding of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize revealed yet another sad story of sacrifice.
The Day was also an opportunity to acknowledge the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), which was very precious to the Organization. Their everyday contribution sustained a commonly held, deep belief that a global dream and global house for that dream, such as the United Nations, could actually work. “UNCA is not close to our workplace, it is part of the workplace”, he said.
Participants were gathering at a critical juncture in efforts to bring the blueprint for transformation -- laid down by the world’s leaders last September -- to actually impact the work of United Nations, he said. The international media had been an important driving force in keeping the standards on United Nations reform high. The suggested backdrop for this year’s celebration was the media as a force for change in poverty eradication. The media could help to keep the international community aware of the issue of poverty, for, as long as poverty persists, the international community will have fallen short of its goals.
MASOOD HAIDER, President, United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), said World Press Freedom Day was an opportunity to remind the world of the importance of protecting the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, as stated in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Without these rights, democracy cannot prevail and development remains unattainable.”
He said UNCA had always striven to protect and defend the rights of its ever-expanding membership, dedicated to covering United Nations activities. It was also seeking to expand facilities for them at New York Headquarters. The UNCA and DPI had recently revived a dormant standing committee aimed at resolving the problems facing journalists at the United Nations.
There was an unprecedented expansion of freedom of expression in many parts of the third world, he said, noting that, in the past, calls for press freedom were directed only at the developing countries. The privately owned third world print and electronic outlets were making enormous progress, “having gained the confidence of their people through objective and unbiased reporting on topics that were taboo in the past”. People in the third world were increasingly turning to their own media, breaking the monopoly of some international channels. “The process has begun and it seems irreversible”, he said. The trend towards exercising independence deserved to be encouraged, as the third world media was still developing.
He recalled that, in the early 1980s, a new world information and communications order had been proposed, aimed at developing a two-way flow of information between developed and developing countries, to create better understanding among nations. At the time, the flow of information was unidirectional, from North to South. One of the order’s guidelines was “respect for each people’s cultural identity and the right of each nation to inform the world public about its interests, its aspirations and its social and cultural values”. Although that initiative had been denounced as a form of censorship, had it been accepted, the world would not have gone through such tensions and turmoil as in the aftermath of the controversy over the cartoons.
HELENE-MARIE GOSSELING, Director, Office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to the United Nations in New York, said freedom of expression and freedom of the press were central to building strong democracies, promoting civic participation and the rule of law, and encouraging human development and security. Protecting and furthering those fundamental human rights could help further another basic human right: the right to live free from poverty. The first Millennium Development Goal -- halving poverty by 2015 -- was not currently on track, and more innovative strategies needed to be identified in order to move forward more rapidly.
She said media freedom was an “indispensable cornerstone” of a comprehensive and hopefully more effective international development strategy. Freedom of expression serves as a trigger and catalyst for the realization of other basic human rights. UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura had said: “It is through the exercise and practice of freedom of expression that the disadvantaged are enabled to recognize and claim the protection of their human rights. In this calculus of poverty eradication, free and independent media are a central priority.”
There was a strong correlation between freedom of expression and improved quality of life, including higher incomes, adult literacy and lower infant mortality, as had been stated in the outcome document of the World Summit on the Information Society, she said. Independent media served as conduits to good governance, participatory populations and responsive elected officials. According to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, political freedoms were linked to better economic outcomes and good governance in low income countries by encouraging responsiveness to public concerns.
She said UNESCO had long supported the establishment of community multimedia centres in developing countries that would support access to information that citizens needed to help them participate in the democratic life of their societies. The UNESCO was also playing a leading role in media development in post-conflict countries, as part of the establishment of democratic institutions.
This past year had been one of the most violent for media professionals, she said. Scores of media professionals had been killed last year in the line of duty and hundreds had been detained or imprisoned. The UNESCO called, once again, on leaders throughout the world to end the culture of impunity, to investigate and punish those responsible for attacking journalists, and to support all the measures possible to protect journalists.
In conclusion, she said today in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize was being awarded to May Chidiac from Lebanon. She had been brutally attacked last September in Lebanon and had lost a leg and a hand. Ms. Chidiac had said: “I cannot express to you the suffering I have endured. But maybe this country was in need of a leg to kick those bad people who do not love Lebanon and who work against it, and of a hand to lift the weights which bend the back of this country. It is the price I had to pay for so deeply loving this country and it was perhaps my destiny to take part in this great sacrifice.”
ANN COOPER, Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), whose organization documented journalists that were killed, imprisoned, threatened or harassed for their work, said that those were all barometers of press freedom, which was essential for democracy. She said that, as part of its observance of the Day, the CPJ would launch a report that identified and described the most censored countries in the world. In those “most censored” countries, the media were not a force for change, but a powerful force for the status quo. They were controlled by the authoritarian leaders of those countries, and manipulated by them in order to keep the leaders in power.
Those media did that by stifling all criticism, by publishing propaganda about the leaders, and by keeping the “bad news” from the public. “This can reach ridiculous, even dangerous, levels”, she said, adding that North Korea was at the top of the CPJ’s list, and recalled that many at the United Nations would remember the famine that afflicted millions of people in that country during the 1990s, but which was judged “too sensitive” by the North Korean Government for media coverage.
She went on to say that the CPJ had chosen to spotlight the censorship in North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Libya and five other countries to illustrate the severe consequences when the press lacked freedom. “The people who live in these countries are isolated from the rest of the world”, she said. “They are uninformed, living under rulers who tolerate no criticism. And in some cases, [those countries] censor press so ruthlessly that the public welfare is endangered.” Those were the worst cases, she added, but stressed that, in much of the rest of the world, media operated, in one way or another, with varying degrees of freedom.
“Wherever there is an independent media, there is bound to be friction with the Government”, said, saying that that was where the CPJ came in, documenting some 500 annual cases of attacks on the press -- by Governments, drug lords, criminal mafias, of others with reason to silence critical, independent reporting. In 2005 that number had been 47 and, while not a record, it was unacceptably high. Also unacceptable was what happened after journalists were murdered. In far too many cases, it was absolutely nothing -- there was no justice, no vigorous investigation, no prosecution. Indeed, in the past decade, 85 per cent of the murders of journalists had been committed with impunity -- that is, those who had been responsible for the killings had never been prosecuted.
“It is a terrible record and one with terrible consequences, particularly in the Philippines, in Colombia and Russia -- three countries where the cycle of violence seems unlikely to end unless Governments take up their responsibility to find and punish those who kill journalists”, she said, adding that the failure of justice in such cases was the most urgent threat facing journalists worldwide. It helped perpetrate more violence against journalists and forced journalists to censor themselves. She said that, as of December, there were 125 editors, writers and photojournalists imprisoned around the world, and it was striking to look at where they were being held. Two thirds were being held in four countries: China, Cuba, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
That confirmed a trend the CPJ had documented that imprisonment was most likely in a handful of countries that had little regard for human rights. “This is an area where advocacy -- by press groups and by Governments concerned about human rights and democracy -- has made a real difference.” That pressure could make a real difference even in countries that routinely imprisoned journalists, like China, Cuba and Ethiopia. She called on all Governments who cared about human rights to continue their efforts to let rulers know that imprisoning journalists was an unacceptable violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Finally, she turned to the situation in Iraq, saying that, since March 2003, 68 journalists had been killed on duty there, along with another 24 media workers, including drivers and translators. All in all, 92 people had died trying to tell the world about what was happening in Iraq. And there were other risks, including kidnapping, violent attacks, as well as detention by United States troops, who last year held at least seven local Iraqi journalists for weeks or months at a time. All but one of the seven had been released without charge, and an Iraqi tribunal had quickly acquitted that person of charges of subversive activity.
GEOFFREY NYAROTA, Laureate of the 2002 UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize, said the free media in any genuinely democratic political environment could be a catalyst for political, social and economic change. Where true democracy and the civil rights of citizens were effectively undermined, as had been the case in some authoritarian States in southern Africa, the media, when supported by a courageous and determined civil society, could play a vanguard role in fighting for basic rights and freedom. A prerequisite for the media to play a meaningful rule in the process of campaigning for political change in any society was the guarantee by a Government of a free public press. Such a guarantee was often non-existent, and the primary task of the media in such cases had been to campaign for the establishment of a media climate that was conductive to the free flow of information.
Authoritarian Governments customarily formulated strategies to establish total control over the print press and the electronic media, including more recently the Internet, while they sought to entrench themselves permanently in positions of uncontested supremacy. While ordinary citizens had been denied free access to information, as was their democratic right, the safety and security of journalists had thus been undermined. It was ironic that journalists in such countries, including those who worked for small newspapers, were exposed to the greatest risk and often assumed professional responsibilities far exceeding those of their counterparts on more celebrated publications in freer societies. In the absence of effective political opposition parties under authoritarian Governments, independent publications often became the de facto opposition.
His own country, Zimbabwe, was currently a nation in turmoil, he said. The ruling party, President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, had been in office for a total of 26 years. While general elections had been held regularly, President Mugabe’s unrelenting hold on the reins of power had resulted not from the popular appeal of Zanu-PF, but partly from intimidation, violence and the party’s tight control of major newspapers, radio and television. The popular and critical independent daily newspaper, the Daily News, of which he was a founding editor in 1999, had been banned by the Government in 2003. During the paper’s four years of existence, the Daily News had effectively demonstrated how an independent and widely circulating publication could be a strategic catalyst for political and social change when it highlighted the failures of the ruling elite, while ventilating the concerns and aspirations of a subjugated populace.
With the demise of the Daily News in 2003, the political situation had essentially reverted to the status quo prior to 1999, that of Government’s unchallenged monopoly of the media sector and near-total control over the dissemination of information. The few existing independent papers were limited in circulation and priced beyond the means of the ordinary worker. Zimbabweans were, therefore, forced to rely, once again, on the Government’s vast media empire as a regular source of essential information. The outcome of parliamentary elections held in March 2005 reflected the skewed nature of Zimbabwe’s media, aggravated by the total absence of a serious challenge to Government’s unmitigated daily propaganda. It also reflected the consequences of the Government’s regime of draconian media laws that had rendered the practice of journalism in that country a hazardous occupation. The media had not only been denied free access to information; journalists had been harassed, arrested and tortured, while media establishments had been subjected to physical attacks.
In the absence of the international community’s assistance, there was a limit to what privately owned media organizations could achieve, while trying to hold a powerful and authoritarian regime accountable to the people, he said. In Zimbabwe, most independent media organizations operated on a shoe-string budget in a situation of ever-increasing operating costs and spiralling inflation. The outside world must maintain an interest in, and keep debate alive on, the plight of journalists in Zimbabwe, and other countries where Governments trampled on press freedom.
MARIANA SANCHEZ, Venezuela Correspondent, Al Jazeera International, said that covering the news in conflict zones was not only a dangerous business; it was sad, frustrating and physically demanding. She had covered conflict on many fronts, the Balkan wars in the 1990s, as well as conflict in Peru. She noted that when the war in Bosnia was perhaps at its peak, she had been working in the nightly news in Peru, and had wondered why there were not more stories about the horrifying images coming out of the region. Was there something that people in Peru could do? But at that moment, the news was eclipsed by devastating pictures from Rwanda. Almost before anyone understood who the Hutus and Tutsis were, genocide happened in Rwanda.
She said that the troubling images that flooded the media -- in many cases long after the specific incidents had occurred -- could make one question whether covering war zones was worth the risk. “Is dying to get to the truth worth it?” she asked. “It is. We have an obligation. I am convinced we contribute to making life better.” Indeed, journalists could contribute to making solidarity a global concept. They could contribute to bringing awareness about poverty, as well as other ills, to all the world’s people.
As the floor opened for comments and questions, speakers addressed the issue of legal assistance for the media in developing countries in the face of government repression and intimidation. Other speakers raised the issue of hate media and the use of the media for incitement, specifically in the case of the Rwandan genocide. The issue of how the Internet could be used to help the process of democratization and as an instrument of control was also raised.
Responding to the issue of the Internet and press freedom, Ms. COOPER said there had been great excitement about the Internet and what it could do for the freedom of expression. In countries such as China, however, non-traditional journalists or “bloggers” were being repressed and even imprisoned. China was doing a good job of controlling the Internet and punishing those who used the Internet for freedom of expression. Thirty-two journalists had been imprisoned last year in China, half of whom were in prison for what they wrote on the Internet.
Another new wrinkle was the complicity of technology companies, particularly United States tech companies, in China’s censorship of the Internet, she said. Yahoo, for example, had bowed to China’s demand that they identify e-mail account users. China then used that information to prosecute people and put them in jail. While much of the focus had been on China, the companies themselves had to show responsibility and respect for human rights. Other countries, moreover, were looking at what China was doing. If China forced tech companies to be a part of its censorship, other countries would follow that trend. It was essential to find solutions. American companies, such as Yahoo and Microsoft, had to be aware of the fact that they could not be responsible for censorship on the Internet, as it would have a ripple effect around the world.
Ms. GOSSELIN added that many countries did not have access to information, be it for educational purposes or life-saving information. The Internet provided a wealth of information, for example, in the prevention of HIV/AIDS. Even in relatively developed countries, people often lacked information. The UNESCO supported the use of information and communications technology, while, at the same time, upholding the freedom of expression, including on the Internet.
Mr. NYAROTA noted that, in situations of repression and media control, the Internet had become a valuable alternative source of information for citizens. The Internet had not yet become widely accessible to citizens of poor countries for obvious reasons. Less than 5 per cent of the people in his country had regular access to the Internet. While the internet was a valuable alternative source of information and had played a significant role in influencing political decisions, it was not yet readily accessible. More unfortunately, his Government was already working on strategies to censor the Internet with the assistance of China. If there was a serious attempt to censor the Internet, it was because the Government realized the role that the Internet could play in influencing public thinking.
Ms. SANCHEZ agreed that the Internet had become a valuable tool for democracy. There were millions of “bloggers” and the amount of information was vast. It was the people in remote places that needed better access, to understand their rights and denounce abusers.
When the floor opened for discussion, one speaker stressed the need to diagnose the root causes of violence against journalism.
A representative from Iran said the media’s role was quite obvious. It could play a role in creating tension between nations, shape public opinion, hide the truth and be used as a tool to justify government action, as was clearly witnessed before the United States invasion of Iraq. In that regard, he asked the panellists if they felt that the media should be more considerate and not pass certain “red lines”, especially in light of the recent cartoon issue in Europe. What was the role of the United Nations public information in that regard? he asked.
A representative from Colombia said she wanted to go on record that the death of journalists in her country was not the result of a State policy. Her Government was hurt by the loss of journalists, civil society members, members of the judiciary and the military. Such deaths were the results of terrorist actions by illegal armed groups that thrived on the income of drug traffic. She wanted to make that clear. Colombia invested huge amounts of resources to strengthen its legal and judicial systems, which had suffered a great deal in the 1980s, and to reduce the extent of impunity. Unsolved cases were the responsibility of the country’s legal system.
Responding to issue of journalists crossing a line, Ms. SANCHEZ stressed that Governments could not draw those lines. Governments were elected by the people and those people had the right to know everything their Governments did. Journalists had the obligation to tell the people what Governments did. That was the essence of a journalists work.
Ms. COOPER, thanking one speaker for his offer of legal assistance, said the justice system was often so broken in many countries that the best lawyer in the world would probably not make a difference. On the issue of hate speech and Rwanda, she said there was no question that the radio had been deeply involved in the genocide. It was a clear-cut case. There were many less clear cases, however, in defining incitement. It was hard to define such issues.
Ms. GOSSELIN added that UNESCO had called for the respect of human rights in the case of Rwanda. The UNESCO did not condone the use of the media to call for murder. On the issue of cartoons, UNESCO’s board had recently adopted a resolution following the incident of the cartoons. Members had asked for due respect of religious and cultural symbols, while, at the same time, upholding the principle of the freedom of expression.
Ms. COOPER said it was also necessary to look at the aftermath of the cartoons, which had contained some very disturbing elements. Her organization had documented nine cases of journalists in the Middle East who had had reprisals taken against them by their Governments for reporting on the cartoons. A newspaper in Saudi Arabia had published one of the cartoons after a religious leader had said the cartoons should be published so that the people could see what they were about. Three weeks later, that paper had been suspended. However, a more mainstream paper had published the cartoons and had suffered no reprisal. The incident had become an excuse in the hand of repressive Governments against journalists.
Mr. NYAROTA noted that, in countries such as Zimbabwe, a permanent fear of litigation for defamation or libel had become a deterrent to serious investigative journalism. It had also resulted in self-censorship, as the threat of poor news organizations being sued by the rich and powerful had become a serious concern. That offer of legal assistance would be welcome by the media in many countries. Such assistance could include the setting up legal defence funds.
Ms. SANCHEZ agreed that a legal defence fund would be useful in helping journalists to tell the truth, especially free lance journalists that did not have any structure to support them.
A representative from the Philippines said he wished to assure Ms. Cooper that his Government had taken action on the reported killing of media practitioners. The President had ordered police to look into allegations and provide protection for the media. The death of journalists was not part of a State-sponsored policy. The Government would exert every effort to ensure the freedom of the press.
Returning to the issue of the cartoons, the speaker from Iran said it was not Governments who had asked people to demonstrate in response to the cartoons. In Iran, without government control, the people would have made more of a mess. It was the people’s faith and beliefs, however, and not the Government’s that he was referring to.
Mr. THAROOR said the issue of press freedom affected the Organization’s work across the United Nations system. Freedom of expression was a fundamental right, which DPI was happy to promote in the context of the larger obligations of the Organization to the peoples of the world. A free press was a crucial element to fulfilling the role of the United Nations as outlined by its Charter.
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For information media • not an official record