4 May 2009
General Assembly
PI/1878

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Committee on Information

Thirty-first Session

1st Meeting (AM)


UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL OUTLINES ROLE OF STRATEGIC APPROACH IN WIDENING OUTREACH,


IMPROVING PERFORMANCE AS COMMITTEE ON INFORMATION OPENS THIRTY-FIRST SESSION


The adoption of a strategic approach by the Department of Public Information (DPI) had created a meaningful impact on “what we do and how we do it”, Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said this morning as he opened the thirty-first annual session of the Committee on Information.


Aiming to provide a clear picture of significant strides in both widening its outreach and improving its performance, he said, the Department’s communications priorities for the year centred on the United Nations development agenda, peace and security in conflict zones, human rights, climate change, disarmament and non-proliferation, and, most recently, the financial and economic crisis.  DPI had also identified Africa as a regional focus and youth as a strategic audience.


He said DPI continued to pay close attention to providing timely, accurate and impartial information about the United Nations and its multifaceted aims -– a challenging task in an age of quick sound bites.  Its role was to inform the public about a complex array of issues -- from the balance between and justice to the nature of different conflicts.


The strategic approach involved several elements, including advance planning, new partners, clear organization, responsible use of resources and impact assessments.  One area where it had shown results was in the Millennium Development Goals.  Coordinated key messages emphasized the need for States to fulfil their commitments to achieve the Goals, despite such challenges as rising food prices, climate change and the financial crisis.


The availability of instant information required the Department to enhance its capacity to deliver United Nations public information effectively and efficiently, he explained.  “We must do the right thing –- to be effective, and also do the thing right -– to be efficient,” he said.  By maximizing use of the Internet, DPI could reach a much wider audience.  Furthermore, through more evaluation, the Department was learning lessons that allowed for better design of communications strategies.


The 112-member Committee examines United Nations public information policies and activities, and evaluates the Organization’s progress in the information and communications field.  It is also mandated to promote a more effective global information and communications order to strengthen peace and understanding.


Pointing to the changing media landscape and the “shrinking newsroom”, the Under-Secretary-General said that the “on demand” news culture had seen growth in only two platforms, the Internet and cable television, and DPI was responding by balancing its use of traditional communications media with news products that were more responsive to the demands of users.  Another cause of concern was the steadily rising costs of operating DPI’s world wide network of United Nations information centres, which were outpacing budgetary allocations.  As such, States hosting information centres should consider either providing rent-free premises or subsidizing a portion of the rent.


Picking up that thread in the ensuing general debate, the representative of Sudan, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, called for all possible measures to strengthen the information centres, and emphasized that any decision to reorganize them must be made in close consultation with host countries, taking into account the geographical, linguistic and technological characters of different regions.


In addition, more resources and efforts should be devoted to full parity among the Organization’s six official languages on its website, he said.  Traditional media, including radio and print, continued to be important, as did closer cooperation between DPI and other substantive departments, particularly the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.


The representative of the Czech Republic, speaking on behalf of the European Union, highlighted the Department’s progress in further streamlining the draft resolution on information and enhancing the effectiveness of its work within a limited budget through the introduction of benchmarks and clear criteria.  The European Union supported the transformation of the UN Chronicle into UN Affairs in order better to reach out to scholars and policy-shapers, and end the stagnation in subscriptions.  The effort to issue UN Affairs in more languages, through partnerships with universities, and to create a platform for wider perspectives on pressing challenges, was commendable.


Mexico’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Rio Group, stressed the need to continue using traditional media, a major source of information in developing countries, while reiterating the need to use radio-electronic frequencies in the public interest and in conformity with the principles of international law.  The Rio Group also underscored the importance of promoting multilingualism, with press releases, websites and other tools reaching language parity.


Also today, the Committee adopted the provisional agenda and programme of work for its thirty-first session (document A/AC.198/2009/1).


In other business, the Committee elected, by acclamation, Antonio Pedro Monteiro Lima as Chairperson for the session; Amir Hossein Hosseini (Iran), Irakli Chikovani (Georgia) and Stéphane Crouzat (France) as Vice-Chairpersons; and Sheree Chambers (Jamaica) as Rapporteur.


Delegates also welcomed Antigua and Barbuda and Zambia as members.


Also speaking today were the representatives of Romania, Syria, Yemen and Senegal.


The Committee on Information will reconvene at 10 a.m. tomorrow, Tuesday, 5 May, to continue its general debate.


Background


The Committee on Information, the intergovernmental body charged with reviewing progress in the field of United Nations public information, began its two-week thirty-first annual session today, during which time delegations are expected to undertake a wide-ranging review of the Department of Public Information (DPI) and three of its subprogrammes: Strategic Communications, News Services and Outreach Services.  (For more background information, please see Press Release PI/1876 of 30 April.)


Opening Remarks


ANTONIO LIMA ( Cape Verde), Chairperson of the Committee on Information, thanked the membership for his election and noted that the community of nations now faced challenges on many fronts at the same time.  It was crucial that DPI play its role in promoting the Organization’s work in all those areas, and for that reason, appropriate financing should be provided.  The Chair would facilitate the clear guidance for the Department that was the Committee’s necessary role.


KIYO AKASAKA, Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information, opened the thirty-first session by noting that, over the last 30 years, cooperation between Member States and the Department of Public Information had become an active and productive partnership.  DPI’s three reports tried to provide a clear picture of its progress in widening outreach and improving performance.  In those efforts, four clear trends had emerged, underlining that complex issues required proactive and strategic approaches.  “DPI’s adoption of a strategic approach has had a meaningful impact on what we do and how we do it.”  As such, communications priorities for the year had centred on the United Nations development agenda, including the Millennium Development Goals; peace and security in conflict zones; human rights; climate change; and disarmament and non-proliferation.  The financial and economic crisis had been added to that list.  DPI had also identified Africa as a regional focus, and youth as a strategic audience.


The strategic approach involved several elements, including advance planning, new partners, clear organization, responsible use of resources and impact assessments, he said.  DPI continued to pay close attention to providing timely, accurate, impartial and relevant information about the United Nations and its multifaceted aims.  That was a challenging task in a time of quick sound bites, but the Department’s role was to inform the public about a complex array of issues -- from the balance between peace and justice to the nature of different conflicts.  For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) had raised its alert phase for the Influenza A (H1N1) virus to 5, meaning “pandemic is imminent”.  It was possible that phase 6 would be announced next week as a statement on the geographical spread of the virus, not its severity.  That message had to be clearly understood.


He said that information and communications technology had changed the world dramatically, and in the context of the Influenza A (H1N1) outbreak, DPI had a key role in linking United Nations communicators and ensuring coordinated communications on the outbreak through the United Nations Communications Group platform.  The availability of instant information required the Department to enhance its capacity to deliver United Nations public information efficiently.  “We must do the right thing –- to be effective, and also do the thing right -– to be efficient.”  By maximizing use of the Internet and making creative use of it, DPI could reach a much wider audience, as well as targeted groups.


Through more evaluation, the Department was learning lessons that allowed for better design of communication strategies, he said.  Evaluations that included measurable data were also helping to improve internal systems and procedures, such as the high-level event on the Millennium Development Goals and last September’s General Assembly high-level meeting on Africa’s development needs.  One area in which the Department’s strategic approach had shown results was the Millennium Development Goals.  Coordinated key messages emphasized the need for States to fulfil their commitments to achieve the Goals, despite such challenges as rising food prices, climate change and the financial crisis.  DPI information centres had also played an important role in the 2008 “Stand Up and Take Action against Poverty and for the Millennium Development Goals” campaign, a “stunning success”, in which more than 116 million people had taken part.


As the chair of a United Nations system-wide task force on climate change, DPI had presented coordinated key messages to the public and opinion makers alike, he said.  Africa’s development, especially the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), continued to be a communications and media outreach priority.  To meet increased public interest in United Nations peacekeeping, the Department continued to produce and disseminate a range of products.  It also provided strategic guidance and operational support to the public information components of United Nations peace operations and facilitated media relations for senior peacekeeping officials.


He said DPI had taken the lead in highlighting the importance of media and communications as a cornerstone of governance in peacebuilding, an example of which was its collaboration with United Nations actors to support the establishment of an independent national public service broadcaster in Sierra Leone.  Another important focus was implementation of the Special Information Programme on the Question of Palestine.  The Government of Brazil had agreed to host the annual International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East on 27-28 July.  Among other efforts, DPI had also led the outreach programmes on the United Nations and the Holocaust, and organized a series of events in March as part of its outreach programme on remembrance of the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.


Raising an issue that had required the Department to rethink how it communicated its message, he pointed to the changing media landscape and the “shrinking newsroom”, noting that media in many parts of the world had been hit by the financial crisis.  According to the Pew Research Centre, audiences now “hunt and gather what they want when they want”.  Such an “on demand” news culture had seen growth in only two platforms: the Internet and cable television.  The Department was responding by balancing its use of traditional communications media with making news products more responsive to the demands of users.  United Nations Radio had added more than 20 new partner stations to air programmes in a wide array of countries, while United Nations Television had expanded its network of broadcasters.


Moreover, the Department was using social networking tools to reach a broader audience, he said, pointing out the existence of a United Nations channel on “YouTube”.  Over the past year, DPI had also pursued a broader goal of improving overall Internet governance throughout the Secretariat.  In its new integrated approach to its outreach mandate, the Department, as part of the Creative Community Outreach Initiative, had recently worked with the producers of two popular television series -- Law and Order and Battlestar Galactica -- to raise awareness of critical global issues.


Expressing concern about the steadily rising operating costs of United Nations information centres, he said: “Simply put, these costs are outpacing the budgetary allocations we receive.”  DPI appealed to States hosting information centres to consider either providing rent-free premises or subsidizing a portion of the rent.  Without such help, the extent of their activities would be limited.  The Department also recognized the need to make strides towards parity among the Organization’s official languages.


In closing, he said the Capital Master Plan posed major challenges to the Department’s day-to-day operations.  DPI had planned for adequate television and radio services during the renovation, but given the complexity of multimedia operations, continuing uninterrupted services would require constant support from all involved.  Special attention was being given to preserving the Organization’s audiovisual legacy for future generations.  Telling the United Nations story meant telling the story of the 192 Member States, and DPI counted on country efforts to make the common agenda better known to the media and the public.


General Debate


ABDALMAHMOOD ABDALHALEEM MOHAMAD (Sudan), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the continued improvement of the partnership between DPI and the Committee on Information was essential in promoting the work of the United Nations and issues of importance to the international community.  It was critical for the Department continuously to project United Nations ideals and accomplishments, intensify outreach and transmit the Organization’s message to all peoples around the world.  The Group of 77 commended such new initiatives as the first United Nations book day, DPI’s work in raising awareness of the question of Palestine and its initiatives for training journalists, all of which should be enhanced.


Calling for all possible measures to strengthen the United Nations information centres, he said any decision to reorganize them must be made in close consultation with host countries, taking into account the geographical, linguistic and technological characters of different regions.  In addition, more resources and efforts should be devoted to full parity among the Organization’s six official languages on its website.  Traditional media, including radio and print, continued to be important, as did closer cooperation between DPI and other substantive departments, particularly the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.  Raising public awareness of the world economic crisis and the Millennium Development Goals was also crucial.  Finally, the UN Chronicle should continue and be improved with educational outreach, core audiences and parity of languages in mind.


BOŘEK LIZEC (Czech Republic), speaking on behalf of the European Union, stressed that DPI’s role was to reach the international public with information on the challenges and corresponding measures agreed upon by all Member States.  The European Union continued to advocate for a further streamlining of the draft resolution on information and further enhancing the effectiveness of the Department’s work within a limited budget through the introduction of benchmarks and clear criteria.  There had been progress in that regard.


Turning to the information centres, he welcomed their coordination worldwide as long as savings were achieved and not at the expense of their capacity to pay attention to local specifics.  Further efforts were needed to coordinate the information activities of the centres and the offices of United Nations Resident Coordinators and field missions.  New technologies such as electronic publication and webcasting should be used as often as possible to save on printing and transport, allow wider dissemination and limit environmental damage.  The European Union looked forward to seeing further progress in the development of multilingualism, adding that the current capacity of information centres to produce materials in more than 130 languages was certainly an impressive example upon which to build.


The European Union supported the transformation of the UN Chronicle publication into UN Affairs in order better to reach out to scholars and policy-shapers and end the stagnation and even slight decline in subscription, he said.  In that light, the effort to issue UN Affairs in more languages through partnerships with universities, and to create a platform for wider perspectives on pressing challenges on the United Nations agenda, was commendable.


He expressed support for the further strengthening of cooperation with civil society organizations and increasing the visibility of information in the area of violence against women.  In addition, there was a need to improve the access of press counsellors from delegations to restricted areas during high-level summits.  Finally, given the continuing killing of journalists in pursuit of important tasks, the European Union underlined the importance of World Press Freedom Day in raising the awareness of Governments about the duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression.


MARÍA GUADALUPE SÁNCHEZ SALAZAR (Mexico), speaking on behalf of the Rio Group, praised the new format of the DPI report, as well as its dissemination of information on a wide variety of priority United Nations issues.  In promoting the ad hoc thematic debates held by the General Assembly, the Rio Group called on the Organization to maintain objectivity in conveying its messages and to undertake future media campaigns on the energy and ecological crises and their impact on poverty.


Welcoming the Department’s use of new methods and technology in transmitting information, she stressed also the need to continue using traditional media, which constituted a major source of information in developing countries.  The Rio Group reiterated the need for the use of radio-electronic frequencies in the public interest and in conformity with the principles of international law.  It welcomed the close coordination of DPI with other United Nations organs.


Underlining the importance of the 63 United Nations information centres, she encouraged DPI to continue supporting them through the effective use of available resources.  The Rio Group also stressed the importance of promoting multilingualism, with press releases, websites and other tools reaching parity and traditional media being produced in as many languages as possible, including Portuguese and indigenous ones.  The Rio Group welcomed, in addition, DPI’s efforts to enhance accessibility for persons with disabilities, to support the peace process in the Middle East and to strengthen cooperation with non-governmental organizations.


SIMONA MIRELA MICULESCU ( Romania) said public information at the United Nations should be dedicated to transparency, which in turn should be assured by increasingly precise, impartial and coherent strategic communications.  In order for DPI to perform that noble task, it needed adequate funds and a clear mandate, which hopefully would be forthcoming through consensus.  The United Nations information centres were key to that mandate, and had the advantage of giving global issues a local accent.  The Bucharest information centre was particularly important in disseminating the United Nations message in the Black Sea region.


Hailing progress made on multilingualism, she noted, however, that it was often less than adequate.  As for World Press Freedom Day, there were challenges to the freedom of expression in the neighbouring Republic of Moldova, and Romania condemned, as a violation of human rights, tight control of public radio and television in that country, as well as intimidation and denial of access for journalists, including Romanian journalists, in the aftermath of the 5 April parliamentary elections.


MANAR TALEB (Syria), expressing support for the Group of 77 and China, said the Department’s strategy for improving outreach in the coming years required the joint efforts of Governments and organizations alike.  Efforts to disseminate information in support of inter-civilizational dialogue and to condemn attacks on religion were designed to promote “respect for the other”, and the United Nations had a pioneer role to play in that regard.


The Department’s role was to draw attention to such issues as the question of Palestine and non-intervention in internal affairs, he said.  It also played a part in dealing with global crises, including climate change, combating HIV/AIDS and enhancing food security.  Syria welcomed DPI’s efforts to streamline the network of United Nations information centres, and stressed the need to broaden centres in developing countries.  They were of paramount importance in helping to make the voice of the United Nations heard.  That in turn promoted an atmosphere of tolerance among all elements of society.


Stressing the need for the United Nations website to ensure parity among the official languages, he said he was concerned about various language disparities, and noted that the Arabic language page needed improvement.  The most recent changes had led to the elimination of the page on the Palestinian question from the website, as well as that on resolutions related to Iraq.  Such changes were not justified and the Syrian delegation would be in touch with those involved.  Syria urged the Department to make greater efforts in its follow-up on the question of Palestine.  It also stressed the need to close the digital divide and for the necessary funding to do so.


MOHAMMED AL-HADHRAMI ( Yemen), voicing support for the Group of 77 and China, said his delegation had studied the various reports and highlighted the sixteenth Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, organized in cooperation with the Federal Ministry of International Affairs of Austria.  It was regrettable that the Department had not appointed a director for the United Nations information centre in Sana'a, which was of special importance and located in one of the world’s least developed countries.  Yemen hoped DPI would give due attention to the matter and soon appoint the right director to ensure that the centre disseminated United Nations values.  Yemen greatly appreciated the Department’s efforts to improve its performance.  It looked forward to more progress in enhancing the Organization’s image and promoting both dialogue and understanding among civilizations.


MAME BABA CISSE (Senegal), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, said United Nations information centres were crucial to enhancing the Organization’s work and enabling local populations to gain a better sense of ownership of its ideals.  As such, they should be given the resources they needed.  There was a need to strengthen the centres, particularly those in countries south of the Sahara, and Senegal reiterated its call for the establishment of a regional information centre in Dakar to deal with the priority concerns of the extensive francophone community.


The Department continued to disseminate General Assembly decisions, among others things, in all official languages -– efforts that should be further strengthened to promote multilingualism, he said.  It should work to close the gap between the number of web pages offered in English and those in other languages.  People in the global South needed greater access to information technology and the Department should ensure that the Digital Solidarity Fund was better known.  Moreover, the special information programme on the question of Palestine should be welcomed, and Senegal encouraged the intensifying of efforts in that regard.  On World Press Freedom Day, Senegal paid tribute to the “family of professionals” who continued to make known the work of the United Nations.


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For information media • not an official record