As 1998 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1998 observance featured a panel discussion by international media figures on article 19 of the Declaration, which states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
The international community must be vigilant in its defence of a free and independent press, which advanced the cause of human rights, good governance and development among all peoples, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at an observance of World Press Freedom Day 1998.
Media representatives and journalists from around the world participated in the event, which was organized by the Department of Public Information, in cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) and the World Press Freedom Committee.
In a statement read by the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Kensaku Hogen, the Secretary-General said the advent of new information technologies had revolutionized the global reach and influence of media organizations. Development and democracy were closely linked, and an informed public opinion was an essential concomitant of democracy.
In 1997, 26 journalists had been murdered while 129 had been imprisoned, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, he said. Those statistics were a reminder of the grim reality that still hampered the universal application of article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year.
The President of the General Assembly, Hennadiy Udovenko (Ukraine), said article 19 eloquently reaffirmed the intrinsic link between human rights and press freedom. It affirmed the universal freedom to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers".
For all the marvels of modern communications, the need to protect and promote press freedom had lost none of its urgency, he said. The right to free expression in the media was a delicate and fragile liberty that could be easily trampled upon through a variety of means, including outright censorship or insidious intimidation.
As the United Nations was striving to enhance its effectiveness in helping people around the world, there was growing need for the public at large to have a better understanding of the work of the Organization, he said. It was hard to underestimate the crucial role of the media in that area, he added.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, expressed serious concern at the decreasing coverage of foreign news, particularly in local reporting. There was danger in the lack of coverage of foreign news, she warned. How would a climate of understanding be created in light of that trend? What were the implications for countering xenophobia and racism?
Press freedom brought responsibilities as well as rights, she said. Freedom of the press should not be viewed only in the political context. There were other more insidious threats, such as self-censorship, which could result from the fear of defying economic power blocs or local power groups.
The Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Federico Mayor, in a video-taped message, said no fundamental freedoms were more vulnerable than freedom of expression and freedom of the press, which were constantly being curtailed by censorship, imprisonment and sometimes death. Journalists were the living embodiment of those freedoms, and it was necessary to protect and support them.
Any setback for freedom of expression and freedom of the press was a setback for democracy, he went on to say. The UNESCO would be at the disposal of both sides when conflicts arose, and would pressure governments to investigate serious violations. Only a well-informed public could take its destiny in hand, participate in the democratic functioning of its institutions and work for enduring peace.
The Chairman of the World Press Freedom Committee, James H. Ottaway, Jr., said one of the basic duties of a free press was to shine the bright light of exposure on both hidden and public abuses of human rights. The worst human rights abuses occurred where there was no free press.
It was unfortunate that the ringing provisions of article 19 of the human rights declaration were more honoured in their breach than in their observance, he said. Restriction of news and information was an isolationist policy. However, in this information age, no country could participate in the global debate of ideas or in global markets without allowing news, information and new ideas to cross its borders.