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World Press Freedom Day
3 May

World Press Freedom Day 2002

Theme for 2002:
"Covering the War on Global Terror"

"What I'm sure we can all agree on is that, in protecting our security, we must not risk damaging fundamental freedoms — and that one of the most fundamental freedoms is freedom of the press", Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fr├ęchette told participants at the observance of the World Press Freedom Day 2002.

Only where freedom of expression and opinion was guaranteed could human beings feel at all confident of enjoying their other rights, she continued. The 11 September attacks had created a new world climate, however, necessitating re-evaluation of press freedom and bringing new threats against it. Terrorism could not be fought successfully without news media that were free to inquire into the causes of terrorism, and the political and social conditions that allowed it to thrive. Equally, the media had important responsibilities in a society threatened by terrorism, in particular, the responsibility to report objectively, without giving way to public moods of hysteria or revenge.

Milos Alcalay (Venezuela), Chairman of the Committee on Information, told participants that following the 11 September tragedy, it was important to address the question of the impact of such a new kind of warfare and its repercussions for the freedom of the press. Journalists had the duty to inform the public objectively. Many journalists had, in fact, died simply because they were trying to inform the public. It was important to pay tribute to the journalists who never ceased telling the truth and lost their lives in doing so. It was also important to condemn in the strongest possible terms those responsible for assassinations and intimidation of journalists.

Calling journalism one of the most dangerous professions today, James H. Ottaway, Chairman, World Press Freedom Committee, said understandable outrage against terrorists should not justify the violation of basic human rights or the rule of law, or new forms of censorship. There was an inevitable tension between security and freedom of the press, particularly when their delicate balance was upset by a worldwide war on terrorism. More information was needed, not less, about terrorists, and the public needed to know more, not less, about what governments were doing to stop terrorists.

Michel Barton, Director of Public Information, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said that there was growing concern over the negative impact that anti-terrorism measures could have on human rights and on the media. Some countries had taken measures aimed at facilitating wiretapping, for example, and denying reporters access to conflict zones was becoming routine. Strident appeals to patriotism made it harder to question government policies or publish dissenting views. Propaganda and deliberate propagation of disinformation — a common practice in times of war — further reduced the media's ability to cover events fairly and accurately.

Shashi Tharoor, Interim Head, Department of Public Information, moderated the observance, which was webcast live on the Internet. Organized by the Department, the event took place in the context of the meetings of the Committee on Information.

Mr. Tharoor told participants that, as the world was becoming a more dangerous place, the danger for the journalists also increased. In that context, it was important to address not only the issue of their safety, but also the question of their responsibility in fighting terrorism. "Can freedom of the press take a back seat to public safety of security concerns? he asked. Should the media have access to the trials of accused terrorists? When do we risk crossing the line where news becomes propaganda, or terror becomes entertainment?"

During a panel discussion that followed the opening remarks, distinguished print and broadcast journalists discussed freedom of the press in the context of terrorism, addressing such issues as national and international security versus freedom of the press, televised coverage of terrorism trials, balanced coverage and the safety of journalists.

Prior to the discussion, there was a screening of a videotaped interview with Mariane Pearl, widow of Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered earlier this year while on assignment in Pakistan. She said freedom of the press was not only freedom to access of information, but also independence of journalists within their own media. It also meant that the big media networks should not monopolize information. In the fight against international terrorism, journalists must overcome vested interests and narrow, nationalistic points of view in order to reach a global outlook in the world. Ultimately, the only way to get rid of international terrorism was to address the root causes of terrorism, and that was a role for the media.

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