"The United Nations and Freedom of the Press:
What more can be done?"
With journalists increasingly becoming the target of violence, the main task of the United Nations was to be an "unflinching defender" of press freedom, as well as a defender of "the women and men whose talent and dedication bring it to life", Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the Headquarters commemoration of World Press Freedom Day 2007.
In a message delivered by Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Kiyo Akasaka, Mr. Ban said: "Most alarmingly, in seeking to shed light on the plight of others, journalists themselves become targets." Drawing attention to the more than 150 media professionals who had lost their lives in the line of duty, in addition to many others who had been injured, detained, harassed or held hostage, he added that attacks against journalists were contrary to the very things the United Nations stood for — international law, humanity and freedom itself.
A free, secure and independent press was among the very foundations of democracy and peace, he said, adding that attacks against journalists happened not just in the midst of armed conflict, but also in pursuit of stories on corruption, poverty and abuses of power. Governments, international organizations, the media and civil society all had a role to play in upholding those foundations, and he called on all to reaffirm their commitment to that mission.
He also appealed for the immediate and safe release of BBC journalist Alan Johnston, whose plight he had been following with dismay. Mr. Johnston’s coverage of issues relating to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had rightly earned worldwide respect, he said, adding that no cause was served by his continued captivity.
Hélène-Marie Gosselin, Director, New York office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), spoke on behalf of UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, and noted that 2006 had been the bloodiest year on record, with more than 150 killings of media professionals. Hundreds more media workers had been arrested, threatened or attacked because of their work. "Being a journalist has never been more dangerous," she said, adding that the UNESCO Director-General had decided to dedicate the Day to the theme of journalist safety.
Particularly hazardous to members of the press was Iraq, where 69 media professionals had been killed last year, she stated. More than 170 media professionals, the vast majority being local journalists, had been killed in the country since the conflict began in April 2003. Never in recorded history had there been such a large-scale killing of journalists.
The Chairman of the Committee on Information, Rudolf Christen (Switzerland), noted that press freedom was not only in danger in war zones or conflict areas, but was also in danger where the journalistic curiosity was lost, and where independence of thinking was under pressure. Press freedom was founded on the freedom of expression and was "neither a gift nor a political concession", but a fundamental human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Human Rights Council, he said, should seek ways to help interested countries improve their press record, and to name names where countries failed to uphold press freedom. He also called on the United Nations to help tear down the digital divide, which stood between the rich and powerful and the poor and the weak.
Speaking on behalf of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), its President, Tuyet Nguyen, added that the problem lay in getting Governments — who were a major "shareholder" at the United Nations — that had signed treaties and conventions to show a commitment to those accords, particularly in upholding freedom of the press and expression. The media was merely the messenger; it was up to Governments to ensure that human freedoms were being upheld.