SECRETARY-GENERAL URGES VIGILANCE IN DEFENCE OF INDEPENDENT PRESS IN MESSAGE READ AT WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY OBSERVANCE

PI/1061
4 May 1998

SECRETARY-GENERAL URGES VIGILANCE IN DEFENCE OF INDEPENDENT PRESS IN MESSAGE READ AT WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY OBSERVANCE

4 May 1998


Press Release
PI/1061
OBV/44


SECRETARY-GENERAL URGES VIGILANCE IN DEFENCE OF INDEPENDENT PRESS IN MESSAGE READ AT WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY OBSERVANCE

19980504 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 this morning, at an observance of World Press Freedom Day.

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.

Statements

Secretary-General KOFI ANNAN, in a statement delivered by Under- Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Kensaku Hogen,

- 3 - Press Release PI/1061 OBV/44 4 May 1998

said that World Press Freedom Day provided everyone with an opportunity to reflect on the principles of a free and independent press.

The event had added significance this year with the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the Declaration enshrined for the international community the individual's right to freedom of opinion and expression; the freedom to hold opinions without interference; and the free flow of information through any media, regardless of frontiers.

Over the past 50 years, the world had made great advances in fostering freedom of the press, he said. The United Nations had been a persistent advocate of such freedoms and had been instrumental in laying the legal foundations for them.

Freedom of the press ultimately implied freedom for reporters, broadcasters and editors to work without interference or coercion -- governmental, political or commercial -- in telling the true story, he said. It meant the freedom to report events or express opinions guided solely by the highest standards of professional ethics. Only then could journalists be assured of their role in sensitizing the conscience of societies and in protecting the rights of individuals in all spheres.

He said modern media were primary agents of globalization in educating people about the world; in uncovering discrimination, abuses of human rights and other injustices; and in giving people throughout the world a sense that their concerns had a place on the global agenda.

The advent of new information technologies had brought about revolutionary changes in the global reach and influence of media organizations, he said. Direct satellite broadcasting carried images from far and wide into people's homes. As living conditions improve -- and they were improving in many developing countries -- those audiences would expand on a massive scale. Development and democracy were closely linked, and an informed public opinion was an essential concomitant of democracy.

Many developing countries were conscious of the need to improve and strengthen their media organizations, he said. That depended, above all, on the quality of their human resources -- on the quality of the work of their journalists and broadcasters, on the standards of professional ethics they maintained, on the credibility they commanded in their own countries -- indeed, on their ability to report and express their opinions freely, without interference or intimidation of any kind. He welcomed and encouraged all efforts to foster such working conditions in all countries.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 26 journalists were murdered in 1997, while 129 were imprisoned, he said. Over the past decade,

- 4 - Press Release PI/1061 OBV/44 4 May 1998

that organization had reported the murders of 474 journalists. Those statistics were a reminder of the grim reality that still hung over universal application of article 19. World Press Freedom Day was to honour the memory of those members of the press who had fallen in their quest to report the news, to tell the truth and to expose injustice.

He said communities, governments and international relations drew vitality and direction from a free and independent press. He called for vigilance in its defence; and for a recommitment to the principles of a free and independent press that advanced a culture of respect for human rights, for good governance and for social integration and development among all people.

HENNADIY UDOVENKO (Ukraine), President of the General Assembly, said that this year's observance of World Press Freedom Day was especially symbolic, since 1998 was the year marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was all the more appropriate that Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, was present. The direct and intrinsic linkage between human rights and press freedom was eloquently reaffirmed in article 19 of the Declaration, which proclaimed the 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.

The international community should make sure that advances in media technology were used for the benefit of all countries, be they rich or poor, he said. While cyberspace had become an integral part of daily life in the industrialized world, many developing countries were lagging far behind and needed support and assistance in strengthening their media potential. Many of those issues and concerns would be the subject of forthcoming deliberations at the Committee on Information, which would begin its work today.

"We live in an age when CNN is called the sixteenth member of the Security Council", he said. Such an immense influence brought up the question of responsibility of journalists before the international community. At times the media captured only the most breathtaking events without providing essential context.

It would not be an overstatement to say that the United Nations had been for years in the centre of all global events, he said. At the same time, its day-to-day work to help people to struggle for survival, dignity and prosperity had gone without falling into the media's eyes.

- 5 - Press Release PI/1061 OBV/44 4 May 1998

The United Nations was going through a process of far-reaching institutional reform designed to make the Organization better prepared for the tasks of the next millennium, he said. As the United Nations was striving to enhance its effectiveness to help people around the world, there was a growing need for the public at large to have a deeper knowledge and better understanding about the whole scope of the United Nations work. It would be hard to underestimate the crucial role of the media in that area.

He said that a free press was an indispensable condition for peace and democracy. While it was true that at times the press might make mistakes, history had ample evidence that denying a free press contained even greater risks for the society.

MARY ROBINSON, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said World Press Freedom Day was a day to remember journalists, editors and publishers who had been murdered, censored and harassed in the course of fulfilling their duty. She recalled that on 3 December 1993, a journalist with Le Matin in Algeria had been shot dead in a restaurant near his office. The victim had known he was in grave danger, and had sent his family away. He had been killed in the middle of the day in a pizza restaurant. She also recalled five journalists who had been stoned to death while on assignment in Sudan. She had met the sister of one victim, photojournalist Dan Elden, who had been on assignment with Reuters. His sister had expressed her determination to tell her brother's story, and had recently completed her project, entitled Dying to Tell the Story.

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 factors that invoked self- censorship, which could be fear of defying economic power blocs or local power groups. The local press was vital to press freedom, she stressed.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu had said that when one stood out in a crowd, it was because he was being carried on the shoulders of the others, she said. It was important for members of the press to remember "the others". Also, there was need to follow through on stories that had been reported. Conflict situations should not be reduced to sound bites as was increasingly happening, in part because of the media. Members of the media must be prepared to lose viewers or readers in the effort to tell a well-rounded story.

Another enduring responsibility was the need to respect the rights of victims and people's privacy, she said. She stressed the importance of the careful use of language. Nelson Mandela had repeatedly been called a terrorist, she recalled, adding that it was important to use words that would not later become a matter of shame. In protecting press freedom, non- governmental organizations played an important role. Further, there was need for solidarity among members of the media.

- 6 - Press Release PI/1061 OBV/44 4 May 1998

A subject of extreme concern was the diminishing use of foreign news reporting, she said. Particularly in local reporting, there had been a decline in the coverage of international news. And yet there were economic, travel and cultural reasons for close informational ties. There was danger in the lack of coverage of foreign news. Why was foreign reporting decreasing? What would that mean for countering xenophobia and racism? How would a climate of understanding be created in light of that trend? How would other human rights be advanced? she asked.

The ideals enshrined in article 19 had been part of the vision of those who had drafted the Declaration of Human Rights 50 years ago. Today, the international community must make greater efforts to turn that vision into reality.

FEDERICO MAYOR, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a video-taped message, said that World Press Freedom Day was of special importance this year, as the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was also being celebrated. Fundamental freedoms were very vulnerable, and none more so 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 stand by them, protect them and support them with all the strength and resources that could be mustered.

This year the list of violations of every kind, including the murder of 50 journalists, made it only too clear, once again, that no region of the world was spared, he said. Those violations were not only the work of governments, but also of organized crime and extremist groups wishing to intimidate a profession that could stand in their way.

"I call on journalists everywhere, their professional organizations, governments and ordinary people throughout the world to form a united front against arbitrary imprisonment, the threat of physical violence and all other attempts to muzzle the media", he said. He stressed the necessity to publish far and wide article 19 of the Universal Declaration.

The UNESCO would take action whenever action was necessary, since any setback for freedom of expression and freedom of the press was a setback for democracy, he said. It would place itself at the disposal of both sides when conflicts arose, and would pressure governments to investigate serious violations. It would also help in assisting the free exercise of the profession of journalism. Only a well-informed public could take its destiny in hand, participate in the democratic functioning of its institutions and work for enduring peace. One of UNESCO's main tasks was to promote the free circulation of ideas by word and image throughout the world, and this was even more necessary now than it had been 50 years ago.

- 7 - Press Release PI/1061 OBV/44 4 May 1998

JAMES H. OTTAWAY, Jr., Chairman, World Press Freedom Committee, said the Secretary-General had not received the public praise, recognition and support that he deserved for his brave public statements about the fundamental importance of free speech and free press as basic human rights. In June of 1997, for example, the Secretary-General had courageously denounced dictatorial regimes in Africa which violated basic human rights including press freedom, at the Summit Meeting of African Heads of State in Harare. Also, in the same month, at a World Bank meeting in Toronto, the Secretary- General had made an eloquent and carefully reasoned argument for the importance of a free flow of information, ideas and opinions in the development of democracy and economic growth.

He also thanked the High Commissioner for Human Rights for her presence today and for stressing to the world the central role of freedoms of opinion, speech and press to the protection and promotion of all other human rights. 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, and the worst human rights abuses occurred where there was no free press. The World Press Freedom Committee looked forward to working with the High Commissioner to promote free speech and free press as basic human rights.

Since 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been the most important and most effective inspiration for personal, national and international efforts to secure and protect the basic rights of mankind, he said. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration had been called by some the "first amendment of the world".

Unfortunately the ringing provisions of article 19 were more honoured around the world in the breach than in observance, he said. According to the 20 April annual report of Freedom House in New York, only about a third of the world's nations had a fully free press. The rest were about evenly divided between those with a partly free press and those with no press freedom. Only 20 per cent of the world's people lived in countries with a fully free press.

Restriction of news and information was an isolationist policy that would be overwhelmed by the march towards freedom, exemplified by the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, he said. More concretely, it was likely to be overwhelmed even sooner by the Internet and direct satellite broadcasting to tiny receiver dishes. In this information age, no country could participate in the global debate of ideas, in global markets or the global economy without allowing news, information and new ideas to cross its borders. Freedom for ideas and information to travel everywhere was as essential to peace and economic progress for all nations today as it had been 50 years ago.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.