WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY OBSERVED AT HEADQUARTERS WITH PANEL DISCUSSION ON "REPORTING THE NEWS IN A DANGEROUS WORLD"

3 May 2000
OBV/141

WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY OBSERVED AT HEADQUARTERS WITH PANEL DISCUSSION ON "REPORTING THE NEWS IN A DANGEROUS WORLD"

3 May 2000

Press ReleaseOBV/141 PI/1245

WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY OBSERVED AT HEADQUARTERS WITH PANEL DISCUSSION ON ’REPORTING THE NEWS IN A DANGEROUS WORLD’

20000503

Secretary-General Says Freedom of Journalists ‘Our Freedom’; Press Protection, Role in Conflict Settlement among Issues Highlighted

All too often, the men and women whose job it was to tell the truth became the first casualties of war, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this morning in a videotaped message at the Headquarters observance of World Press Freedom Day.

The observance, held in connection with the current session of the Committee on Information and organized by the Department of Public Information, included a panel discussion on "Reporting the News in a Dangerous World: the role of the media in conflict settlement, reconciliation and peace-building". The programme also celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Public Information Training Programme for Broadcasters and Journalists from Developing Countries. Several past Programme participants were panellists.

The Secretary-General went on to say that those casualties were not accidental, but deliberate, since those who made war were often interested in suppressing the truth by killing or intimidating journalists. By preventing journalists from doing their job, they were denying their fellow citizens the right to know what was happening. The rights of journalists to carry on their work must be protected, as their freedom was “our freedom”, he said.

Shashi Tharoor, Director, Communications and Special Projects in the Office of the Secretary-General, said the global reach of communication systems raised many uncomfortable questions. Underscoring the issue of unevenness in the focus of the world press, he said one only had to look at the difference in the coverage of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Mozambique and Sierra Leone. The last two received less. What explained the lack of coverage in some cases? he asked. Who made the global media in the brave new world? Was the Internet the answer? While it was seemingly a mass medium, from a global perspective it only reached a limited audience. Undue reliance on that medium could marginalize those who were out of its reach.

Following a screening of excerpts from the film “Cry Freetown”, Sorious Samura, Sierra Leonean cameraman/editor, said that press freedom to him meant three things: basic security entitled to all journalists; equal respect for all journalists; and doing something about the security and respect for all journalists. What he wanted to demonstrate in the film was that journalists could be neutral and report the stories as they happened. Had it been shown earlier in the Western media, maybe events in Sierra Leone would have taken a different turn.

- 2 - Press Release OBV/141 PI/1245 3 May 2000

World Press Freedom day was established by General Assembly decision 48/232 of 20 December 1993, on a recommendation of the Economic and Social Council and as an outgrowth of the seminar on "Promoting an independent and Pluralistic African Press". That Seminar, co-sponsored by the Department of Public Information and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), took place in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1991 and resulted in the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration, which states that “the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development”.

Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Kensaku Hogen opened the observance this morning, during which Claude Ondobo, Director, International Programme for the Development of Communication, UNESCO, also spoke.

Panellists were: Suha Amer, of the National News Agency of Lebanon; Carlos Dada, of La Prensa Grafica of El Salvador; Jemi Ekunkunbor, of Vanguard Newspapers of Nigeria; Refik Hodzic, formerly of DANI in Bosnia and Herzegovina and current spokesperson for the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET); Ghislène Méance, of Radio Galaxie in Haiti; and Vicky Morales, of GMA Network, Incorporated in the Philippines. The discussion was moderated by Richard Roth, Senior United Nations Correspondent, Cable News Network (CNN).

Statements

KENSAKU HOGEN, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said that this year’s observance celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the DPI Training Programme for Broadcasters and Journalists from Developing Countries. Since 1981, 303 dynamic young broadcasters and journalists from over 100 countries had taken part in the programme. Its alumni were experienced, informed and keenly interested in United Nations issues. It was most appropriate that the participants in today’s panel on “Reporting the News in a Dangerous World: the role of media in conflict settlement, reconciliation and peace-building” were alumni of that programme. The theme of this year’s observance was timely in view of the expanded number of United Nations peacekeeping missions authorized during the past year.

KOFI ANNAN, Secretary-General, in a videotaped message, said truth was often called the first casualty of war. And, all too often, the men and women whose job it was to tell the truth became the first casualties. They were not accidental casualties, but deliberate targets. Those who made war often had an interest in suppressing truths by killing or intimidating journalists. By preventing journalists from doing their job, those who waged war were denying their fellow citizens the right to know what was happening. The rights of journalists to carry out their work must be protected, as their freedom was our freedom.

CLAUDE ONDOBO, Director, International Programme for the Development of Communication, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said that this year’s theme was particularly important for his organization. The work of journalists had become more dangerous. They were easy targets for those who used violence to achieve their goals. UNESCO, through different programmes, such as his, had been assisting journalists in dangerous situations. The objective of those programmes was to ensure that journalists could still play their non-partisan role of informing the public through the fair and objective coverage of events.

Today, he continued, two different views on the role of journalists existed. One believed that involving journalists in reconciliation activities corresponded to manipulation. The other view considered journalists as members of society, who had an important role to play in ensuring that society was not unnecessarily subjected to violence. He believed that journalists could play a role in facilitating reconciliation by, among other things, channeling communication between parties, educating, confidence-building, framing and defining the conflict and solution-building.

SHASHI THAROOR, Director, Communications and Special Projects, Office of the Secretary-General, said press freedom was a fundamental human right that helped guarantee all other rights. The developing world was full of writers, artists and journalists who had to function in societies where they were not entitled to that right. A free press marked the difference between a society that protected itself from human rights abuses and one that fell victim to oppression. There were those who questioned the value of freedom of speech in societies, because they felt that such freedom threatened progress and development. Such arguments were never made by people, but by governments, and never by the powerless, but the powerful. Press freedom needed to be fought for, as it was not a blessing. Ignorance and prejudice were the handmaidens of propaganda. He cited the cases of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Rwanda, where murderous ideologies took root in the absence of truth and knowledge.

He said the globalization of the mass media was inescapable. The global reach of communication systems raised many uncomfortable questions. There was the issue of the unevenness in the focus of the world press. One only had to look at the difference in the coverage of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Mozambique and Sierra Leone. The last two received less. What explained the lack of coverage in some cases? he asked. Was it ignorance or apathy? Who made the global media in the brave new world? Were the voices from the developing countries necessarily the most authentic ones from that part of the world? Was the Internet the answer? While it was seemingly a mass medium, from a global perspective it only reached a limited audience. Thus, undue reliance on that medium could marginalize those who were out of its reach.

On the positive side, he said, access to the media offered the world unprecedented opportunities. It held out the possibility of a new and truly global information ethos. The question at the United Nations still focused on the impact of media coverage and its effect on the way the world worked. When one considered the expansion of the Security Council, one should not forget that there was already a sixteenth member -– the Cable News Network (CNN). The news media was often ahead of the official provider of news to the Council, the Secretariat. The media did not make policies, but it obliged governments in the Council to make policies. While the media could drive policy-making, however, it could also drive policies in the wrong direction.

He said the United Nations sometimes bemoaned the lack of context in news coverage. The focus on blood and tragedy often missed the context that might put that tragedy in perspective. While bloodshed frequently made the headline news, there was very little shown on reconciliation or peacekeeping. He cited successes such as Mozambique, Cambodia, El Salvador and Haiti, which were seldom aired. The United Nations had tried to launch a more open and transparent press process to demonstrate that the Organization and the press were partners in the quest for progress. Further, local journalists must be supported and protected in their efforts to provide independent information.

Following a screening of excerpts from the film “Cry Freetown”, SORIOUS SAMURA, Sierra Leonean cameraman/editor, winner of the Rory Peck Award and the Mohamed Amin Award for his footage shown in that film, said that everyone knew the dangers facing journalists in situations around the world. They faced harassment, beatings, rape, seizure of their media equipment and organized killings. To him, press freedom meant three things: basic security entitled to all journalists; equal respect for all journalists; and doing something about the security and respect for all journalists. The irony in Africa was that Africans knew less about their own continent than those around the world who listened to, or watched, the BBC.

Under military rule, Nigerian journalists had been detained at will and some had been ordered to leave the country of their birth, he continued. No one else had faced the brutality that Nigerian journalists had faced during that period. The stories were the same all over the continent. In the nine years he spent covering the war in Sierra Leone, he tried to bring out the stories that would highlight the situation of the people. If the authorities did not like the footage, they would confiscate it. He had received many threats, among them a full-page advertisement in newspapers threatening journalists. Injustices in other parts of the world were threats to justice everywhere.

Action by the United Nations leadership was crucial, he added. With the United States and Western governments calling the shots in the United Nations, words would have turned into action and financial resources provided to implement programmes, if similar atrocities were taking place in Western countries.

Responding to a question, he said that the resolutions passed by the Council regarding Sierra Leone were just words. Where were the United Nations and its programmes designed to address the situation in Sierra Leone? While he had walked the streets there and watched the children being raped and killed, the United Nations was nowhere in sight. Since the filming of the documentary, he had not been back to Sierra Leone, since he was regarded as a dangerous man by the top military officials.

Asked to react to the accusation that he was only presenting one side of what had happened in Sierra Leone, Mr. SAMURA asked how many others who were there at the time would have done what he did, to risk his life to film what was occurring? People didn’t understand that he tried to portray both sides and only presented what actually took place. It was unfortunate that when he was captured by the rebels, he was not allowed to film. While he was with the Economic Community of West African States' Monitoring Observer Group (ECOMOG) forces, he was able to shoot footage of the forces torturing people.

Asked if he supported one side or the other, he said that what he wanted to demonstrate in the film was that journalists were neutral and just reported the stories as they happened.

In response to a question about the distribution of the film, he said that he thought that if he had rushed out with the graphic material to the Western media, they probably would have jumped for it. That did not happen. It took him almost eight months of lobbying to get it shown in the world media. Had it been shown earlier, maybe what had happened in Sierra Leone would have taken a different turn.

How difficult was it for a journalist to be neutral in a conflict? He replied that it had never been easy to cover the war. When the war came to Freetown, he was caught by the rebels and subjected to beatings. When he had escaped and ran towards ECOMOG forces, they did not know who he was and had fired at him.

Journalists had a responsibility on their part, as well, he added. Some journalists abused their freedom and went to extremes. It was important for them to remain objective and just do their job.

Panel Discussion

SUHA AMER, of the National News Agency of Lebanon, said it was a difficult task to be a free journalist in Lebanon. The situation in her country had been labeled as a civil war. That was not the case. It was “the war of others on our land”, she said. Lebanon was once a platform for information and freedom of press in the Middle East. That had all ceased. The international media covered the war in her country as it wanted to see it, and not the way it was. They used terms like “Lebanization” and terrorism to disseminate a certain point of view.

She said war taught what an objective and constructive media should be. How could horrors be covered objectively? she asked. The answer was easy. A photograph of a beheaded two-year-old child or the burnt remains of a person said more than enough. Photographs could tell the truth and words could describe. With the restoration of Lebanon’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the media was gradually being restored to its original role. Reconstruction was not just about infrastructure, but reconstruction of the human spirit as well.

CARLOS DADA, of La Prensa Gráfica of El Salvador, said journalists supported principles, since their mission was to defend the public interest. His region was still seen as one that was the most violent. El Salvador and Colombia had been named as the most violent countries. During the war, the media in his country served the parties to the conflict. Writers were now confronting the new challenges, the reconstruction of peace. What did reconstruction mean? he asked. Did it mean forgetting the past and moving forward? Could peace be built without solid institutions? The communication media had a decisive role in seeking the answers to those questions.

JEMI EKUNKUNBOR, of Vanguard Newspapers of Nigeria, said that news was the telling of an event. Events were taking place so far as they were being reported. To say that the world was dangerous was to state the obvious. In looking at the situation in Africa, as conflicts were being resolved, new ones were arising. In conflict situations, the media was the independent umpire between warring groups. In reporting in conflict situations, the media’s role was to resolve conflicts and not escalate crises. While journalists were not trained to resolve crises, they could encourage and foster understanding.

The media, she said, on whose shoulders the role of watchdog lay, needed to arm itself with the local laws of the area they covered. They had to draw the line between partiality and impartiality and strive to be fair to all. In light of their social responsibility, the least they could do was to be objective and fair to all. The complex nature of Nigeria had made conflicts even more difficult to resolve. Currently, there were more than 11 unresolved crisis areas in Nigeria. In all of them, the media had risen to the challenge to report all sides of the crisis. It would be a disservice to the public not to allow journalists to describe all the aspects of war.

REFIK HODZIC, formerly of DANI of Bosnia and Herzegovina and currently a spokesperson for the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), spoke about the role of the media in peace-building and reconciliation. Currently, there was a small core of journalists who were one of the most important pillars in peace-building in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The three largest television networks could not be considered a major part of the reconciliation process, for reasons that included a lack of credibility with the public. That left the small core of independent media, mostly print, who had tackled the important issues. They were the ones who had built the first bridges between communities by reporting truthfully from the various sides.

The media still faced physical dangers, in addition to financial constraints and other hardships, he continued. One example was a Croatian journalist in Bosnia, who was threatened with decapitation for his coverage of events. Legal action by politicians and businessmen was another method of threatening members of the media. No one could dispute the important role of the independent media in the reconciliation process in that country. In closing, he asked, what about the journalists who had played a less than honourable role by inciting ethnic hatred and violence in Bosnia?

GHISLENE MEANCE, of Radio Galaxie in Haiti, said that journalists must shed light on the damage done by conflicts in an effort to discourage parties to conflict. On a daily basis, the Haitian press faced conflicts between different ethnic groups, political parties and factions. The press had taken sides at the time of the overthrow of the dictatorship of President Duvalier. While it had been difficult to be objective, after his departure people thanked the media for their coverage. There was still plundering and lynching going on today and the press could do nothing to quell the violence.

Intolerance had tried to gain the upper hand over democracy, she said. Today, there was very little chance for the press to cover the important issues. The so-called freedom of the press after Duvalier’s departure was currently being threatened. It was necessary to start the battle for freedom of the press all over again. What was the point of having that freedom if it was not used in the interest of the public? In Haiti, the real conflict was between the greedy and the needy. As noted by one member of the media, it seemed that Haitian journalists were either assassinated, fell into corruption or died poor.

VICKY MORALES, of GMA Network Incorporated in the Philippines, said that the press in the Philippines was one of the most free in Asia. However, that freedom did not come on a silver platter. She then showed a video presentation, in which she said that when the media turned a spotlight on conflict, those in power as well as ordinary people were pushed into action. Today, the battleground in her country was not how to gain press freedom, but how to deserve it by using it wisely.

Responding to a question on the implication of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Ms. AMER said some changes might take place, since the Israeli withdrawal would leave an unresolved Palestinian refugee situation in her country. Addressing the issue of the type of reception the media were likely to receive in Lebanon in light of Israel’s withdrawal, she said the press was being welcomed by everyone.

Ms. MEANCE, replying to a question posed about situations where there was a lack of video, said radio had its limitations. Some people in Haiti did not have electricity or receivers. So, while the message was going out, there was some uncertainty about who was listening to or even hearing broadcasts.

Responding to a question on how the press should deal with itself in terms of integrity, Ms. MORALES said intense competition in the Philippines encouraged sensationalism. That had to be kept in check through editorial meetings. Also, in as much as her country enjoyed the most free press in Asia, bribery was still a reality, was carried out in a very sophisticated way and left no paper trails. Seventy per cent of the press in her country admitted to having been offered bribes. Newspapers were also pressured by other means, the pulling of ads for example. Nevertheless, the publications still enjoyed the support of people.

Mr. DADA said mistakes were made and sometimes consciously. The latter constituted abuse of the media. The question was, how did one regulate such activities? That was a big problem, if not the main one. Spain had a system where there was a Reader’s Ombudsman –- someone hired to supervise what was best in the reader’s interest. Perhaps that was a solution.

Commenting on the issue of the Internet, Mr. HODZIC said the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had passed Draconian laws by which the Government could close a newspaper in 24 hours for bizarre offences. The Internet, however limited, was a tool with which independent publications and independent radio could reach readers and listeners in the country. Although it was seen by some as uncontrollable, it was a great tool for breaking blockades.

Mr. DADA said censorship was not the answer. There were credible and not so credible Web pages. It was up to the reader to choose.

One question raised concerned readers who could not exercise sound judgement with regard to news that they were being fed. Ms. AMER said that was true in her country, where many people were led to believe stories that were not true. Self- censorship must be exercised by the owner of the mediums.

RICHARD ROTH, Senior United Nations Correspondent for Cable News Network, and panel moderator, concluded by saying that according to a recent report, only 69 countries had a free press. Fifty-one had a partially free media. In 66 States, however, the government owned both the print and broadcast media.

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For information media. Not an official record.