PUBLIC INFORMATION DEPARTMENT’S ABILITY TO RESPOND TO CRISIS DEMONSTRATED FOLLOWING 11 SEPTEMBER ATTACK, INTERIM HEAD TELLS FOURTH COMMITTEE

19 November 2001
GA/SPD/226

PUBLIC INFORMATION DEPARTMENT’S ABILITY TO RESPOND TO CRISIS DEMONSTRATED FOLLOWING 11 SEPTEMBER ATTACK, INTERIM HEAD TELLS FOURTH COMMITTEE

19/11/2001
Press ReleaseGA/SPD/226

Fifty-sixth General Assembly

Fourth Committee

18th Meeting (PM)

PUBLIC INFORMATION DEPARTMENT’S ABILITY TO RESPOND TO CRISIS DEMONSTRATED

FOLLOWING 11 SEPTEMBER ATTACK, INTERIM HEAD TELLS FOURTH COMMITTEE

Speakers Stress Need for Parity in Official Languages

The extensive outreach activities carried out by the United Nations after the terrorist attacks of 11 September should reassure Member States of the ability of the Department of Public Information (DPI) to respond rapidly to a crisis situation, Shashi Tharoor, Interim Head of the Department, told the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) this afternoon, as it began its consideration of questions relating to information.

He said that messages by the Secretary-General, information on United Nations action against terrorism and updates on operations in Afghanistan were disseminated globally through television, radio, print and the Web.

Summarizing other activities of the past year and plans for the future,

Mr. Tharoor said that DPI continued to refine a communication strategy for all the Organization’s priorities, in particular, the challenges of economic and social development, especially of the poorest countries.  For that agenda, the Department publicized international conferences and activities of the General Assembly on development, HIV/AIDS, small arms, racism and other topics.

Among the most important advances in the past year, he said, were the enhancement and increased usage of the United Nations Web site, along with the success of the pilot programme of live radio broadcasts.  The Web site was currently receiving 6 million “hits” a day from 170 countries and territories.  This month, a completely redesigned site was launched with improved search capabilities.  Also, an extensive e-mail directory was being developed to forward stories to the international media, especially those in developing countries that might not have access to other news services.

A major achievement of the past year, he added, was acquisition of live webcast capability, used for major events such as last week’s general debate in the General Assembly.  The greatest challenge for the Web site was making its information available in all official languages, despite budgetary constraints.

He said the radio broadcasts, now carried by some 265 stations worldwide every day, allowed the Organization to get its message across directly, and was the principal source of international news in areas of some developing countries. 

If approved, that programme would be expanded in all official languages.  The Department was also moving to digital technology that would enhance radio, television and photo services.  It had initiated a United Nations Geographic Database project, enabling the integration of cartographic information across the United Nations system.

Throughout the year, he said, media relations efforts continued, including media encounters and journalist-training sessions.  Major concerns of the Department, at the current time, were coordinating a strong, unified message from the United Nations system and making that message relevant and accessible to ordinary individuals around the globe. 

Important work for the Department in 2002, he said, included a promotional campaign for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, a communications strategy in cooperation with the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, promotion of the International Conference on Financing for Development and the Second World Assembly on Ageing.

As the general debate began on the issue, speakers agreed on the importance of the Department of Public Information’s efforts, with speakers highlighting, in particular, dissemination of information in all six official United Nations languages, the Department’s role in bridging the information technology gap, and the expansion of the pilot programme for a live international radio broadcast capacity for the United Nations.  

The representative of Spain said that the United Nations was essentially an information producing, distributing and consuming organism.  It was, therefore, vital that the Organization have a sound information policy disseminating timely, multilingual, comprehensive, balanced and reliable information through a variety of media to a worldwide audience.

Egypt’s representative said that the recent tragic events proved that the United Nations had a crucial role in fostering mutual understanding between civilizations and in ensuring equal access to information and information technologies.  He said the United Nations Web site must work towards linguistic equality, based on the principle of parity and not on indications of the comparative use of each language.

The representatives of Iran (on behalf of the "Group of 77" developing countries and China), Algeria, United Arab Emirates, Libya and Chile (on behalf of the Rio Group) also made statements.

The Rapporteur of the Committee on Information, Walid Haggag (Egypt), introduced its report.  Milos Alcalay (Venezuela), Chairman of the Committee on Information, also made a statement.

Also this afternoon, the Committee elected, by acclamation, Alexandrina Livi Rusu (Romania), Christian Streeter (Chile) and Anna-Maija Korpi (Finland) as

Vice-Chairpersons.  Also by acclamation, the Committee elected Graham Maitland (South Africa) as Rapporteur.

The Fourth Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow Tuesday,

20 November, to continue its discussion of questions relating to information.

Background

The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) met this afternoon to begin its annual consideration of United Nations information issues.  Before it was the Secretary-General's report on questions relating to information (document A/56/411), in which he notes that the Department of Public Information (DPI) has made every effort to strengthen the communications function within the United Nations and its field offices, so as to create an informed understanding of the Organization’s work and build broad-based global support for it.

As a result of the wide interest generated by the Millennium Summit, the Department is directing the United Nations message to the local level, the report states.   A new programme, entitled “United Nations Works”, describes success stories in which the Organization has had an impact on people around the world.  The United Nations information centres and key redisseminators, especially the media and non-governmental organizations, are also essential to local outreach.

The Department, the report says, is continuously working to enhance the United Nations Web site, which reaches millions more people each year.  The pilot project for live radio broadcasting, begun during the Millenium Summit, was accessible to tens of millions of listeners in virtually every country.  Another new initiative, the e-mail-based United Nations News Service, was set to be launched in October 2001 and is meant to immediately provide specially targeted information to journalists in every region.

According to the report, the Department is actively responding to the special needs of developing countries.  That is being done, for example, through information-centre outreach, Headquarters training programmes for media practitioners from those countries and through a focus on special communications strategies for the current cycle of conferences and special sessions of the Assembly on economic and social issues.  Widespread use of traditional media, such as radio and print, also takes into consideration the needs of audiences on the other side of the digital divide.

The Joint United Nations Information Committee, the report states, continues to be an important mechanism for the coordination of public information within the United Nations system.  At its 2001 session, the Committee took concrete steps to revitalize its structures and its work programme by focusing on current, shared challenges in the communications field.

Annexed to the report are details of the Department's major activities in the 2000-2001 reporting period, including publications, special programmes and exhibits, activities of United Nations information centres, workshops, media productions, electronic publishing and other activities and inputs.

The Committee also had before it the report of the Committee on Information (document A/56/21 and Add.1) covering its twenty-third session on 30 April and its resumed session from 5 to 7 September, respectively.

During the general debate, the report notes, a number of delegates said there must be a new, more just and effective global information and communications order, based on a free and balanced information flow as a major tool for transmitting the truth and promoting the goals of peace and humanity.  Many delegations noted that the inherent potential of the global village had given way to the inequalities of the digital divide and that developing countries lacked the infrastructure and resources to benefit from modern information technology.

According to the report, some delegates cited the Secretary-General's analysis, in his millennium report (document A/54/2000), which characterizes the digital divide as a very serious problem facing the world in the twenty-first century.  Delegates agreed with the Secretary-General that the United Nations must fully tap the potential of the information revolution and help to bridge the gap between North and South by upgrading the Organization's information technology to better inform the world's people of its aims and achievements.

The report says the resumed session was held to consider the Secretary-General's final report on the implementation of the pilot project on the development of an international radio broadcasting capacity for the United Nations.  The Interim Head of the Department of Public Information paid tribute to Department staff who had worked long and hard on the pilot project, as well as to the broadcasting partners around the world who were helping to disseminate the United Nations message.

According to the report, the Director of the Programme Planning and Budget Division told the Committee that the pilot project had been funded through the redeployment of resources within DPI.  In the absence of a legislative mandate with regard to the continuation of international broadcasting beyond the pilot phase, he said no provision had been included in the Secretary-General's proposed programme budget for the biennium 2002-2003.

The report cites the Director as saying that, if the Committee decided to recommend to the General Assembly the continuation of the pilot project as part of the Department's regular activities, "additional resources in the magnitude of $3.5 million would be required for the next biennium".  A statement of programme budget implications would be submitted to the Fourth Committee.  Should that Committee endorse the recommendation, a statement of budget implications would then be submitted to the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary).

Also according to the report, the General Assembly decided to appoint Azerbaijan and Monaco to the Committee on Information, increasing its membership to 98.

The officers of the Committee on Information for the 2001-2002 period are Milos Alcalay (Venezuela), Chairman; Ivan Matchvariani (Georgia), Dorjsuren Tserenpil (Mongolia) and Peter Mollema (Netherlands), Vice-Chairmen; and Walid A. Haggag (Egypt), Rapporteur.

Also before the Fourth Committee was a letter to the Secretary-General from the Permanent Representative of Qatar to the United Nations.  Dated 31 July, it expresses the concerns of the Arab Group over the declining standards in Arabic language services, both in meeting services and United Nations information activities.  It urges the Secretary-General to ensure the simultaneous issuing of United Nations documents in all six official languages and an improvement in editing quality.

The letter also urges the Secretary-General to ensure that all publications of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) are issued in Arabic, and emphasizes the importance of Arabic-language services in the Dag Hammarskjöld Library.  It also expresses the wish that, in public information, resources be reallocated to achieve equality between languages, especially regarding Web sites.

Statements

SHASHI THAROOR, Interim Head of the Department of Public Information, outlined the extensive outreach activities carried out by the United Nations after the terrorist attacks of 11 September.  The messages of the Secretary-General, United Nations action against terrorism and updates on Afghanistan were disseminated worldwide through television, radio, print and the Web. He hoped that those activities might reassure Member States who may have wondered whether the Department had the agility to respond rapidly to a crisis situation.

However, he said, heeding the Secretary-General’s urging that all energies not be solely focused on terrorism, but on the wider agenda of the United Nations, the Department continued to refine a communication strategy for all the Organization’s endeavours in the past year, in particular the challenges of economic and social development, especially of the poorest countries.  For that agenda, the Department had produced materials and publicized conferences and activities of the General Assembly.  The Department also developed an effective promotional campaign for action on HIV/AIDS.  Due to such efforts, the special session on that topic received extensive media coverage, as did the small arms Conference in July and the Conference against racism in Durban.

In 2002, he said, an important focus for the Department’s work would be a promotional campaign for the World Summit on Sustainable Development.  A communications strategy in cooperation with the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, promotion of the International Conference on Financing for Development and the Second World Assembly on Ageing were well advanced.  Budgetary provision for those conferences did not figure in the Department’s programme budget for the next biennium, however.

An enhanced relationship with the media, he said, was an essential part of the Department’s outreach strategy.  Demand for the wealth of United Nations stories was rising, with the United Nations News Centre becoming a known gateway to the system.  This month, a completely redesigned site was launched, with improved search capabilities.  An extensive e-mail directory was being developed to forward stories to the international media, especially those in developing countries that might not have access to other news services.  Continuing programmes for journalists included media encounters, annual training sessions, and briefing programmes with senior officials.  Communications workshops for senior officials from other departments also continued.

He said that the pilot programme of live United Nations radio broadcasts, now carried by some 265 stations worldwide every day, allowed the Organization to get its message across directly, and was the principal source of international news in some areas.  Through the current draft resolution, Member States would decide whether to build on that success, with a permanent, international radio broadcast capacity in the six official languages.  The Department was also moving to digital technology that would enhance radio, television and photo services.

The United Nations Web site, the coordination, maintenance and enhancement for which the Department was responsible, had seen dramatic improvements and rise in level of usage, he said, currently 6 million “hits” a day from 170 countries and territories.  A major achievement of the past year was acquiring live webcast capability, used for major events such as last week’s general debate at the General Assembly.  The greatest challenge of the Web site was making its information available in all official languages, though the material was, in most cases, produced by the originating departments in English.  Improvement in that area required additional resources, which the Department was not in a position to request.  New offerings on the Web site continued, however, in addition to those already mentioned; for example the Dag Hammarskjöld Library had added new features to its page.

Other new technologies had enhanced guided tours and information sharing.  In cartography, the Department had initiated a United Nations Geographic Database project, enabling integration of information across the United Nations system.

Efforts to bring the United Nations to the people, he said, included the “United Nations Works” concept, showing the Organization’s positive impact on individual lives around the globe.  In those efforts, the Department continues to seek partnerships in civil society.  The network of United Nations information centres, services and offices also played an active role in promoting priority themes and events.  He intended to carefully review resource allocation to the information centres, as requested by the Assembly, in order to maximize their effectiveness, especially in the developing world.

In the 10 months of his tenure, he said, he had been impressed by the Department’s work in providing a consistent message, from a complex Organization and to a world suffering from information overload.  To increase that effectiveness, he hoped to improve the flow of ideas throughout the Department, and had initiated regular meetings to mold the vision of the crucial part public awareness plays in the Organization’s activities.

He said that the Communications Group, which he chaired, had been created to coordinate system-wide information from New York and had been bringing greater coherence and effectiveness to outreach efforts, he said.  The Department sought to serve as the voice of the Organization through such strengthened cooperation.  However, a number of Secretariat departments, it is known through budgetary review, had listed their own public information activities. At the request of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), the Department had been examining whether there was any room for further rationalizaion in that area.

Preliminary results had shown that much of the activity in question related to specialized information products, he said.  Recommendations would include that, for such budget proposals, public information be part of Secretariat-wide strategic planning.  To help unify the United Nations message as a whole and avoid duplication of effort, the Department was also actively working to transform the Joint United Nations Information Committee into a more dynamic mechanism, he said.

In the coming years, in order to fulfil the Secretary-General’s vision of a United Nations closely relevant to the individuals of the world, the Organization would need an authoritative voice, and a strong and efficient Department of Public Information, he said.  For that purpose, he interpreted the initials of the Department as “D” for making a difference, “P” for promoting the objectives of the Charter and “I” for influencing world opinion.  He counted on the Committee’s support and guidance in pursuing those goals.

WALID HAGGAG (Egypt), Rapporteur of the Committee on Information, introduced the report of that Committee (document A/56/21 and Add.1), along with the resolutions contained therein.

As had been the practice every year, the Committee adopted the traditional text of draft resolution A entitled “Information in the Service of Humanity”, contained in the report, along with draft resolution B, “United Nations public information policies and activities”, which this year had been significantly restructured and enriched to reflect current concerns.

MILOS ALCALAY (Venezuela), Chairman of the Committee on Information, expressed appreciation to the staff of DPI for its work, and to its Interim Head for his statement.  The dissemination of the solidarity of the international community in the face of the recent terrorist attacks was particularly commendable.

He said the Committee’s work focused on supporting the United Nations with the best use of communication and its technologies, through a strong, unified voice.  Recent conferences had received unprecedented media coverage and efforts were being made to build on that success.  He said the Committee on Information had the determination and the ability to do the work that the United Nations, under the capable stewardship of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, needed it to do.

BAGHER ASADI (Iran), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said that overcoming the gap in information and communication technologies between the developed and developing countries required genuine international cooperation and assistance by the developed countries.  The developing countries should also cooperate with each other, especially through South-South cooperation.

He said the Tehran Consensus, adopted by the Intergovernmental Follow-up and Coordination Committee on Economic Cooperation among Developing Countries in August recognized "bridging the knowledge and information gap" as one of the five strategic objectives of long-term South-South cooperation.  The United Nations should play a key role in bridging the digital divide through promoting and accelerating universal access to information and communication technology and contributing to the development of norms and standards on a transparent, meaningful and participatory basis.

Noting that the United Nations Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Task Force would be launched officially tomorrow, he emphasized that the Department's mission was to provide accurate, impartial, comprehensive and timely information to the public on the tasks and responsibilities of the United Nations in order to strengthen international support for the Organization's activities.  It must increase its outreach activities in all regions, bearing in mind local language requirements, as well as identify the widest possible spectrum of audiences and geographical areas that were not covered adequately.

Turning to the United Nations information centres, he said that as the Department's field voice, they should promote public awareness and mobilize support for the Organization's work at the local level, particularly in the areas of economic and social development and United Nations peacekeeping operations.  In addition, traditional means of communication, particularly radio, were still the most widely used and available medium for millions of listeners across the globe, especially in developing countries.  Iran thanked once again the delegates who had actively participated in finalizing outstanding paragraphs relating to the traditional means of communication during the resumed session of the Committee on Information.

LARBI DJACTA (Algeria), endorsing the statement read on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, said that the unanimous condemnation of the 11 September terrorist acts had demonstrated that Member States were aware of the immeasurable danger with which international terrorism had burdened the international community.  Faced with that situation, the information sector must make national and international public opinion aware of the evils of the modern plague of terrorism.  It must also help in organizing the struggle against the manifestations and roots of terrorism, and to appeal for vigilance, so that the terrorists did not put technological advances at the service of their deadly designs.

He emphasized that the positive aspects of globalization and development, whether in terms of information or other aspects, must encourage mutually advantageous cooperation that would make globalization a cement for union, rather than a factor of marginalization and division.  The globalization of information made it necessary to bring the developing countries up to date, not only to facilitate their greater access to modern communications technologies, but also to make them useful contributors to the further development of those technologies.

Noting that the First International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism had failed to fulfil its mandate, he said the lack of genuine cooperation on the part of the administering Powers had made that goal impossible.  The Committee on Information must redouble its efforts to promote United Nations decolonization efforts.  Sustained action through all available media, including radio, television and the Internet, would help the Organization to extract the remaining Non-Self-Governing Territories from colonial domination and allow their peoples to exercise their right to self-determination.

Recognizing the progress made in improving the multilingual character of the Department's publications and its Web site, he emphasized the need to strengthen such efforts to ensure parity among the six official languages.  Algeria was pleased that the Committee on Information had decided to augment the international broadcast capacity of the United Nations.  Radio was omnipresent in the lives of people in the world's remotest corners.  Whereas the digital divide separated the North and South, radio continued to bring the planet's people together.

MOHAMMAD AL-OTAIBA (United Arab Emirates) expressed gratitude to the Department of Public Information and its head for their efforts in disseminating information on the United Nations. New information technologies were a positive force in that effort, encouraging cooperation between northern and southern countries, and helping to coordinate the struggles against the world’s ills.  The technologies must be further developed for those purposes; they should not be used for mere passive reception of information.  Developing countries needed to have access to such technologies to deal with their problems. 

Unfortunately, he said, media in the developed world had often exercised hegemony in information dissemination, fueling hatred.  Partisan policies in the use of information technology needed to be reviewed, through criteria based on mutual respect of cultures and protection from fanaticism and racial discrimination.  The growing responsibilities of the United Nations in facing global challenges required more than ever the use of media for facing those problems, and the dissemination of relevant United Nations efforts. 

Regarding the Web site, he was alarmed that equal attention was not being given to the Arabic language according to the resolutions of the General Assembly.  Coordination between the Department and the specialized agencies was also important to make sure all parts of the agenda were publicized, especially the real situation of the Palestinians and the nature of the conflict in the Middle East.

SALEH SHEBANI (Libya) said there was an urgent need for international balance in the field of information, particularly with regard to the Western media, which selectively reported stories that distorted the image of other countries and their media.  The report of the Committee on Information affirmed the huge gap between the North and South in using the benefits of the information revolution.  Libya called upon the United Nations to help close that divide.

He said it was the duty of the media in all countries to adopt an approach that would not lead to ethnic tensions or provide justification for actions that were in contravention of human rights and of United Nations conventions.  Libya called for programmes that promoted public awareness of such threats as HIV/AIDS and racism.  Since freedom of the press was one of the pillars of democracy, it was hoped that a new information order would lead to the transmission of information that was objective and transparent, and that would promote international peace and security.

Mr. HAGGAG (Egypt), expressing appreciation for the work of the Department of Public Information, said that the recent tragic events proved that the United Nations had a vital role in fostering mutual understanding between civilizations.  Information and communication had been essential to the United Nations since its founding.  The Organization must remain a pioneer in the use of information technologies.

He reaffirmed the special role of the Department and said it should have adequate resources for the responsibilities placed on it by Member States every year.  To enhance the performance of the Department, he emphasized the need for expansion of the pilot radio broadcast project into a permanent programme in all official languages, building on local, national and regional partnerships.  Regarding integration of information centres into the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), he hoped it would proceed according to paragraph 30 of last year’s resolution B.

In addition, he said, any proposals to enrich the Web site must work towards the principle of linguistic equality, based on that principle, and not on indications of the comparative use of each language.  He emphasized also the importance of the dissemination of information on the issue of Palestine, and expressed appreciation for the annual training session for Palestinian journalists.  In closing, he urged the use of information technologies for the service of humanity.

JUAN GABRIEL VALDES (Chile), speaking on behalf of the Rio Group, noted that one of the greatest challenges facing the international community was the yawning and growing technological divide between the developed and developing countries.  That challenge would require the effective operation of mechanisms of cooperation in various sectors, so that investments in education, health, infrastructure and others would contribute towards a better balance and greater social justice in the world.

He said a number of States had emphasized the need to improve the efficiency of the United Nations information centres and to work towards, among other things, parity in multilingualism, giving equal treatment to the use of the official languages, including on the United Nations Web sites.  The subject of multilingualism was of crucial importance to the Rio Group.  Human and financial resources were needed to enrich the information provided in Spanish to a level commensurate with the number of Spanish speakers.

Expressing appreciation for the Department's efforts to introduce innovations, particularly the integration of new technologies, he said that because of the growing use of the Internet in the dissemination of materials on the Organization, those efforts should be highlighted and recognized as strategic.  However, a vast sector of the recipients of such information in the developing countries were not appropriately equipped and trained to process them with the same effectiveness as in the developed countries.  In addition, the content of those materials was prepared in only one of the six official languages.  The Department should continue its efforts to ensure parity in terms of language and content.

He welcomed the Department's efforts to update and improve the radio and television equipment of the United Nations, with a view to reaching a greater number of users and other communications media around the world.  Another strategic aspect was the Department's efforts to computerize the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, with a view to making its resources available to the international academic community and to Member States.  That task should be continued and expanded for the benefit of those who must use that important information resource.

AGUSTIN GALAN (Spain) condemned the use of violence to silence journalists and expressed condolences for the deaths, most recently in Afghanistan, of journalists doing their jobs.  The role of the Department of Public Information was central, he said, and there was no conflict between new media and old media.  Rather, varied media should be used for maximum effectiveness.  It was essential to get the United Nations global message to local audiences worldwide, using all means of dissemination available, especially the media and non-governmental organizations, through innovative means.

The United Nations, he said, was essentially an information producing, distributing and consuming organism.  A sound information policy was therefore vital.  A culture of communications throughout the Organization was particularly essential.  To fulfil that aim, multilingualism must be fostered; staff members should speak at least two official languages.  In addition, the information gap between developed and developing countries needed to be bridged.  Any reform of the Department must focus not on simply reducing costs or improving efficiency.  The focus should be on the overall effectiveness of the timely dissemination of multilingual, comprehensive, balanced and reliable information through the most

appropriate media to a worldwide audience.  It was also important to identify indicators of success towards those goals.

He acknowledged the efforts of the Department to put valuable information on the Web in all official languages, a good example being the Web pages concerning the fight against global terrorism.  In that regard, he looked forward to the announced link between the Official Document System (ODS) and the United Nations Web site.  In conclusion, he said that enormous tasks lay ahead.  Nevertheless, he expressed confidence that those challenges would be overcome, so that the world would be informed of what the United Nations was doing for humankind at the dawn of the new Millennium.

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For information media. Not an official record.