SECRETARY-GENERAL HIGHLIGHTS FOCUS ON THE UNDERREPORTING OF IMPORTANT NEWS
AS HE ADDRESSES COMMITTEE ON INFORMATION
Calls Occasion Opportunity to Reaffirm Commitment to Independence of Media
World Press Freedom Day was an opportunity to reaffirm commitment to the independence of the media, and to ensuring that journalists were able to do their vital work in safety and without fear, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this morning at the annual Headquarters meeting marking the Day.
He said the Day was also an opportunity to consider some of the wider issues facing the profession. This year’s observance was focusing on the very contentious issue of what was reported and what was not. “We should not, by our action or inaction, by what we report or do not, send a message –- especially to those countries and people in need who struggle along in good faith -– that only widespread bloodshed or total dysfunction will get them attention and help.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, he said, 36 journalists were killed in 2003, 17 others in the first three months of this year and 136 were in jail as of the end of last year. The continuing threat to their personal and professional integrity must concern all who relied on the media as an agent of free expression, as a defender of human rights, as an instrument of development, and as a means of rousing the world’s conscience.
Tony Jenkins, President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) and correspondent for Portugal’s Expresso, said that through sacrifices, such as that of Spanish journalist Ricardo Ortega, who was killed while covering the deployment of the multinational interim force in Haiti just a few months ago, journalists observed World Press Freedom Day everyday and helped to protect other freedoms.
Criticizing specific countries where journalists regularly experienced repression, he cited Cuba, where 30 journalists were currently languishing in jail, as well as China, Bangladesh and the Russian Federation. Turning to the United States, he noted that American journalists were among the most hard-working and ethical in the world, and the American media were the richest and freest in the world. One would think, therefore, that the American people were the best informed. Unfortunately, however, a significant portion of Americans mistakenly believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam Hussein had been partly responsible for the 11 September attacks, and that most of the world favoured the invasion of Iraq. It was now time for American journalists to do some soul-searching, he added.
As part of the observance, a panel discussion was held comprising representatives of the media, non-governmental organizations and development agencies. It focused on the role and responsibilities of the world media in covering global issues and examining whether it was perceptions of audience interest, commercial considerations, lack of resources or other reasons that determined the editorial choices and the extent of news coverage.
Many forces decided what stories were reported, underreported, or were not reported at all, the panellists noted. The most powerful public influence on what top 10 issues were reported or covered up, said James Ottaway, Chairman of the World Press Freedom Committee, were governments, particularly the 60 per cent of United Nations Member States that allowed little or no press freedom, ignored their own constitutional guarantees of press freedom, and forgot they had signed international agreements requiring freedom of information.
The Committee to Protect Journalists had today released its own top 10 list of “The World’s Worst Places to be a Journalist”, he noted. It included Iraq, where 25 journalists had already died in the United States-led war that started in March 2003; China, where 41 journalists were in jail, making China the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the fifth year in a row; and Cuba, where a crackdown on independent journalists a year ago had jailed 29 for terms of up to 27 years. The others on the list were Zimbabwe, Russian Federation, the West Bank and Gaza, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea and Haiti. Practising honest journalism was the most dangerous profession in the world, after the military, he said.
In addition to the issue of safety, speakers also pointed out the high financial costs of foreign news coverage, which was particularly expensive in war zones. A general lack of interest in complex international issues was also cited as a factor in deciding what was reported and what did not.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Daily News columnist E.R. Shipp expressed concern that actress Jennifer Lopez received more coverage than the recent diplomatic spat between Mexico and Cuba, noting also that if an international conflict did not directly relate to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, it was not considered news. Regrettably, “reality TV” did not offer unedited images from the Iraq war, but was geared towards whether or not a bachelor would find a girlfriend.
Too few journalists took advantage of the first amendment, which protected freedom of the press in the United States, she said. They preferred to wait for government handouts rather than investigate things for themselves. The lack of diversity among editors and reporters also affected coverage choices.
The other panellists were Alexander Boraine, President, International Centre for Transitional Justice; Danilo Türk, Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations Department of Political Affairs; and Mr. Jenkins. The discussion was moderated by Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information.
Among those making opening remarks were Viviane F. Launay, Director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Office in New York, and Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury (Bangladesh), Chairman of the Committee on Information.
Also speaking during the discussion were the representatives of Cuba, Lebanon, and Mexico.
The observance of World Press Freedom Day is part of the annual session of the Committee on Information, which makes recommendations to the General Assembly on the policy and activities of the United Nations Department of Public Information.
For more information on the Committee’s current two-week session, see Press Release PI/1572 issued on 22 April.
The Committee on Information met this morning to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, as part of its two-week twenty-sixth session. The meeting’s opening segment featured remarks by Secretary-General Kofi Annan; Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, Chairman of the Committee on Information; Viviane Launay, Director, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Liaison Office-New York; and Tony Jenkins, President, United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA). That was followed by a panel discussion on the theme “Reporting and Under-reporting: Who Decides?”
SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information, noting that the annual observance was traditionally an opportunity to reaffirm commitment to the principle of a free press, said that in thinking about the plight of journalists, thoughts turned to the role of the media in world affairs. The second segment of the observance would examine why some stories got told and others did not. There would also be a screening this afternoon of the film “The Agronomist” in the Dag Hammarkskjöld Library Auditorium.
KOFI ANNAN, Secretary-General, said World Press Freedom Day was, first and foremost, a day on which to remember and pay tribute to journalists killed in the line of duty, or whose reporting had led to their imprisonment and detention. According to the statistics documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 36 journalists were killed in 2003, 17 in the first three months of this year alone, and 136 were in jail as at the end of last year. Some of those journalists were deliberately targeted because of what they were reporting or because of their affiliation with a news organization.
Journalists had been resolute in the face of that hostility and danger, he said. But the continuing threat to their personal and professional integrity must concern all who relied on the media as an agent of free expression, as a defender of human rights, as an instrument of development, and as a means of rousing the world’s conscience. So today was a day to reaffirm commitment to the independence of the media and to ensuring that journalists were able to do their vital work in safety and without fear. The Day was also an opportunity to consider some of the wider issues facing the profession. “This year you are focusing on the very contentious issue of what gets reported and what doesn’t.”
Those at the United Nations did not always agree with the emphasis the press gave to some stories at the expense of others, he noted. But such frustration was by no means confined to the media. After all, Member States often paid undue attention to some issues and little to others of equal or uneven surpassing concern. Likewise, it could be maddening to see donors funding projects that might be popular back home but were not all among the most urgent priorities in the country receiving the aid. But governments and donors were human and they tended to be influenced by what they saw and heard in the media.
With that in mind, he said, the Department of Public Information had just issued a list of 10 stories that it believed people around the world needed and deserved to know more about. Among them was the mounting emergency in northern Uganda, the turbulence in the Central African Republic, and the plight of AIDS orphans.
“We need to get good news out, as well as bad”, he said, noting that what those situations and issues had in common was that they were each at a critical moment -– a moment when outside attention, understanding and assistance could make a real difference. “We should not, by our action or inaction, by what we report or do not, send a message –- especially to those countries and people in need who struggle along in good faith -– that only widespread bloodshed or total dysfunction will get them attention and help”, he stated.
IFTEKHAR AHMED CHOWDHURY (Bangladesh), Committee Chairman, said freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which were “two sides of the same coin”, represented an important segment of the inalienable right of all people to self-expression. Referring to the 1991 Windhoek Declaration, which labelled freedom of information a fundamental human right and maintained that a free press was essential for democracy and economic development, he applauded the designation of 3 May as World Press Freedom Day.
Highlighting the three reasons that the world should celebrate World Press Freedom Day, he said that, first, it reminded Member States that democracy and development suffered when journalists were too severely constrained. Second, its observation bettered the international community since press freedom was linked to many other equally important rights. Finally, it kept alive the idea that the world still had a long way to go before press freedom was ensured throughout the world.
Stressing that freedom of expression should not be viewed as a gift, he said, there should be no North-South divide in upholding it. After all, the entitlement was enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. A free media required diversity and monopolies, including the cultural and linguistic ones affecting the electronic media, should be discouraged.
Turning to information flows, he expressed concern over the inability of developing countries to consistently access and benefit from them. In that context, he acknowledged the General Assembly’s calls for more assistance to help such countries bridge the digital divide. It was regrettable that the interests and concerns of the poor were rarely reflected in the “so-called mainstream media”.
VIVIANE F. LAUNAY, Director, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Office in New York, said the United Nations was celebrating the recognition that, for at least one day of the year, the promotion of press freedom in the world would be/should be/must be at the centre of the thoughts, writings and debates held in as many parts of the world as possible, and that it be thus recognized by governments and civil society alike, that free, pluralistic and independent media were an essential component of any democratic society. The Organization was commemorating the too-often unheralded courage and determination of a profession that showed no fear and paid the heaviest prices for its quest for truth and its passion to share it with the citizens of the world, either on the radio, the television, in public arenas or in print.
She recalled that in 1997, UNESCO had established the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, in honour of the Colombian journalist assassinated in 1987 for investigating and denouncing his country’s drug cartels and their powerful owners. The Prize aimed to honour the work of an individual, organization or institution defending or promoting freedom of expression anywhere in the world, especially if that put the person’s life at risk. This year, the Prize had been awarded to the Cuban poet and journalist Raul Rivero Castaneda. He would be unable to receive his Prize this evening in Belgrade, as he had been given a 20-year jail sentence in April 2003.
She said that UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication, established in 1980, continued to provide the only multilateral forum in the United Nations system designed to mobilize the international community to discuss and promote media development in developing countries. The Programme not only provided support for media projects, but also sought an accord to secure a healthy environment for the growth of free and pluralistic media in developing countries. Over the last 24 years, the Programme had channelled more than $90 million to over 1,000 media development projects in 135 countries.
This year, UNESCO had chosen as its theme for World Press Freedom Day “Media in Conflict and Post-Conflict Zones and in Countries in Transition”, she said. The Agency had been supporting independent and pluralistic media in conflict and post-conflict areas since the early 1990s. Recent examples included UNESCO’s work to support non-partisan reporting during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the creation of the first independent publication in Afghanistan in 2001, and meetings between Israeli and Palestinian journalists.
In the aftermath of conflict, she said, independent and public service media, especially broadcasting, could help heal the wounds of war and continue to promote social and economic reconstruction. There was a demonstrable link between the buoyancy of the independent media and of the economy, and freedom of the press had been shown to contribute to material prosperity. While supporting the development of media infrastructure, UNESCO had been seeking to ensure that journalists, including those working in war zones, could carry out their professional duty to inform the public in reasonable conditions of safety. But journalists continued working in conditions of extreme danger, as could be seen from the number of casualties, in both times of war and times of peace, she said.
According to the International Press Institute, an international network of editors, media executives and journalists, 64 journalists were killed in 2003, including 19 reporters and media professionals in the war in Iraq, she said. The UNESCO used diplomatic channels in seeking to persuade governments to respect the rights of journalists to do their work. It published statements to draw attention to abuses against media professionals. It had also helped create the IFEX network of 45 freedom-of-expression organizations worldwide, which publicized abuses against freedom of expression, supported freedom of expression initiatives in developing countries and countries in transition.
TONY JENKINS, President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), began by highlighting the case of Spanish journalist Ricardo Ortega, who had worked at United Nations Headquarters. Eight weeks ago, he had been shot and killed while covering the multinational interim force in Haiti. Before dying, however, he had managed to carry on filming until he could no longer hold his camera. Through such sacrifices, journalists observed World Press Freedom Day everyday and helped to protect other freedoms. His fate was all too common, and last year, 42 journalists had been killed, 766 arrested, and 1,460 beaten or subjected to death threats.
Criticizing specific countries where journalists regularly experienced repression, he cited Cuba, where 30 journalists were currently languishing in jail, as one of the worst examples. China had used the war on terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on freedom; more than 200 journalists had been attacked or threatened last year by government-affiliated forces in Bangladesh; and Russia had effectively silenced the press, especially with respect to Chechnya. It was a bad time to be a journalist, even in democracies such as Spain. Mr. Ortega believed he had lost his position in New York because the previous Spanish Government did not approve of his coverage in Iraq.
Turning to the United States, he acknowledged that American journalists were among the most hard-working and ethical in the world. After all, few countries’ newspapers would have publicly revealed their biggest mistakes, as the New York Times had done with disgraced reporter Jayson Blair. The American media were also the richest and freest in the world. Thus, one would think that the American people were the world’s best informed. Unfortunately, however, that was not that case. For example, before the Iraq war, 57 per cent of Americans incorrectly thought Iraq was providing support to Al Qaeda. Other significant portions of the populace mistakenly believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam Hussein had been partly responsible for the 11 September attacks, and that the majority of the world favoured the invasion of Iraq.
There was a big difference between crude oppression and the problems existing in the United States, he said. After all, censorship in the States was usually self-imposed. However, it was now time for journalists to do some soul-searching. In today’s United States, a respected journalist like Ted Koppel had been condemned for reading out names of American soldiers killed in Iraq, the President proudly claimed to ignore the supposedly out-of-touch press, and the most popular journalist, Jon Stewart, was actually a comedian. However, journalists were starting to strike back.
He said that recently, John Burns, who had reported for the New York Times in Baghdad, had said that American journalists had failed their public by being insufficiently critical of the United States Administration’s motives for going to war. After all, if the citizenry had known in advance how much the Iraq war would cost, as they should have, the present situation might have been better. For example, those vast amounts of money might have gone towards supporting democracy in Afghanistan or turning Gaza into a “Manhattan on the Mediterranean”. A proper debate could have ensued.
Addressing other problems associated with the media, he deplored the growing focus on profits in the media, as well as the fact that Americans did not see the same bloody images on television that their European and Arab counterparts did. Also, it was surprising that one could find a broader debate on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies in Israel than in the United States, as if the Likud Party had hijacked the American media. Because no journalist had a monopoly on the truth, the greatest number of stories possible had to be released. In that way, one could put the different viewpoints together and form a more composite picture of reality. The international corps of journalists should, therefore, be as large as possible.
SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information, and moderator for the panel, said that at a press conference last Friday, the Department of Public Information (DPI) had released a list of the top 10 stories that the world should know more about. The list was not meant to dictate to journalists what they should or should not report on, but rather to focus their attention on issues that the Department believed were critical but had not seen sufficient light of day. It had been acknowledged by DPI that it had not done enough to bring those issues to attention. The top issue on the list was the plight of children in Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army had turned children into killers.
In putting together the list, the Department had consulted experts on a wide range of issues, he said. The press conference had become more of a discussion rather than a press conference. The journalists had offered a series of ideas on what they wanted to see. The press conference was a perfect lead up to today’s discussion. There was a clear difference in what journalists felt they could communicate to the public and what the Organization wanted to see reported. Journalists felt that conflict was news while agreement was less appealing.
JAMES H. OTTAWAY, Chairman, World Press Freedom Committee, said there were many complex and difficult forces deciding what stories of international importance were reported, underreported, or not reported at all. That applied to most of the top 10 issues that should get more thorough, balanced and regular worldwide media coverage. A powerful deciding force that was most difficult to change was human nature. No one liked to be criticized in public and all public officials wanted to hide their mistakes, and see only positive media stories about their successes. That led to censorship, cover-ups and positive spin on public statements by politicians and public leaders of all kinds in every country and in every international organization or non-governmental organization.
He said that pride, the human desire to hold on to positions of power and influence, and to persuade others to their point of view in public debate, all played a big role in deciding what information even the most aggressive and fearless reporters and editors could dig out of reluctant news sources. Most editors’ search for objectivity was criticized by some readers as bias. All editors in all nations could not agree on the top 10 most important uncovered issues of the day, and should not be asked to. The most powerful public force that decided what top 10 issues were reported or covered up was government, particularly the 60 per cent of United Nations Member States that allowed little or no press freedom, ignored their own constitutional guarantees of press freedom, and forgot they had signed international agreements requiring freedom of information.
The Committee to Protect Journalists had today released its own top 10 list of “The World’s Worst Places to be a Journalist”, he noted. It included Iraq, where 25 journalists had died already in the United States-led war that started in March 2003; China, where 41 journalists were in jail, making China the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the fifth year in a row; and Cuba, where a brutal crackdown on independent journalists a year ago had jailed 29 for terms of up to 27 years. The other top 10 most dangerous places to be a journalist last year were Zimbabwe, Russia, the West Bank and Gaza, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea and Haiti.
Thus, the fear of death, imprisonment, torture, or other bodily injury was the third most powerful deciding force severely limiting reporting on conflicts, he said. Practising honest journalism was the most dangerous profession in the world, after the military. As to the internal financial and editorial forces within the media that decided the important issues, the first internal problem was that sending experienced foreign correspondents abroad was very expensive. Foreign news coverage was particularly expensive in war zones, and expensive foreign news did not pay for itself in American media.
The second limitation was American reader and broadcast surveys that showed a general lack of interest in complex international issues that went beyond war stories and body counts, he said. American newspaper editors knew that only 17 per cent of their readers said they wanted more international news.
E.R. SHIPP, a columnist for the New York Daily News, pointed out that three top stories in today’s New York Times focused on an oppressed Chinese journalism professor, an amorous type of chimpanzee that was becoming extinct in the Congo, and the declining position of the United States in the scientific world. News was simply what an editor decided it was, and many editors assumed that people were most concerned with what was taking place in close proximity to themselves. They did not give their readers enough credit for caring about international affairs. If they did cover foreign stories, such as those mentioned, those pieces directly related to the United States and its values, or appealed to an attraction to all things exotic.
Expressing concern that actress Jennifer Lopez received more coverage than the recent diplomatic spat between Mexico and Cuba, she said that, if an international conflict did not directly relate to the 11 September attacks, then it was not considered news. It was also regrettable that “reality TV” was not geared towards offering unedited images from the Iraq war, but rather towards whether or not a bachelor would find a girlfriend. While the first amendment protected freedom of the press in the United States, too few journalists took advantage of it. Rather than investigating things for themselves, they preferred to wait for government handouts. The lack of diversity among editors and reporters affected coverage choices.
ALEXANDER BORAINE, President, International Centre for Transitional Justice, spoke from his own experience in South Africa, where a minority government had sought to suppress and oppress a vast majority. A method to do that was to control the media, whether it was radio, television or the print media. The Government had also used a process of planting agents of the apartheid regime within every newspaper, radio and television station. While all that had not been known at the time, as freedom came, the country had gotten to know how distorted the news was. In addition to crude methods, there had also been subtle threats to editors, harassment of journalists, the closing down of newspapers or television programmes, and the destruction of printing presses. The imprisonment of journalists was becoming endemic and, tragically, the killing of those seeking to make the truth known was becoming commonplace.
As to why some issues were reported and others were neglected, he said that financing was a major issue. The bottom line was one of the big debates and there were very real material limitations. The question of leaning on management to give the people what they wanted was too commonplace. Self-censorship was another issue. It was easy to push for press freedom when not under threat. The real test of a nation and its commitment to press freedom was how it reacted in times of adversity. Post 9/11, the United States had acted very badly, indeed. While the freedom of the press had been seen as an absolute bulwark of the country’s democracy, what was observed throughout the United States in times of great adversity was a complete loss of nerve, not only in political circles and management but even in the media, which began to believe what the Administration determined. Dissent was equated with disloyalty.
He said events around the world today served as a reminder that freedom of the press was never secure, and must be sought and fought for in every generation. Editors and journalists should focus on the remarkable courage of people living in difficult situations, particularly women, in countries wracked by war, terror and inhumanity. They were living stories crying out to be made known. In addition, despite all the weaknesses, the dictators, financial pressures and abuse of power, today was a day to honour and remember journalists and editors who had stood up, who were not afraid to tell the truth and to say again, “the emperor has no clothes”, and to expose the challenges of the times.
DANILO TÜRK, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said freedom of the press was not an abstract concept, but, it had a specific purpose, namely truth. The search for truth was never easy and not even journalists could claim to be masters of it. Because freedom of expression carried certain responsibilities with it, the television-dominated media should resist the temptation to package information in the form of entertainment.
Turning to editorial choices in the news, he criticized the lack of coverage of such stories as the post-conflict situations in Bougainville, which had not been included on the list of 10 news items neglected by the media, and Kosovo, where recent outbreaks of violence had surprised the world. Even in the case of Iraq, more coverage could be given. For example, regarding the United Nations, terms like “central role” and “vital role” were being thrown around without much discussion as to what they meant.
Opening up the discussion, Mr. JENKINS said it was clear that news was more profit-driven now than ever before. The bottom line throughout most of the media business was above 25 per cent profits a year, a worrying trend. The entertainment factor was another issue. As one of two correspondents based in the United States for Expresso of Portugal, he was responsible for covering economics, politics, human rights and sports, while his colleague was responsible solely for covering Hollywood. The United States was a great story, first and foremost, for what came out of its entertainment industry.
On the stories that were overlooked, he said there was too much of a “macho culture in the powers that be”. If the press paid more attention to development issues, then the world would see fewer security threats, and less of a need to reach for the gun. Reaching for the gun worked because it was “sexy” and sold well in the media.
Regarding profit margins, Mr. OTTAWAY noted that news did not pay for itself, adding that a better job could be done in the United States if the profit margin was cut by a few points and more space was devoted to less reported stories. But the profit margin was essential for political independence and pluralism in the media. Because many media outlets in Russia did not make a profit, they were taken over by the Mafia and then by the Government. Russia was a good example of why profit was important for the independence of the media.
Those charged with looking for truth should not be stopped by the bottom line, Ms. SHIPP stressed. Sometimes, journalists had to be more creative to get some of the less reported stories into the American media. In addition to journalists becoming more creative, it was not certain that a press conference was the most effective way to get the attention of anyone except those in the United Nations. If the Secretary-General were to give a briefing to editorial boards that might be more effective and the stories might get the attention of editors.
Mr. BORAINE added that if it was tough for newspapers to make a 20 or 25 per cent profit, it must be much harder for television to make a 40 or 45 per cent profit. Events were taking place in many countries which could be models for use in other potential conflict situations. But because those events were underreported, no one seemed to know the good developments taking place, and the innovative ways in which other countries in tricky transitions could be helped.
Noting the imbalance between news and entertainment, Mr. TÜRK said it would be important to discuss underreported issues in a way that would create balance between news and entertainment.
After the representative of Cuba stated that the world’s major information centres typically spread disinformation and failed to give adequate coverage to such themes as illiteracy and hunger, the representative of Lebanon stressed that dissent was important and that truth was relative. The representative of Mexico voiced support for the list of neglected news stories, particularly its emphasis on people with disabilities and women involved in peace processes.
Mr. Jenkins responded that certain stories, such as earthquakes in distant lands, should not be ignored, because the world was interconnected, and such pieces did indeed impact people in other corners of the world. Terrorism should be discussed as an international phenomenon, as opposed to the invention of a few crazed individuals. Mr. Tharoor added that foreign stories were important because all humans belonged to a common civilization. In that sense, indifference was perhaps excusable, but ignorance was not.
* *** *