UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL RESPONDS TO ‘RICH AND INTENSE DEBATE’ ON UN INFORMATION ACTIVITIES, AS COMMITTEE CONCLUDES GENERAL DISCUSSION

20 April 2005
PI/1646

UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL RESPONDS TO ‘RICH AND INTENSE DEBATE’ ON UN INFORMATION ACTIVITIES, AS COMMITTEE CONCLUDES GENERAL DISCUSSION

20/04/2005
Press ReleasePI/1646

Committee on Information

Twenty-seventh Session

4th Meeting (PM)

UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL RESPONDS TO ‘RICH AND INTENSE DEBATE’ ON UN

INFORMATION ACTIVITIES, AS COMMITTEE CONCLUDES GENERAL DISCUSSION

Speakers Praise Department’s Reorientation,

Address Website Language Parity, Information Centre Rationalization

The Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Shashi Tharoor, responded to delegates’ “rich and intense debate” on the activities of the Department of Public Information (DPI) this afternoon, as the Committee on Information concluded the general debate of its twenty-seventh session.

Under-Secretary-General Tharoor thanked all the delegations who had reacted positively to DPI’s reorientation process and its new operating model.  The DPI, he said, intended to continue its efforts to make its outreach more strategic.  He reiterated that DPI had led efforts to present a unified message for the Organization, at the country level in particular.

In response to specific comments, he said that the information component of peacekeeping missions were financed in their entirety from the budgets of the respective operations, and that a focus on the special needs of Africa would continue.  The focus on dialogue among civilizations, mentioned by many delegations, remained a priority.  The Department’s “Unlearning Intolerance” seminar series had generated wide media attention and was being further promoted through the United Nations information centres (UNICs).

He noted that virtually all speakers referred to the rationalization of the UNIC network in a constructive manner.  He hoped the Committee would equip DPI with the necessary flexibility to strengthen the existing centres, and redeploy limited resources on the basis of emerging communications needs for maximum impact.  Unfortunately, however, available resources were not adequate for opening any new UNICs at this time.

Regarding United Nations work towards bridging the digital divide, he said that DPI was working closely with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in the lead-up to the second segment of World Summit on the Information Society to promote the Tunis meeting and the issues before it.

Referring to the United Nations website, Mr. Tharoor said traffic analysis was an integral tool for the site’s enhancement and development.  Thanks to new software and hardware upgrades in place as of January this year, DPI was able to log more parameters for analysis and preserve such logs for future analysis.

The DPI would continue its efforts within existing resources to meet the challenge of working towards parity on the website, he said.  Similarly, it would continue to look for ways to strengthen the United Nations News Centre. 

He was encouraged by delegations’ positive comments on the new focus for United Nations libraries, and he reassured delegates that DPI would maintain traditional library services, as well.  He also outlined the Dag Hammarskjöld Library’s new knowledge-sharing services.

Finally, he presented some of the results of surveys distributed at the interactive sessions, which took place in the afternoon of 18 April, confirming that the priority issue for Committee participants was the rationalization of the UNIC network.  Seventy-five per cent of the participants had responded to the survey.

In the remainder of the Committee’s debate, as during the past three days, speakers continued to praise the reorientation of the Department in the effort of more effective delivery of the United Nations message and service to departmental clients.

Echoing many other speakers, Indonesia’s representative said communication was a powerful tool for economic growth and social development and could play an important role in poverty eradication in developing countries.  Communication disparities could further widen disparities between and within countries.

Others called for a maintained focus on development issues and an increased DPI role in a dialogue among civilizations.  The observer for Palestine called on the Committee to continue to support the journalist training programme and other activities related to the question of Palestine.  And, among requests for greater services, the representatives of Angola, Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe (on behalf of the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries) requested enhanced lusophone services, including a new UNIC in Luanda.

Cuba’s representative charged that the United States was interfering in its internal affairs by supporting broadcasts that undermined its Government.  In exercise of the right of reply, the United States countered that Cuba’s opposition to those broadcasts was driven by fear of the consequences of uncensored information in a country that lacked the right to free expression.

In other matters this afternoon, the representative of the United States requested that the press release for Tuesday’s session of the Committee be revised and reissued to reflect the full range of issues that had been discussed during the general debate that day, as well as a more balanced description of the debate on the rationalization of UNICs.

Also speaking today were the representatives of Mongolia, India, Pakistan, United Republic of Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago and Belarus.  Luxembourg, on behalf of the European Union, also took the floor.

The Committee on Information will meet again at a time to be announced.

Background

The Committee on Information met today to conclude the general debate of its twenty-seventh session.  [For background information, please see Press Release PI/1641 of 15 April 2005.]

Statements

RODNEY ALEJANDRO LOPEZ CLEMENTE (Cuba), supporting the statement of Jamaica on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the enormous gap in communications technology kept increasing, and the development gap was growing, as well.  Hence, traditional means of information continued to be important, especially radio.  Practical, lasting and sustainable solutions would be necessary to insert developing countries into the information society, requiring stable sources of financing.

There was also, he said, an imbalance in the dissemination of information in the world.  Much of the information emanating from the [developed] world distorted and falsified news and events.  The United Nations Information Centres (UNICs) played an increasingly important role in the diffusion of just and balanced information.  Future rationalization of the centres should only occur in close cooperation with host countries.

He denounced the daily radio and TV aggression against his country from United States territory.  Two stations were owned by the United States, and that country allocated more than $35 million attempting to destroy the Cuban revolution through their broadcasts.  The use of information to subvert the internal order of States resulted in illegal action.

CHOISUREN BAATAR (Mongolia) said the trend to vilify the United Nations in the last three years was alarming and it was incumbent upon the Organization not to let certain facts overshadow its important work and undermine its unique legitimacy, credibility and moral standing.  The Department of Public Information (DPI) had successfully managed to both counter negative publicity and maintain its regular programme of promoting global awareness and greater understanding of the priority areas set out in the Millennium Declaration.  The DPI had made measurable progress in the last three years in implementing the public information reforms outlined in the Secretary-General’s recent report “In Larger Freedom”.

He praised DPI for its success in redesigning the United Nations website to make it more user-friendly, as evidenced by the continued increase in hits to the site in all of the six official languages.  The site was a cost-effective and highly useful tool for information dissemination in the digital age, particularly to UNICs in small States and developing countries with no local UNIC presence.  Similarly, the Official Document System (ODS) was a readily accessible and reliable resource or reference of all official United Nations documents, he said, lauding the decision to open ODS to the public at large.

A. GOPINATHAN (India), aligning his statement with that of Jamaica on behalf of the Group of 77, commended DPI for its transformation and its work in the past year.  He was broadly supportive of the recommendations contained in the Secretary-General’s reports on information.  He said DPI must always be mindful of the need to bridge the digital divide between developed and developing countries, to build on its promotion of a positive public image of the Organization, and to highlight development priorities, including a focus on Africa.

Since regionalization of the UNIC system was not resulting in the optimized functioning of the network, he concurred that large-scale regionalization would not be possible.  He supported the proposal that Governments provide rent-subsidized premises for the centres, but any further rationalization must be done in consultation with host countries.  The importance of UNICs in developing countries could not be overstated.

He was impressed by the progress of the web site, but reiterated that such progress must not come at the expense of traditional media.  He welcomed the print products of DPI, outreach to non-governmental organizations and the orientation of the UN Chronicle towards educational outreach.  He urged DPI to continue to work in closer tandem with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, particularly on building awareness about such operations.

AIZAZ AHMAD CHOWDHURY (Pakistan) said that, as clearly stated in the Secretary-General’s report, no further regionalization of the UNIC network was possible and DPI was not in a position to open regional hubs.  All efforts must be made to strengthen UNICs in developing countries.  The UNICs were a vital source of information and helped bridge the gap between the developed and developing countries in information and communication technology access.  They were indispensable in building public support for the Organization.  The UNIC in Islamabad should be further strengthened and upgraded.  The UNICs in developing countries should be funded adequately to strengthen them and to ensure their effective functioning.

He attached importance to Urdu broadcasts for public consumption throughout the Asian region.  The United Nations must continue to rely on traditional communications tools, particularly radio, to reach out to populations in remote areas and throughout the developing world, where many people lacked Internet access.  He proposed that meetings of the Security Council, the General Assembly’s general debate and major meetings of the Economic and Social Council be webcast live.  Concerning modernization and integrated management of United Nations libraries, he said any changes envisaged should be within the previously agreed mandate and should take into account the capacity of developing countries to effectively utilize advanced technologies.

JOSE LUIS DE MATOS (Angola), aligning himself with the statement of Jamaica on behalf of the Group of 77, said that there needed to be concrete progress in bridging the gap in communications technology.  In that light, he expressed appreciation for DPI’s efforts to make UNICs useful in dissemination of information about the United Nations.

Regarding the offer of his Government to open a UNIC in Luanda to serve the needs of the African Portuguese-speaking community, he was concerned that the lack of resources might hinder his Government’s ability to open the Centre.  He urged DPI to continue its efforts to open it, taking into account the rent-free premises that had been offered by that Government.  More resources should be allocated towards the UNICs in developing countries.  He expressed special appreciation for the Portuguese Radio Unit of UN Radio, which was about to complete 30 years of cooperation with Angolan National Radio.

Supporting freedom of the press, he condemned violence and interference against journalists.  In his country, the public and private press was particularly important in ending the long civil war.  A new legal framework was under review for press freedom and more work would be done in that regard.  In closing, he encouraged DPI to continue its efforts to improve information and communications infrastructure in the world.

FATIMA VEIGA (Cape Verde), supporting the statement made by Jamaica, on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, and the statement made by Sao Tome and Principe on behalf of the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries, said the mounting criticism on the Organization’s transparency, effectiveness and relevance had made DPI’s work all the more important.  She commended the reorientation process and innovative initiatives, such as the “Top 10 stories the world should know more about” and broad, public access to ODS.  Efforts to lessen the digital divide among Member States were encouraging.  However, traditional communication means, particularly television and radio, still deserved special attention.

She recognized the importance of cost-effectiveness of UNICs in developing countries; however it should not occur at the expense of effective public outreach.  It was possible to balance both goals.  The UNIC in Luanda was essential to meet the needs of Portuguese-speaking African countries, which were yet to be adequately addressed.  Its operation should not be made dependent on voluntary contributions from least developed countries, still grappling to extend modern information and communication technology to their populations at large.

GRACE MUJUMA (United Republic of Tanzania), aligning her statement with that of Jamaica on behalf of the Group of 77, noted with appreciation the efforts of DPI to promote an informed understanding of the vital United Nations work.  The DPI should be in the forefront of the debate on UN reform and the indispensability of multilateralism.  The DPI should also reach out to governments and civil society in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and should help to narrow the widening gap in information and communications technologies.

Regarding rationalization of the UNIC network, she said that, while regional hubs could play strategic roles, it was important for the remaining UNICs to be enhanced.  She further supported equitable treatment of official languages, and commended the launching of a radio programme dedicated to Africa, as well as the fund that allowed journalists from developing countries to come to United Nations Headquarters.

GAILE RAMOUTAR (Trinidad and Tobago), speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and supporting the statement made by Jamaica on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, lauded DPI’s new operating model.  It reflected a new working relationship among the various Secretariat departments and DPI and would further enhance the visibility of the United Nations’ priorities and activities.  She expressed hope that some of the new modern communications tools, such as live webcasts and video clip viewings, would be accessible to the mass media and the general public in the Caribbean.  She called on DPI to continue to promote the outcomes of the recent international meeting on the small island developing States and on United Nations Radio to increase partnerships with radio stations in the Caribbean.

Regarding the further rationalization of the UNIC network, she said UNIC in Port of Spain had, as part of its mandate, important public information dissemination functions on the United Nations in Trinidad and Tobago, and in the neighbouring Caribbean States it served.  She expressed hope for a mutually satisfactory arrangement whereby a UNIC would continue to operate from Trinidad and Tobago and efficiently discharge its functions.  She reiterated her request to give favourable consideration to posting a national information officer in the office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Kingston, Jamaica, to meet the United Nations information needs of the northern Caribbean island nations and Belize.

RUSLAN ESLIN (Belarus) supported DPI’s efforts to fine-tune its efforts to adapt to a rapidly changing world.  The new outreach strategy was already bearing fruit.  He supported, as well, the continuation of DPI’s balanced perspective.  Biased information in the media must be countered by accurate information from DPI.  Thanks to the UN office in Minsk, his country had access to such information resources.

He affirmed the importance of radio and the modernization of the library system.  He said it was of continued importance for DPI to disseminate information about the Chernobyl accident and to publicize upcoming events related to it.  It was particularly important that updated information on Chernobyl, on the UN website, be available in all official languages.

Maintaining UNICs, he said, was important for all the above purposes, as was enhancing language parity.  Measurement of hits on the website should not have an impact on the latter effort.  He assured the Committee that Belarus would continue to work closely with DPI on disseminating information about the work of the United Nations.

SANGA PANGGABEAN (Indonesia) said the information and communication technology gap between developed and developing countries continued to grow, and impeded the ability of many societies to learn about and become involved in the United Nation’s work.  Communication was a powerful tool for economic growth and social development and could play an important role in poverty eradication in developing countries.  Communication disparities could further widen disparities between and within countries.

Rationalization of the UNIC network was not appropriate for developing countries due to their geopolitical complexities.  Local populations were most strongly impacted by information in their local language.  The UNICs were the most appropriate medium for promoting public awareness and mobilizing support for the United Nations at the local level.  He expressed concern over UNICs’ continued funding shortfall.  He was encouraged by DPI’s proactive outreach efforts intended to showcase the Organization’s many and daily responses to global challenges.  The DPI had played a vital part in ensuring regular and timely multimedia coverage of the tsunami tragedy and the United Nations quick response and ability to coordinate relief efforts, as well as to provide a global forum for devising long-term measures.

DOMINGOS AUGUSTO FERREIRA (Sao Tome and Principe), on behalf of the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries, welcomed the efforts of DPI towards increased efficiency.  In that context, his Community attached great importance to the improvement of DPI’s structures dedicated to the dissemination of information in Portuguese.  The Portuguese-speaking community, of 250 million citizens globally, had greatly benefited from UN Radio programmes in their language.  The time had come, however, for the Portuguese Radio Unit to acquire international broadcasting capacity.

He said he was pleased to affirm that the UN Portuguese Radio Service website was also serving as a valuable source of information.  However, the closure of UNIC in Lisbon exponentially augmented the information gap between the United Nations and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa.  Therefore, he reiterated the request for opening a UNIC in Luanda, Angola.  The UNIC in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, also deserved continued support as a special case in Latin America.  The information services for Timor-Leste were useful, but the mission there would soon complete its mandate, making it necessary to envisage future UN information services for that country.

AMMAR M.B. HIJAZI, observer for Palestine, supporting the statement made by Jamaica on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, highlighted the important work of the Committee vis-à-vis Palestinian media through its Palestinian programme that included information dissemination on the question of Palestine and training of the Palestinian press.  The programme had enabled Palestinian journalists, who were systematically targeted, threatened, detained and, in some cases, killed while carrying out their duties, a chance to train with fellow professionals and gain insight into the Organization’s work.  Participants of the training programme were among the country’s best journalists.

He attached great importance to DPI’s efforts and projects that for years had provided the interested audiences and the international public with important and balanced facts on the question of Palestine, aimed at promoting peace in the region.  In allowing Palestinian journalists, through the training programme, to visit the United Nations and get a first-hand, in-depth look at its work was highly valuable in promoting better understanding of the United Nations in Palestine.  He called on the Committee to continue to support the training programme and other activities related to the question of Palestine.

DAVID TRAYSTMAN (United States), exercising the right of reply to a statement by Cuba, said that his Government took seriously its international obligations, particularly those of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), concerning avoidance of harmful interference to the services of other countries.  For 46 years though, Cubans had been denied the rights of free expression and assembly.

The United States continued to believe that the Cuban Government’s opposition to Radio and TV Marti, and its continued imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, was driven by fear of the consequences of uncensored information, to which all members of the human race were entitled.  The Cuban people deserved a government committed to democracy and the full observance of human rights.

Exercising his right of reply, Cuba’s representative said the reaction of the United States through Radio Marti was in violation of international law.  Cuba was an educated nation, with a high literacy level and access to education.  An educated nation was a free nation because it could not be hoodwinked.  The United States blockade against Cuba was the most flagrant violation of Cuban human rights.  The major press outlets thwarted and twisted information.  The United States media was a great example and distributed information in a way to create an image they wanted to project.  There was a double standard with regard to that.

Also by right of reply, the representative of Luxembourg, on behalf of the European Union, said that the policy of the European Union with regard to regionalization of UNICs had not changed. Possible local initiatives, particularly by civil society or within the framework of existing UN structures, had the sole objective of building upon and amplifying the work and outreach of the Regional United Nations Information Centre (RUNIC) in Brussels.  He reasserted the European Union’s confidence in Mr. Tharoor to fully implement the regionalization process.

The representative of the United States said that the first page of the press release on the Committee’s session on Tuesday was almost entirely devoted to the issue of UNIC rationalization.  There was no mention in the text or subtitle of the many other issues discussed, such as multilingualism of the United Nations website, improvements to the library system, press freedom, and the work of the United Nations Communications Group.  The press release was unbalanced.  He asked that a revised press release be issued.

Reply by Under-Secretary-General

SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, thanked all the delegations who had reacted positively to DPI’s reorientation process and its new operating model.  The DPI, he said, intended to continue its efforts to make outreach more strategic, focusing on priority issues as a means of maximizing resources for greater impact.  He reiterated that DPI had led efforts to present a unified message for the Organization at the country level in particular, and that objective would continue to be pursued at the forthcoming session of the UN Communications Group.

In regard to comments on the information component of peacekeeping missions, he reiterated that those components were financed in their entirety from the budgets of the respective operations.  Regarding a focus on the special needs of Africa, he said it would continue.

He said that dialogue among civilizations, also mentioned by many delegations, remained a priority.  The Department’s “Unlearning Intolerance” seminar series had generated wide media attention and was being further promoted through UNICs.  The third seminar in the series would be held in conjunction with World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2005, with a focus on the media’s role in fanning the flames of tolerance in a world where it was so often misused.

He noted the constructive tone of the discussion on the rationalization of the UNIC network.  He hoped the Committee would equip DPI with the necessary flexibility to strengthen the existing centres, and redeploy limited resources on the basis of emerging communications needs for maximum impact.  While DPI would continue to pursue all avenues to further reduce costs and use creative solutions to maximize resources at the field level, he hoped that host governments would extend extrabudgetary support, in cash and kind, to supplement DPI resources.

He said that, unfortunately, however, available resources were not adequate for opening any new UNICs at this time, including one suggested in Addis Ababa.  However, the United Nations Information Service in Addis Ababa had been supporting the communications needs of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), and DPI would continue to work closely with ECA on promotion of common objectives.  Regarding a UNIC in Luanda, he said DPI had discussed the matter with the Angolan delegation directly.  Again, due to resource constraints, it was not possible to proceed within available resources.  Meanwhile, the Desk for Portugal at the Brussels RUNIC provided a range of Portuguese information to all UN offices in Portuguese-speaking countries on a daily basis.  Similarly, a new office was not possible in Kingston, Jamaica, but work should continue to enhance services to the Caribbean region through UNIC Port of Spain.

He thanked those countries who supported the work of existing UNICs in their countries.  Where deficiencies in the work of specific centres had been pointed out, every effort would be made to correct them.

Regarding United Nations work towards bridging the digital divide and the promotion of the second segment of the World Summit on the Information Society, he said that DPI was working closely with the ITU in the lead-up to the Summit, to promote the objectives of the meeting.  As a parallel event at the Summit itself, DPI was planning with partners a forum for electronic media.

In regard to the UN website, he said that the “Global Search” of the ODS was only formally unveiled this week, so there had not been sufficient time to assess how ODS was being accessed through the website.  A preliminary assessment would be made in time for the report to the Fourth Committee later this year.

Mr. Tharoor said website traffic analysis was an integral tool for the site’s enhancement and development.  Thanks to new software and hardware upgrades in place, as of January this year, DPI was be able to log more parameters for analysis and preserve such logs for future analysis.  The DPI was looking at the more heavily used sites to ensure adequate prioritized maintenance and was circulating comparative statistics of the number of overall pages viewed in 2003 and 2004, sorted by official language.  Similar statistics for the General Assembly and Security Council sub-sites were being prepared and would be circulated shortly.  In general, they followed the same usage pattern as the overall site.  The top layer pages of the English and French sites could now be accessed by disabled persons, and work was under way to provide the same functionality for the second layer pages.

The DPI would continue its efforts within existing resources to meet the challenge of working towards parity on the website, and to assist and urge other departments to provide more language content, he continued.  Similarly, it would continue to look for ways to strengthen the United Nations News Centres, including by providing added functionality to these sites.  Inter-agency discussions were under way to develop a content-management system or gateway for the United Nations system.  The new Search system would be tested later this year for its ability to crawl all sites of the United Nations system.

Regarding the report on the new strategic direction of the United Nations libraries, the Under-Secretary-General said he was encouraged by delegations’ positive comments on the libraries’ new focus and the role of the Steering Committee for library modernization and integrated management.  He reassured delegates that DPI would maintain traditional library services and that print documents would be the core of United Nations library collections.  United Nations libraries would explore ways to make use of the most appropriate technology available to meet Member States’ needs, taking into account infrastructure and resource capacities.  The new knowledge-sharing services of the Dag Hammarskjöld Library would include information management-consulting initiatives to directly support and coach staff and delegations.  The DPI would develop partnerships with other Secretariat departments to implement the new strategy.

Mr. Tharoor noted that 75 per cent of attendees at Monday’s interactive session responded to the survey distributed by DPI.  The bad news was that respondents, particularly first-time participants in the session, said that DPI was only somewhat effective in raising awareness of the United Nations work in their respective countries.  The good news was that the more delegates had learned about DPI’s work and the longer they contributed to the Committee, the more positively they viewed DPI’s efforts.  Seventy per cent of respondents said that humanitarian relief, such as the United Nations’ role in the aftermath of the tsunami, received high media coverage at home.  Respondents confirmed that promoting the Millennium Development Goals was the most challenging task.  He strongly urged Committee members to use all means possible to help promote the Goals.

Twice as many survey respondents said the regionalization of UNICs was the most important issue under discussion during the current session, giving it top priority over other issues such as United Nations reform and improving the Organization’s image.  All respondents said the interactive session was useful; of that, two thirds said the session was very useful.  He thanked delegates for their many helpful suggestions on how to improve the sessions and said DPI would try to accommodate as many of them as possible in future Department planning.

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For information media. Not an official record.