Secretary-General, on World Press Freedom Day, Calls for Protection of New Media Voices Giving Millions Chance at Democracy, Opportunities ‘Long Denied Them’

3 May 2012
OBV/1099-PI/2030

Secretary-General, on World Press Freedom Day, Calls for Protection of New Media Voices Giving Millions Chance at Democracy, Opportunities ‘Long Denied Them’

3 May 2012
Meetings Coverage
OBV/1099 PI/2030
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

World Press Freedom Day Observance

Secretary-General, on World Press Freedom Day, Calls for Protection of New Media

Voices Giving Millions Chance at Democracy, Opportunities ‘Long Denied Them’

Journalists Often Met with ‘Bullets and Knives’ Meant to Silence Them

Forever, Says Panellist, Warning 2012 Could Be ‘Very Deadly’ for Profession

Expressing outrage over the continued killing and detention of journalists worldwide, top United Nations officials called on Governments this morning during an observance of World Press Freedom Day to better protect practitioners of traditional and new media alike, and to end impunity against attackers.

“Such attacks are outrageous.  I call on all concerned to prevent and prosecute such violence.  Defenders of a free press are safeguarding our rights and we must, in turn, ensure theirs,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the opening of the special briefing and panel discussion on the theme “New Voices:  Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies”, co-organized by the Department of Public Information and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Secretary-General noted that more than 60 journalists worldwide were killed last year, and many more were injured.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 179 journalists were detained in 2011, a 20 per cent rise over 2010, and the highest level since the 1990s.  Countless others faced intimidation, harassment and censorship at the hands of Governments, corporations and powerful individuals seeking to preserve their power or hide misdeeds.

Impunity for those who attacked or threatened journalists remained disturbingly prevalent — including for assaults carried out in broad daylight, delivering the most brutal of messages, he said.

To better protect newsmakers, last September, the United Nations held its first ever inter-agency meeting on journalist safety and the issue of impunity, which produced a comprehensive action plan, he said, adding that the Organization would bolster efforts to help Member States strengthen legal frameworks and investigate attacks against journalists.

The Secretary-General also noted the importance of protecting new media voices and new modes of communications that were transforming the world, helping millions of people gain, for the first time, the chance at democracy and opportunities long denied to them.  Their contribution to building stronger, healthier and more peaceful societies was indispensable.

Echoing those sentiments, General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, in a message read out by his Chef de Cabinet, Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, said the historic events unfolding in the Arab World, as a result of the “Arab Awakening”, would not have been possible without the emergence of new voices empowered by new media and new technologies.  The potential benefits of those new technologies were immense, especially for sustainable development and global prosperity.  Moreover, freedom of information was a fundamental right, inherent in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it was acknowledged and restated by numerous General Assembly resolutions.

He urged all Member States and Governments to do more to ensure the security, independence and freedom of journalists, especially those using new media.  “Anyone who targets or kills people in the media, simply because of their work, must be investigated and be brought to justice,” he said.

At the same time, considering the immediate impact of information in the digital world, journalists must be more responsible in their work to ensure accuracy, balance and fairness, and not use the media to disseminate hatred or conflict, or incite violence, he said.

Instead of suppressing or shutting down new media platforms, Governments should embrace them and promote a thriving environment for free media and free expression, he said.  Moreover, they should work more closely to bridge the digital divide to ensure that more people, particularly in developing countries, gained access to information and communications technology.

Monges Schmidt, UNESCO’s Director of Field Coordination, agreed, saying promotion of press freedom and freedom of expression fed into the wider development objective of empowering people, fostering democracy and creating the space for dialogue to occur.  Media freedom was fragile without a constant global awareness and firm legal basis that provided for pluralism, independence and access to information.

The importance of the action plan set forth last year by the United Nations Inter-Agency Meeting on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which UNESCO spearheaded, was self-evident, he said.  Journalists’ words were often met with bullets and knives meant to silence them permanently, he said, warning that “2012 is already looking to be a very deadly year for the profession.”

UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize honoured journalists who, in the face of verbal threats, physical attacks and imprisonment, were committed to challenging official views in their quest to inform the public, he said.  This year’s prize was issued today in Tunisia to Eynulla Fatullayev, a journalist in Azerbaijan, who knew such challenges first-hand and had fought long and hard for press freedom.

Michael Higgins, President of Ireland, pointed to the three Irish journalists on UNESCO’s remembrance webpage of assassinated journalists, including Veronica Guerin, killed while exposing the impunity of drug-trafficking gangs; Martin O’Hagan, the only journalist killed in the three-decade-long “troubles” in Northern Ireland; and Simon Cumbers, in whose memory a media fund was set up to promote greater coverage of development issues in the Irish press.

“One of the most important lessons learned, from a media perspective in the course of the Northern Ireland peace process, was that the public can, and should, be trusted to form its own judgements from the array of political viewpoints on offer throughout the media,” Mr. Higgins said, noting his decision to end an order that constituted censorship under section 31 of the Irish Broadcasting Act.

Since the advent of the Internet, Ireland had taken the view that communication on the web fell clearly within the scope of the right to freedom of expression and that the Internet should remain an open, public forum, with as little restriction as possible.  At the same time, permissible restrictions on freedom of expression, both online and off, as established by international human rights law, were essential to protect the rights or reputation of others, national security or the public interest.  A legitimate State role was vital to ensure that such rules were applied properly and in proportion to need.

But, it was not enough to ensure a “free and open” Internet, he said.  Poor, rural, elderly and disabled people needed better access to it to prevent a further widening of inequalities between the North and South.  To achieve that, an inclusive partnership involving Governments, international and regional organizations, civil society and business groups was essential.  As this year’s Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Ireland would host a conference on Internet freedom in Dublin next month that would address many of those issues.

Similarly, Eduardo Ulibarri ( Costa Rica), Chairperson of the United Nations Committee on Information, said the digital divide was a reality and a barrier to development.  Overcoming it required investment in infrastructure, better access to new communications, good public policies, legal security, citizen’s participation and respect for freedom, among other things.

While new information technologies had made it possible for people in difficult circumstances to “bring the force of their free will” to bear, obstacles still continued to prevent people from exercising their freedom of expression, he said.  He denounced the instruments used to block or distort those new methods of communication and said the shocking number of deaths and attacks on journalists, as reported yesterday by Reporters without Borders, was unacceptable.

For its part, Costa Rica was fully committed to freedom of expression through all communication platforms, he said.  His country had had adhered to the declaration “Freedom Online:  Joint Action for Free Expression on the Internet”, adopted by 14 countries in The Hague on 9 December 2011.  Together, those nations would continue to elevate the “clamour of the international community” to break down political and social barriers, and to overcome the obstacles to the full exercise of communication and of press freedom.

Finally, Giampaolo Pioli, President, United Nations Correspondents Association, read out the names of 63 male and female journalists killed in the last four months, noting that hundreds of other journalists continued to be tortured or imprisoned.  Five years after the passage of Security Council resolution 1738 (2006), which condemned violent acts against war correspondents and called on all parties to put an end to such practices, the United Nations and its Member States must do more.  “Those sacrifices must not only make us reflect, but act,” he said, adding that “2012 must simply be the year of action.”

Maher Nasser, Acting Head of the Department of Public Information, who moderated the opening session, agreed, calling on all stakeholders, particularly Member States, to work together to ensure that journalists worldwide had a safe work environment.  “The events of the past year have shown us that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are critical to allowing new voices to be heard and positive political change to take place.  Let us encourage this progress,” he said.

Earlier, meeting participants observed a moment of silence to honour journalists killed in the line of duty last year.

Panel Discussion

Mr. Schmidt then moderated a panel discussion on “New Voices:  Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies”.  It featured presentations by Delphine Halgand, Washington, D.C., Director, Reporters without Borders; Ian Bassin, Campaign Director and General Counsel, Avaaz; Amy Goodman, award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist, author and host, Democracy Now!; and Ahmed Shihab-Elden, producer and host, Huffington Post Streaming Network, and self-described “social media addict”.

Speaking first, Ms. HALGAND recounted the murder of an editor of the Nuevo Laredo, Mexico-based daily newspaper Primera Hora, who had used social networks to report about organized crime in her region.  The journalist was found decapitated on 24 September 2011.  Next to her body was a message that said “this has happened to me because of my actions on social networks”.  Ms. Halgand then pointed to a citizen journalist from Bahrain, who had moderated a social media forum about events in his village.  He was also found brutally murdered in 2011.  While the murder of journalists had been going on for years, what was striking was the violent way in which both of those reporters had died.

Traditional and new media had become complementary key tools, she said.  Citizens that used social media, or “netizens”, could face the same danger as journalists.  Since the beginning of 2012, one journalist had been killed every five days.  Since 2011, at least 5 netizens had been killed.  Arrests of netizens had increased 30 per cent in 2012; at present more than 130 netizens were detained.  Repressive regimes not only existed in the Arab world; Governments worldwide were using tougher measures to crack down on journalists, combining drastic filtering with tracking and monitoring of cybercitizens.  The Thai Government had blocked more online content in the past three months than in the past three years.  Connection speed had also become a barometer of country political and social situations.  In Egypt, Libya, Nepal and elsewhere, “SMS” (text) messaging was being blocked off.  Certain companies specializing in online services were becoming “the new mercenaries in the online arms race”.

She called on Governments to comprehensively implement laws to protect journalists.  Regimes that tried to hold on to their authority knew that not even the most sophisticated tools could silence the new voices of Internet freedom.  On 17 December 2010, a street vendor in Tunisia had set himself on fire, effectively marking the start of a social revolution in his country.  His story was mostly relayed by the new social media voices.  The street vendor’s story would continue to transforms societies, she said, warning that there were many stories like his.

Mr. BASSIN said that, in a few short years, his organization — which promoted freedom of the press — had built a base of some 14 million members.  At one time, citizens only engaged with their government during an election season, when the high “costs of entry” for participation were lowered; participation was generally time consuming and expensive.  Today, however, new social media tools had arrived and allowed people to communicate with their Governments — a shift that he called a “great leap forward”.  Unfortunately, such media were not available to everyone.  In some countries organizations, such as Avaaz, were blocked, and citizens were suppressed through press blackouts and repressions.

Avaaz provided communications infrastructure, trained journalists and helped with information dissemination.  It was currently engaged in using twentieth-century tools in more efficient ways, he said, and it was “scratching the surface” of the potential of twenty-first-century technologies.  The question that all people should ask themselves was:  which new tools offered the most promise for promoting freedom of expression and allowing citizens to engage in politics?

“The Arab world had forever changed,” said Mr. SHIHAB-ELDEN, the next panellist.  There had been much speculation about the central role of social media in the Arab Spring.  Governments had suppressed and denied citizens the constitutional guarantees that were necessary for press freedom, and civic engagement was brutally oppressed.  The media was undergoing an evolution as the Arab world — which had a youth population of 70 per cent — underwent its own, he said.  Millions of unemployed and frustrated young people had protested online, causing that spirit of civic engagement to spill over from the virtual world into the streets.

However, there was a dark side to the Internet, he said; for example, some Governments had used fishing tools to trap dissenters.  As the revolutions took their course, some countries that had undergone Arab Springs were once again seeing communication blackouts and repression.  Nonetheless, he said, according to the organization Freedom House, last year was the first time in eight years that freedom of the press had not declined globally.  Egypt, Libya and Tunisia had experienced signs of improvement as a result of the Arab Spring.  Average citizens were turning to vehicles such as Facebook and Twitter, he added.  Such media had changed the way that both citizens and Governments communicated.  In the absence of mainstream media and reporting, Twitter “becomes the wires”, he stressed.

Ms. GOODMAN said that she had worked for Pacifica, one of the first media vehicles that was not run by corporations, but by reporters and citizens.  “Independent media is dangerous for those that thrive on hate,” she said, as it allowed people to “speak for themselves”.  It was the job of the international community to provide that forum.  In Tahrir, in Egypt, she said, it was not just the Government, but also major corporations that had been involved in implementing the press blackout.  Corporations were helping to provide the technology that had helped Governments to intercept dissenters and track them down.  In that context, it was critical that citizens and non-citizens alike were active in protecting press freedom and ensuring that all voices were heard.

The “mainstream media” was no longer mainstream, but an extreme media that was “beating the drum for war”, she said.  The majority of people were against war, but those points of view were not being heard; in that respect, she listed several examples, such as the dearth of interviews with anti-war protesters that had been seen in the media before the Iraq war.  When it came to covering war, what had been seen over the last 10 years was an unacceptable number of journalists killed.  Even as the world discussed modern technology, it was essential that Governments followed the “basic rules of humanity”.  Finally, sources such as WikiLeaks were necessary as they allowed the world to access critical information after it had been blacked out.

During the ensuing discussion, representatives of States, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups raised questions on issues ranging from the protection of journalists on the ground to the potential of new media in the developing world.  Responding to a question about access to information as a counter to Government secrecy, Ms. GOODMAN said that information allowed people to band together to make the world a better place.  That was the most accurate reflection of what was really going on the ground, she added, and it was critical for such voices to be heard.

In a similar vein, Ms. HALGAND said that everyone could help to “spread the truth” about companies that were providing Governments with the technologies they used to monitor, torture and kill dissidents.  Mr. BASSIN said that easy platforms for sharing citizens’ opinions were important to help get people involved in campaigns against secrecy and repression, and that social media allowed the world to see that many people did not agree with their leaders.  In fact, most were against war and supported efforts towards peace and tolerance.

Meanwhile, Mr. SHIHAB-ELDEN stressed the importance of supporting independent media platforms that offered alternatives to traditional mainstream media.  “It’s important that we stop letting advertising dictate what is newsworthy,” he said in that respect.

One speaker felt that Security Council resolution 1738 (2006) on protecting journalists was a “toothless” instrument, and suggested that a United Nations agency devoted to that issue might be one effective solution.  Responding, Mr. SCHMIDT disagreed with the need for another international instrument, adding that it was more important that Governments adhered to their current commitments on the protection of journalists.  Ms. HALGAND also agreed that more action was needed.  Additionally, she said, it was important not to forget about protecting non-governmental workers, drivers and other supporters that helped journalists do their work on the ground.

Ms. GOODMAN told several stories of being arrested in the course of her work as a reporter.  She stressed the importance of spreading images of such repression, whether of citizens or professional journalists.  “When people see video, they do something — they’re galvanized,” she said, noting that one of the best protections for journalists was the world’s attention.

In brief closing statements, the panellists also described what they felt should be done in the coming year to promote press freedom around the world.  Mr. BASSIN said that it was crucial to question the so-called “golden truths” of the mainstream media, and that media vehicles should be more honest about what they saw to be true.  He added that people should embrace the tools of new media to become more engaged in the politics of their world.  Mr. SHIHAB-ELDEN said that the recent “awakening” had been sparked by the breakdown of a “fear factor” of sorts, and he urged journalists and activists to embrace that shift.

Ms. HALGAND stressed that the violence against journalists seen in the past year had been made possible by the technologies of large corporations.  In that regard, it was up to those in the room to “spread the word” about what they had heard today and to change that dynamic.  For her part, Ms. GOODMAN concluded that it was critical for reporters, activists and citizen journalists to be transparent and not to obscure what was happening on the ground.

The morning’s events were followed by an afternoon round-table discussion on “Protecting journalists:  Lessons learned and prospects five years after resolution 1738”, co-organized by the Permanent Missions of France and Greece, in cooperation with UNESCO.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.