Multilingualism, Languages Parity, Importance of United Nations Information Centres Dominate Thirty-Sixth Session Opening
By drawing on all its assets and partnering with a variety of stakeholders, the Department of Public Information was helping the United Nations support peace efforts across Africa, its chief told the Committee on Information today as it opened its thirty-sixth session.
Since the beginning of 2014, the Department had sent public information officers to help disseminate messages of peace and reconciliation in Sango and other local languages of strife-torn Central African Republic, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, told the Committee. Earlier this month, the Secretary-General had attended the official commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide in Kigali, while the Department and the Permanent Mission of Rwanda had hosted a panel discussion with Senator Roméo Dallaire, former commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force stationed in that country in 1994.
Presenting the Secretary-General’s reports on strategic communications, news services and outreach services, Mr. Launsky-Tieffenthal said the Department sought to apply five vital strategic elements — leadership, understanding, conversation, knowledge and partnership — in all its activities, from the post-2015 development agenda, climate change and the needs of small island developing States, to its programme on the question of Palestine, and its outreach activities on the Holocaust and the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.
He said that despite the lack of sufficient resources to achieve language parity, the Department had made noticeable progress in translating information products into the six official United Nations languages and beyond, through partnerships with Member States, universities, media houses and telecommunications firms. In the past year, all plenary meetings of the General Assembly, Security Council and Economic and Social Council had been webcast live in all the official languages, and the Department was now exploring ways to ensure that the same could be done with press releases.
Bolivia’s representative, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said he looked forward to suitable coverage by the Department of the Group’s fiftieth anniversary, to be celebrated in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, later this year. However, he expressed concern over the growing disparity between the use of English and the other official languages on the United Nations website, reiterating the Group’s request that the Secretary-General ensure that the Department had the requisite staff to carry out its work in all the official languages.
Echoing that sentiment, Argentina’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends of Spanish at the United Nations, welcomed the announcement contained in the Secretary-General’s report that he intended to begin issuing press releases in Spanish by redistributing resources currently used for the English- and French-language versions.
However, the representative of the European Union Delegation expressed concern that such the proposal would eliminate coverage of the General Assembly’s Main Committees and other important United Nations bodies. Since there were no summary records of meetings held by some of those bodies, press releases were the only way to ensure transparency, accountability and institutional memory, she stressed.
Delegates also emphasized the critical importance of multilingualism, the need to bridge the digital divide between the global North and South, to strengthen the network of United Nations information centres around the world, and to balance new forms of media and technology against traditional ones.
The representative of the United Republic of Tanzania said the Department’s creation of social media profiles in Arabic, French, Kiswahili and Portuguese, was proof that multilingualism had advanced in the work of the United Nations. Emphasizing the importance of traditional media as the primary means of communication in many developing countries, he commended the Department for ensuring full staffing of its Kiswahili and Portuguese radio units.
Meanwhile, Senegal’s representative stressed the need for a pragmatic approach to multilingualism, saying that the Department required greater financial resources to operate effectively.
Committee Chair Lyutha Sultan Al-Mughairy (Oman) said the Department faced complex challenges and must balance long-term priorities against more urgent tasks, including addressing new and competing mandates while meeting the need for rapid responses to emerging “hot spots” in the face of a constantly evolving media climate. Its task remained “to tell the UN story”, from mediating peace and fighting poverty to providing humanitarian succour to people in conflict zones and advancing human rights, she said. “It is for the Department of Public Information to bear witness to humanity’s pursuit of the goals set out in the Charter.” However, the Department had been unable to implement fully its mandate to ensure multilingualism and language parity, she said, emphasizing that its inability was not the result of a lack of commitment, but due to a lack of adequate resources.
Also speaking today were representatives of Zambia, Oman, Mexico, Guatemala, Libya, Egypt, Japan and Ukraine.
At the outset of the meeting, the Committee approved the programme of work for the session.
The Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 29 April, to continue its general debate.
The Committee on Information, the intergovernmental body charged with reviewing progress in the field of United Nations public information, began its thirty-sixth annual session this morning, with delegations expected to consider reports of the Secretary-General on the three subprogrammes of the Department of Public Information: strategic communications services (document A/AC.198/2014/2); news services (document A/AC.198/2014/3); and outreach services (document A/AC.198/2014/4). Members were also expected to review the Department’s proposed strategic framework for 2016-2017 (documents A/69/6 and A/69/6 (Prog.24)/Corr.1).
LYUTHA SULTAN AL-MUGHAIRY (Oman), Chair of the Committee on Information, said that the Department of Public Information (DPI) faced complex challenges and must balance long-term priorities against more urgent tasks, including addressing new and competing mandates while meeting the need for rapid responses to emerging “hot spots” in the face of a constantly evolving media climate. The Department’s task remained “to tell the UN story”, from mediating peace and fighting poverty to providing humanitarian succour to people in conflict zones and advancing human rights, she said. “It is for the Department of Public Information to bear witness to humanity’s pursuit of the goals set out in the Charter.”
However, the Department had been unable to implement fully its mandate to ensure multilingualism and language parity, she said, emphasizing, however, that its inability was not the result of a lack of commitment, but due to a lack of adequate resources. The answer must be found in securing additional resources to meet the multilingualism objective set by the Committee. “If we want DPI to deliver on the tasks we propose, we must also equip it with tools it needs,” she emphasized. “The choice before the Committee is therefore clear. It can either seek an augmentation of resources available to DPI through the appropriate constitutional means, or it can reorder the priorities of the Department to better accommodate the requirements of multilingualism.”
PETER LAUNSKY-TIEFFENTHAL, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said five strategic elements were vital to the Department’s approach and objectives — leadership, understanding, conversation, knowledge and partnership. The Department was leading communication efforts on the transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the post-2015 development agenda, he said, adding that by promoting transparency, it sought to build international support for the Organization’s activities. “We must be heard, seen, read and understood” through new communications modes and tools while continuing to employ traditional media like radio, television and print, he emphasized, noting that the Secretary-General’s report on strategic communications services included a review of the Department’s use of social media. Communications was not a one-way process, but one requiring outreach by the Department’s natural allies — media, civil society organizations, academic institutions and the creative community.
He said that the Department sought to apply the five strategic elements in all its activities, from the post-2015 development agenda, climate change and the needs of small island developing States, to its programme on the question of Palestine, and outreach activities on the Holocaust and the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. The Organization’s work in and for Africa were a critical area of the Department’s strategic focus. He recalled that during a recent trip to Nairobi and Abuja to identify new partners, he had participated in the United Nations Regional Coordination Mechanism for Africa aimed at strengthening departmental cooperation with the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and promoting its Africa–related work in the context of the African Union’s Agenda 2063. “I am convinced that we can do more through partnership and more understandable and relevant messages in a language that is accessible,” he said, noting the merits of both words and visual messages.
The Department employed all its assets to support peace efforts in Africa, he continued, noting that in 2014, it had sent public information officers to support United Nations efforts in the Central African Republic, where they were helping to disseminate messages of peace and reconciliation in Sango and other local languages at a time of deep tension and violence. Earlier this month, the Secretary-General had participated in the official commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, in Kigali, while the Department and the Permanent Mission of Rwanda had hosted a panel discussion with Senator Roméo Dallaire, former commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in that country. To help mark the fiftieth anniversary of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, the Department would publish a special issue of UN Chronicle in English and French, which would also be translated into Spanish. It was also developing an engaging programme for the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations, involving Member States, the general public and civil society.
He said that, as the Secretary-General’s Coordinator for Multilingualism, he was the first to admit that linguistic parity remained a goal rather than a reality. That was due to a lack of sufficient resources, not commitment. Nevertheless, the Department had made noticeable progress in translating products into the six official United Nations languages and beyond, through partnerships with Member States, universities, media houses and telecommunications companies. In the past year, all plenary meetings of the General Assembly, Security Council and Economic and Social Council had been webcast live in all the official languages, and in 2013, United Nations information centres had translated and distributed materials in more than 45 languages. At the Committee’s request, the Department had held informal discussions with Member States to explore options for implementing language parity in the issuance of press releases, and a related proposal was contained in the Secretary-General’s report on news services activities.
To bring the United Nations story to the greatest possible number of people, the Department continued to work on enhancing its effectiveness and expanding the reach of its services and products, he said. Capitalizing on opportunities presented by new information and communications technologies, it was able to reach a wider, more diverse and younger audience. “Yet the Department cannot accomplish this task alone,” he stressed. “We need your active support, participation and partnership.” The Department counted on “our partnership with you to get better equipped, better prepared and better skilled for the challenges we all face”. He concluded by welcoming the engagement of Member States in next week’s commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, saying that the Department, in close collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), was working to draw attention to the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.
SACHA SERGIO LLORENTTY SOLÍZ (Bolivia), speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, said that the Department’s work of promoting a better world and understanding of the United Nations was particularly necessary in the lead-up to the creation of a post-2015 development framework. The partnership between the Committee and the Department must be strengthened in order to achieve that, he said. Recognizing the Department’s challenging mandate, he said the Group of 77 and China supported its efforts and campaigns. He also emphasized the importance of the Department’s Special Information Programme on the Question of Palestine, including the annual training provided for Palestinian media professionals from the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Group also supported efforts to strengthen the network of United Nations information centres, he said, welcoming offers of rent-free premises from some developing Member States while emphasizing that such support should not substitute full allocations of financial resources for the centres from the United Nations programme budget. The Group of 77 and China also looked forward to the establishment of an information centre to serve Portuguese-speaking African countries, as envisaged in General Assembly resolution A/RES/64/243.
However, concerns remained over the deepening disparity in the use of the official United Nations languages on the Organization’s website, despite the Department’s efforts to improve multilingual content, he said, reiterating the Group’s request that the Secretariat’s content-providing offices translate all English-language materials and databases into all official languages and make them available on their respective language websites. The Group also called for the design and implementation of a strategy to deliver daily press releases in all six official languages through cost-neutral creative schemes and stressed that traditional media remained a primary means of communications in development countries, where Internet coverage was sparse. The Group continued to underscore the importance of closer cooperation among the Public Information, Peacekeeping Operations and the Field Support Departments, as well as efforts to address violations of international rules and regulations governing information and communication technologies. Welcoming resolution 67/292 on multiculturalism, he emphasized the importance of ending disparity between the use of English and the other five official languages, reaffirming in that regard, the Group’s request that the Secretary-General ensure that the Department had the necessary staffing capacity in all the official languages to undertake all its activities. The Group of 77 and China would be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, this year, he said, adding that he looked forward to marking that milestone event with the appropriate coverage by the Department. The Group also requested that the Department and information centres continued to raise awareness of all General Assembly-mandated high-level meetings.
FRANCESCA RIDDY-0’DOWD, European Union Delegation, said that mainstreaming multilingualism throughout United Nations public diplomacy efforts was a priority for the bloc, which had 23 official languages and in which numerous regional and minority languages were in constant use. She commended the Department’s focus on multilingualism on its website and across its news and media services, as well as its partnership arrangements aimed at increasing multilingual content in a cost-neutral way. The European Union Delegation strongly encouraged the Department to bolster efforts to fulfill requests for access to video archives in all six official languages.
While grateful for the Department’s responsiveness to the General Assembly’s request for a strategy designed to deliver press releases in all six official languages, she pointed out that the proposed expansion would lead to coverage of fewer meetings. The European Union Delegation was particularly concerned that under the proposal, several important United Nations bodies, including the General Assembly’s Main Committees, and subsidiary bodies of other main United Nations organs, the Human Rights Council and the treaty bodies, would not be covered in any language. In the absence of summary records of meetings held by some of those bodies, press releases were the only way to ensure transparency, accountability and institutional memory, she stressed.
Mateo Estreme (Argentina), speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends of Spanish at the United Nations, praised the Department’s efforts to develop new content through the use of new technology and traditional media alike, as well as to improve accessibility to and design of its website. Nevertheless, he expressed growing concern that its new activities were not always in adherence with the principle of parity among the six official languages. In 2013, the content of the Spanish-language website and the number of registered visitors to that site had continued to grow, and according to the Secretary-General’s report on new activities, it received 20 per cent of all page views, second only to the English-language site, which received 59 per cent of all page views. All future reports of the Secretary-General should provide more statistics in order to facilitate accurate assessments, in the framework of full transparency, and inform concrete actions aimed at achieving the widest possible dissemination, he said.
Upon request by the Group of Friends, the Secretary-General’s current report provided ample disaggregated data on the use of all six official languages in the Department’s information products, he continued, adding that he was encouraged that the draft resolution before the Committee established the importance of ensuring equitable treatment of all official languages in the Department’s activities, thereby ending the disparity between the use of English and the other five. Reiterating that the Department’s existing mandate demanded that it deliver press releases in all official languages, she welcomed the announcement in the Secretary-General’s report of the intention to begin issuing press releases in Spanish by redistributing resources currently used for the English- and French-language versions. A strategy was also needed for daily publication in all official languages, he said, pledging the Group’s readiness to collaborate in such creative schemes. The Department’s existing resources were detailed in a specific budgetary programme, and it was not acceptable to favour one language over others, he stressed.
JOSEPH KATEMA (Zambia), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, said that since 1975, his country had hosted a United Nations information centre, which provided general information about the Organization, its research facilities and its internships for students, among other topics. Zambia had embarked on a wide range of reforms and repositioning of its media industry, including the ongoing process to enact the Access to Information Bill. It had established the Independent Broadcasting Authority, a statutory body responsible for investment and management. Further, journalists and other media practitioners had formed an independent, non-statutory and self-regulatory mechanism to promote ethical and professional conduct. He called on all stakeholders to help to ensure universal access to information and communications technology, which was prohibitively expensive for developing countries, and two or even three times more so for landlocked developing countries like Zambia.
TALAL HAMED SAID AL-YAQOOBI (Oman) said intellectual diversity was an important part of the Organization that must be integrated into its work alongside the principle of State sovereignty. He commended the programme dealing with the question of Palestine, including annual initiatives and meetings, and welcomed the Committee’s efforts to promote multilingualism, noting the growing number of materials available in the six official languages. Press releases must also be translated into all the official languages on the website, he added.
ABDOU SALAM DIALLO (Senegal) said the Department had made efforts to improve its working methods and activities, including by using modern communications tools to better promote United Nations efforts. However, in creating an ambitious communications strategy, it was important to recognize the North-South digital divide, whereby the people in most developing countries remained excluded from modern technology. Noting that the United Nations information centres played a key role in the Department’s work by bolstering the Organization’s public image and distributing messages to local populations, he called upon Member States to provide support, as needed, to help them fulfil their respective missions. With regard to multilingualism, he said a pragmatic approach was needed, emphasizing the need to allocate additional resources to the Department instead of letting it operate on existing allocations.
Lorena Alvarado Quezada (Mexico) said the information centres played an essential role in promoting the Organization’s work, acting as bridges in bringing information to national and regional audiences. While the Department’s social media efforts addressed a number of issues, from development to peacebuilding, the digital gap left traditional media as the only means of communication for many populations around the world. In that regard, press releases were a critical information tool she said. More broadly, she emphasized the need for multilingual materials on a range of issues, pointing out that her country had the world’s largest number of Spanish-speakers. She also stressed the importance of multilingualism and parity among the six official languages and welcomed the creation of the Group of Friends of Spanish at the United Nation, saying it would be a great help to the Department’s work.
GERT ROSENTHAL (Guatemala), aligning with the statement of the Group of Friends of Spanish, said the Department played a great role in the Organization’s work. Multilingualism was inherent to the Organization’s. It must be taken into account in all discussions. It was indispensable to achieve parity in all official United Nations languages. It was necessary to adapt the Organization’s information architecture to appropriately address communications in six official languages. He expressed hope that the Department would prepare viable alternatives to decrease the language gap. He noted the value of developing new technologies. But as there was still a digital gap between developed and developing countries, traditional media must be maintained. He urged the Department to continue to spread the use of social media in all official languages. Outreach tasks by the Department contributed to a better understanding of peacekeeping operations. He was encouraged by improvements toward that end.
Altaher A. A. Almuntaser (Libya) supported Bolivia’s statement on behalf of the Group of 77 and China. The Department and the Committee were important for raising awareness on global problems. That information must be prioritized in communication, non-discrimination, climate change, peaceful solving of differences, the rule of law, the Millennium Development Goals and the post-2015 development agenda. Closing the digital divide was a priority. More cooperation was needed to help developing countries obtain access to resources and new technology. Parity among the Organization’s official languages was vital. He hailed the Department’s partnership with peacekeeping operations on the question of Palestine.
AHMED SHARAF MORSY (Egypt) said the Department played an important role in clarifying the work of the United Nations, including such issues as the internationally agreed development targets and the question of Palestine. Egypt called upon the Department to continue updating information that would promote the culture of peace and tolerance. Noting that many United Nations information centres now used different means to disseminate information, with most launching social media sites, he pointed out that there had been less emphasis on radio, which should have more attention because it was a critical tool for reaching audiences around the world. There was also a need for multilingualism efforts to promote parity among all official languages in order to reach all targeted audiences, he said, noting that related deficiencies on United Nations websites should be corrected. The Department should also reinforce messages, including the need to end the occupation of Arab territories and to establish a Palestinian State, he said.
SHINSUKE SHIMIZU (Japan) requested that the Peace Bell, as well as the permanent exhibition of the remnants of the nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki be placed in their original locations once the Headquarters renovations were complete. As a reminder of nuclear war’s tragic results and a symbol of peace, their place near the General Assembly Hall would serve as a visible daily reminder of the world body’s overarching mission. Commending the Organization’s partnerships with companies such as All Nippon Airways and Lufthansa, he said they provided inflight programmes of United Nations activities and called for the expansion of such endeavours. Japan looked forward to co-hosting the 2014 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East with the Department, in Tokyo this June, he said.
YEHOR PYVOVAROV (Ukraine), Committee Vice-Chair, said the reliable work of the United Nations information centres was an important means of applying the Department’s mandate. Speaking in his national capacity, he said that since the Committee’s last meeting, his country had been destabilized by the Russian Federation, which was waging a “propaganda information war” against Ukraine and threatened regional and global security. It was not a coincidence that aggressors in Crimea had first shut down local television stations, he said, asking the Committee and the United Nations to appraise the ethical and professional principles of journalism as practised by the Russian media and their role in fuelling hostilities among the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. He demanded that the party with influence over “terrorists and separatists” immediately free all captured Ukrainian and foreign journalists, and refrain from imperilling their professional activities. “ Ukraine was and remains an integrated European democratic State,” he emphasized. “We truly hope that the UN will also do everything possible to avoid the beginning of the third world war.”
RAMADHAN MWINYI (United Republic of Tanzania) said he appreciated that the Department was building social media profiles in Arabic, French, Kiswahili and Portuguese, which was proof of the advancement of multilingualism in the work of the United Nations. The United Nations information centres continued to play a major role in disseminating information, and it was to be hoped that the Department would continue paying attention to the relationship between the centres and Headquarters. Emphasizing the importance of traditional media, including radio and print, he said they would remain the primary means of communication in many developing countries for years. In that regard, he commended staff members of the Department’s Kiswahili and Portuguese radio units for actively recruiting new partners.