Concerns over Multilingualism, Language Disparity in Press Releases Dominate Opening of Thirty-Seventh Session
During a “once-in-a-generation” year which would see the adoption of the new post-2015 development agenda, the United Nations Department of Public Information had a critical role to play in supporting the ever-expanding activities of the Organization, the Committee on Information was told as it opened its thirty‑seventh session today.
In particular, speakers commended the Department’s commitment to truth, timeliness and transparency, while raising concerns about the lack of sufficient multilingualism in a number of its services and products.
“The agenda of the United Nations is a universal one,” Cristina Gallach, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information of the United Nations, said as she addressed the Committee, noting that the Organization’s goals were also the imperatives of Member States. While differences in perspective might exist, it remained incumbent upon the Department to offer the facts, to reflect competing arguments, to facilitate the exercise of reason and to enhance mutual understanding.
In 2015 in particular, she said, the United Nations would make decisions that would determine the shape of the world for decades to come. Communications across the Organization continued to support the evolution of the new post-2015 sustainable development agenda, with the United Nations Communications Group’s task force on sustainable development and climate leading the way.
She went on to describe a number of the Department’s other programmes and initiatives, including commemorations of the Holocaust and the transatlantic slave trade, work in support of the World Programme of Action for Youth, and news and media activities that fused elements of traditional media with a rapidly growing online and social media presence.
“In this era of increased sectarianism, when provincial loyalties appear to largely rule, the pursuit of a global perspective, free from self-interest and in quest of dispassionate truth, is an enterprise worthy of genuine celebration,” said Kaha Imnadze (Georgia), who was elected Chair of the Committee for the period 2015-2016 this morning.
In that regard, he stressed, the United Nations communications activities must bring truthful information to both the Organization’s supporters and its critics around the world.
During the general debate that followed, a number of delegates welcomed the wide range of the Department’s work, while raising concerns about a language disparity in its products — in particular, daily press releases — which were only released in English and French.
In that connection, the representative of South Africa, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, emphasized the need to design a strategy to issue press releases in all official languages in a cost-neutral manner. Several speakers welcomed General Assembly resolution A/RES/69/96 A-B of December 2014, which called on the Department to devise a strategy to those ends by no later than the Committee’s thirty-seventh session.
Echoing the call for increased multilingualism, Ecuador’s delegate, speaking for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), said that resolution had also emphasized the importance of ensuring the equitable treatment of all official languages to eliminate the disparity between English and the other five. The Department must have the necessary capacity to carry out its activities in all official languages, a goal which should be factored into future programme budget proposals, he said.
The representative of Guatemala, speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends of Spanish, noted that the Organization’s Spanish website was the second most visited in 2014; nevertheless, priority continued to be given to other languages. Adherence to the principle of multilingualism would strengthen the primary mission of the Department, which was to provide accurate, timely information and support the activities of the Organization with the greatest transparency possible, he said.
Meanwhile, the delegate from the United States stressed the importance of transparency in the work of both the Organization and its Member States, as illuminated by the Department’s daily coverage of meetings. Recognizing the importance of delivering that information in more languages than English and French, he nevertheless stressed that Member States provided the Department with its budget, and that the Department should operate within available resources — a sentiment echoed by Japan’s delegate.
Elections by acclamation this morning included that of the Committee’s new Chair, as well as several other members of its Bureau. Giovanni Davoli (Italy) and Chibaula David Silwamba (Zambia) were elected as Vice-Chairs, while Hossein Maleki (Iran) was elected as Vice-Chair and Rapporteur of the Committee.
The Committee also adopted its agenda and programme of work for the session, contained in document A/AC.198/2015/1.
Before the Committee were three reports of the Secretary-General, entitled:
“Activities of the Department of Public Information: strategic communications services” (document A/AC.198/2015/2); “Activities of the Department of Public Information: news services” (document A/AC.198/2015/3); and “Activities of the Department of Public Information: outreach and knowledge services” (document A/AC.198/2015/4).
Lyutha S. Al-Mughairy (Oman), outgoing Committee Chair, also addressed the Committee this morning.
Also speaking during the general debate were the representatives of the European Union delegation, Egypt, Morocco, Russian Federation, El Salvador, Argentina and China.
The Committee will reconvene Tuesday, 28 April, at 10 a.m. to conclude its general debate.
Opening the first meeting of its thirty-seventh session, the Committee on Information observed a moment of silence to commemorate the loss of life having taken place due to the earthquake in Nepal over the past weekend.
LYUTHA S. AL-MUGHAIRY (Oman), outgoing Chair of the Committee on Information, said that centrality of the work of the Department of Public Information spanned across the history of the United Nations. “As this Committee has consistently affirmed, it is the primary mission of the Department’s activities to strengthen international support for the activities of the Organization with the greatest transparency,” she said. The definition and scope of transparency had enhanced over the past years. Public information, by definition, must be public, accessible, immediate and inherently capable of being shared. Multilingualism was stressed because transparency demanded a language that could be understood. There must be prudence in how the Committee shaped the budget, and openness and responsibility in social media. The contents of public information and communications must be at the heart of the strategic management of the United Nations because “we belong to all”.
KAHA IMNADZE (Georgia), incoming Chair of the Committee on Information, said that story telling was a centrally human enterprise, and that the Department was the preeminent storyteller of the Organization. “You are the narrators of the world’s collective and individual experiences,” he said, adding that “in this era of increased sectarianism, when provincial loyalties appear to largely rule, the pursuit of a global perspective, free from self-interest and in quest of dispassionate truth, is an enterprise worthy of genuine celebration.” Effective communication derived from the truth, and must offer ready, affordable and effective means to bring the Organization’s manifold activities to life to its critics and those who feigned indifference, while equally addressing the need for information among its supporters, including Member States.
The General Assembly had consistently reaffirmed that a culture of communications and transparency should permeate all levels of the Organization, he went on. That made it explicit that public information was integral, and not incidental, to every action, assertion and aspiration of the Organization. Success in communications manifested success in the Organization’s efforts towards peace, security, development and human rights. Citing several of the Department’s products and projects, he said that it remained the responsibility of the Committee not only to guide and counsel the Department and its work, but to guide and counsel the work of all colleagues in other committees and forums to ensure the acknowledgement and centrality of the communications efforts.
CRISTINA GALLACH, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information of the United Nations, said that “the United Nations agenda is a universal one”. Its goals – whether it ensuring that all children were able to attend schools and receive a quality education; or assisting millions of refugees feeling war, famine or persecution; or protecting human rights through treaties and conventions; or preventing conflicts thanks to the deployment of peacekeepers – were also the goals of the Organization’s Member States. Differences in perception and perspective might remain, but it was incumbent upon the Department to offer the facts, to reflect competing arguments, to facilitate the exercise of reason and to enhance mutual understanding.
Turning to the “story of the year”, she said that 2015 was a year during which the international community must take “once-in-a-generation” decisions that would determine the shape of the world for decades to come. In that regard, the “2015: Time for Global Action” campaign, led by the Department, aimed to raise global awareness of the issues that were relevant to upcoming meetings on the new post-2015 sustainable development agenda. Communications across the United Nations system on those issues had been coordinated by the Department, through its leadership of the United Nations Communications Group task force on sustainable development and climate, which met on a regular basis.
The Department worked with Member States and others to promote knowledge on the broad range of items on the United Nations agenda, she went on, describing, among other things, the new Nelson Mandela Award which was administered by the Department, and the Organization’s commemorative activities on the Holocaust. Last month, the United Nations had observed the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and had unveiled a new permanent memorial “The Ark of Return” on the visitor’s esplanade. The United Nations Information Centres were active on a number of fronts, including work to enhance understanding of the work of peacekeepers around the world. The Department also hosted the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy for Youth, she said, which helped determine the priorities of youth and integrate them into the post-2015 sustainable development agenda; the World Programme of Action for Youth’s social media accounts had received some 80 million hits.
Describing several of other activities of the Department, including its Programme on the Question of Palestine, she said that international understanding, including through formal agreements, was the premise upon which the Organization sought to promote social progress, better standards of living and greater freedom. The “UN70” slogan - Strong UN. Better World. – and logo, designed by the Department, was available in the six official United Nations languages, and tied together the Organization’s seventieth anniversary commemorations and products. In a world inundated by digital media outputs, the Department’s multilingual News Centre had fused a traditional coverage approach with social media elements into one seamless news-gathering and news-disseminating process. A new smartphone application had been created, giving access to United Nations Radio programmes and live audio from the meetings of the Assembly and the Security Council in eight languages.
The Department also advised on how best to use social networking platforms to amplify United Nations messages, and to do so through such traditional news platforms as United Nations Radio, United Nations Television (UNTV) and the News Centre. The Department’s English-language Twitter account, which was about to welcome its 4 millionth follower, had become the most followed account on the platform among all international organizations. Another area in which the Department counted on the support of Member States was in the pursuit of the goals of press freedom and the establishment of an independent, vigorous and pluralistic media environment worldwide, she said, noting that World Press Freedom Day would be celebrated with an event organized by the Department on Friday, 1 May.
MLUNGISI CEDRICK MBALATI (South Africa), speaking for the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, commended the Department for its efforts in disseminating the United Nations message. Among the most important areas to be addressed were maintenance of peace and security, development, the Millennium Development Goals, HIV/AIDs, the post-2015 development agenda and the Dialogue among Civilizations. He stressed the Department’s importance in raising awareness on the issue of Palestine and commended it on its Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalists’ Fellowship Programme for junior and mid-level broadcasters and journalists from participating developing countries.
He expressed concern at the disparity in the use of official languages on United Nations websites and in the issuance of its daily press releases, emphasizing the need to design a strategy to issue those releases in all official languages in a cost-neutral manner. As developing countries still relied on traditional forms of media to a large extent, he stressed the need to continue the use of traditional media to disseminate information on the Organization’s work and encouraged the establishment of broader contacts with media outlets in developing countries. He singled out the Department’s important role in combating the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and looked forward to its coverage of the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations.
GERTON VAN DEN AKKER, a representative of the European Union Delegation, said the Department had a central role to play in ensuring the success of the United Nations in public diplomacy by explaining in a clear and accessible manner what it did and why. Member States must support the Department in achieving its mandate with the resources available to it. In that regard, multilingualism was essential to achieving accountability and ownership of the Organization’s actions. He agreed that the Department should use a range of communication tools on priority issues enabled by social media platforms. The Department’s ability would be reinforced with increased language parity. He welcomed the intention to use innovative means to streamline communications, including with its regional Information Centres, for direct communication as well as with field offices.
Regarding news services, he stressed the importance of reaching untapped audiences and commended the Department’s increased youth-related activities, which helped youth face contemporary challenges. He favoured developing strategic partnerships including with non-governmental organizations, the private sector and other partners to reach varied audiences, emphasizing that such organizations presented a multiplying factor for the United Nations message. He was pleased that the Department had dedicated campaigns on issues such as the seventieth anniversary, the post-2015 development agenda, human rights and other priority areas and appreciated its role in crisis situations around the world and also on climate change. He suggested greater exposure of published reports of the Secretary-General and the Human Rights Council. Noting recent attacks on freedom of expression and opinion, he said those values must be protected, as they were at the heart of the European Union and the United Nations.
JOSÉ EDUARDO PROAÑO (Ecuador), speaking for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), recognized the efforts of the Department of Public Information in promoting and achieving a better understanding and adequate promotion of the objectives and work of the United Nations. Expressing support for the spontaneity and agility of electronic communication, he noted the digital gap between developed and developing countries, and stressed the importance of also continuing to use traditional methods to transmit the Organization’s message, namely radio, television and written press. Those media constituted major sources of information in developing countries.
Noting that multilingualism was inherently associated with the United Nations, he expressed concern that daily press releases were not yet issued in all official languages. He welcomed Assembly resolution A/RES/69/96 A-B of 16 December 2014, which requested that the Department design a strategy to do so in a cost-neutral way as a matter of priority, by no later than the Committee’s thirty-seventh session. That resolution also emphasized the importance of ensuring the equitable treatment of all official languages to eliminate the disparity between English and the other five. To that end, the Department must have the necessary capacity to carry out its activities in all official languages. That aspect should be included in future programme budget proposals. Financial and human resources should be properly distributed among all official languages. There was still potential to be explored, including regarding the Organization’s publications, its web page and the use of social networks. The challenge was to share United Nations information with the widest possible audience, combining modernity and tradition.
GABRIEL ORELLANA ZABALZA (Guatemala), speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends of Spanish, celebrated the Department’s work in new media, as well as traditional forms of media, and thanked the United Nations Information Centres across the Spanish-speaking world for their work. The web page was the “first port of call” for the public, he said, and the numbers on the United Nations websites continued to grow. However, it was a source of growing concern that the Department’s activities and products did not always respect the principle of linguistic parity between the six official languages. All of the Department’s activities should be guided by that principle, he stressed, noting that, while the Organization’s Spanish website was the second most visited in 2014, priority continued to be given to other languages. More statistics, disaggregated by language, should be provided in the future, which would help the Committee design specific actions to address those concerns.
It was important that the Assembly had reaffirmed the use of all official languages, he went on. “This is a cultural heritage on which we have to build our future work,” he said, stressing that multilingualism should be incorporated into all work of the Department within existing resources. “Scarcity of resources should be shared equally,” he said in that regard. Daily press releases should be produced in Spanish, he said, calling for “creative but cost-neutral solutions” towards achieving that goal. The promotion of Spanish should not be at the detriment of any other language. It was not acceptable that any one language be given priority over another. Adhering to that principle would strengthen the primary mission of the Department, which was to provide accurate, timely information and support the activities of the Organization with the greatest transparency possible.
AHMED ELSHANDAWILY (Egypt), commending the Department for its work and aligning himself with the Group of 77 and China, recalled that the Assembly had noted the importance of linguistic parity and echoed calls for adherence to that principle in the Department’s work.
OMAR HILALE (Morocco), aligning himself with the Group of 77 and China, said that the Organization’s news and media services were more essential than ever in today’s globalized world. Promotion of peace and international development should remain at the heart of the Department’s activities. Citing several of the Department’s recent activities, including its work around the Ebola epidemic and around the United Nations efforts to combat extremism, he stressed that the Department should drive efforts to raise awareness of those critical threats. He also called for more awareness-raising in other areas of the Organization’s work, including peacekeeping operations and support for the Palestinian people. While modern information and communications technology was critical, it was important to strike a balance between new and traditional media as a “digital divide” continued to exist. In Morocco, the Rabat Information Centre had undertaken discussions to carry out a media campaign highlighting the United Nations seventieth anniversary. Morocco was a defender of multilingualism, which was an “opportunity, not a burden”. In that connection, he welcomed efforts to reduce inequality among the six official languages.
ALEXEY A. ZAYTSEV (Russian Federation) supported the Department’s efforts, which should be based on the unique impartial role of the United Nations. He approved the use of modern technologies, commending the work of the Russian language portals. He also stressed the need for traditional media which was used by much of the world. Noting the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Second World War, which had led to the creation of the United Nations, he said that the Organization’s seventieth anniversary was a most important date in world history. However, as attempts were being made to rewrite the history of the Second World War by some, he stressed the importance of the United Nations coverage in that regard. Multilingualism was important. He said adequate resources were needed for all official languages and regretted the deterioration in certain services. Only one fourth of all official sites were translated into all languages; that situation must be remedied.
CARLA ESPERANZA RIVERA SáNCHEZ (El Salvador), aligning with the Group of 77, CELAC and the Group of Friends of Spanish, said the Department’s work should be linked with achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, peace and security, the post-2015 development agenda, sustainable development goals, elimination of Ebola, and greater solidarity on the question of Palestine, among other issues. International situations changed constantly, which required using innovative methods including electronic means. However, traditional means remained essential as they were the main methods used in developing countries. All means should be used in conformity with international commitments, including without interference in the internal affairs of States. Multilingualism was intrinsic to the United Nations and was the way to reach the greatest number of people. Thus, information, including daily press releases, should be disseminated in all official languages; that should take effect by the Committee’s thirty-eighth. She was pleased that the Assembly was covered on the live webcast in all official languages. That approach should be expanded to all the Organization’s activities.
JON PIECHOWSKI (United States) said the Committee on Information’s work was crucial to bring together the nations of the world in frank dialogue and discussion and the Department should expand that dialogue to the people of the world. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ensuring human rights, should inform that work. The Department defended and communicated the Organization’s ideals. Noting that his country had sponsored a screening of the film “Selma”, he said its story of men and women with nothing on their side but courage who were able to advance democracy was a central message for the world. Noting the Department’s engagement with civil society, he said their activists were allies holding “us to account”. Transparency was important to the Organization’s work. In that context, the Department’s coverage of meetings illuminated the work of Member States. He recognized the importance of delivering information in more languages than French and English. However, stressing the need to ensure the Organization’s viability, taking into account that Member States provided the budget, he said the Department should take that on within available resources. Its own efforts at outreach were making that possible.
GONZALO MAZZEO (Argentina), aligning with the Group of 77, CELAC and the Group of Friends of Spanish, commended the work of the Department and in particular the United Nations Information Centres, and called for their continued resourcing and staffing. As it was important to communicate to people in their own languages, he echoed the calls of other Groups and delegations to enhance multilingualism at the United Nations. “Multilingualism is a principle that should be preserved in all activities of the Organization,” he said, also echoing concerns over disparities in the use of the six official languages on the United Nations web page. Some 18 per cent of visits to the page were in Spanish; nevertheless, several new pages and products were only being produced in one or two official languages. Greater resources were needed for the Department, and if that was not possible, the Department should adjust its priorities to ensure language parity. Linguistic parity should also be applied to press releases, which continued to be available in only two official languages. In that regard, he welcomed solutions to make press releases available in other official languages, as they were often the only way to ensure full transparency of the United Nations work. That problem should be solved through existing resources.
SHINSUKE SHIMIZU (Japan) said that his delegation supported efforts to raise greater awareness of United Nations activities, including through the use of United Nations Information Centres throughout the world. Multilingualism was important for transmitting information of the Organization, and it must be implemented in a cost-neutral manner. He would like to avoid a recurrence of the situation of 2014, which had led to an unexpected budgetary increase, he said in that regard. He thanked the Department for effectively communicating the successful outcome of the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, held recently in Sendai, Japan. The United Nations Information Centre in Tokyo continued to provide important communications support to several initiatives at the local level, he said, noting that next year would mark the sixtieth anniversary of Japan’s joining the United Nations.
WANG GANG (China), aligning with the Group of 77 and China, said that the United Nations was the main platform for countries to promote multilateralism. The rights of all countries, especially developing countries, to communication about the United Nations must be protected. In accordance with Assembly resolutions, the Department should step up dialogue with Member States and enhance cooperation with civil society. The Department’s work should also be more focused. Citing a host of summits that were scheduled for 2015 and noting that the post-2015 development agenda would soon be adopted, he stressed that Assembly resolution 69/96 provided a clear mandate to the Department to formulate a comprehensive plan to communicate the outcome of such meetings. He agreed that the use of all six official languages should be vigorously promoted; there was a continued disparity between the use of English and other languages. Chinese had not received equitable treatment in United Nations documents, media and other products, he said, expressing hope that the Department would push for action to earnestly implement relevant Assembly resolutions and to distribute resources on an equitable basis.
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