Acting Global Communications Chief Echoes Delegates’ Concerns over ‘Fake News’
Against a backdrop of spiking extremism, proliferating “fake news” and an increasingly fragmented global media space, the Department of Public Information must continue to disseminate factual, impartial information, in accordance with the United Nations Charter principles of sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of States, speakers stressed today, as the Committee on Public Information continued its annual session.
Representatives of countries spanning five continents took part in the Committee’s general debate, sharing their perspectives on the state of global media and spotlighting opportunities to raise awareness about the work of the United Nations. Some speakers emphasized the need to maintain the Department’s neutrality and improve the balance of its news dissemination — citing the urgent need for parity among the Organization’s six official languages — while others focused on the rise of disinformation and urged the Committee to mobilize the Department in the global fight against “fake news”.
In that regard, the Russian Federation’s representative emphasized the critical importance of the Department’s work in light of the recent rise of radical ideologies around the world. Pointing to the deteriorating and fragmented media landscape, she warned that countries were resorting to “informational confrontations” in the model of the cold war while media outlets were experiencing a crisis of trust sparked by a sharp drop in professional standards and the proliferation of disinformation. Likening such trends to a virus, she called for an international strategy akin to those developed to combat global epidemics, and urged the Committee to develop concrete the necessary recommendations.
Venezuela’s representative was among those voicing opposition to the dissemination of discriminatory or distorted information about certain events, emphasizing that the media could be a constructive resource in the service of social justice and solidarity. She rejected the inappropriate use of information and communications technologies, in particular, by “some international Powers” through interference in internal State affairs.
Striking a similar tone, Sudan’s representative warned against improper use of information, warning that it could have a negative impact on people around the globe when distorted. In that regard, the United Nations, and the Department of Public Information in particular, must set an example in terms of trust, accountability and integrity, as well as compliance with the principles of the Charter and of international law, he said.
Differing points of view emerged regarding the Department’s neutrality, with Israel’s representative saying that its Special Information Programme on the Question of Palestine had offered a misleading narrative of the situation in the Middle East since its inception. The promotion of anti-Israel sentiment undermined the integrity of the United Nations, he said, calling upon the Department to strengthen its oversight of the Organization’s communications to ensure that they lived up to its values.
The observer for the State of Palestine, however, hailed the Special Information Programme on the Question of Palestine, saying it effectively and objectively raised awareness in a manner consistent with international law and United Nations resolutions. The State of Palestine supported the Department’s work on the Permanent Exhibit on the Question of Palestine at Headquarters, its activities in relation to the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, and its valuable annual training assistance to Palestinian journalists.
Meanwhile, other speakers considered how the Department could support United Nations efforts to tackle a range of emerging issues, including terrorism, the unprecedented movement of refugees and migrants, and the new concept of “sustaining peace”. Bangladesh’s representative, seeking further explanation of the conceptual framework underpinning that notion, emphasized the Department’s role in promoting non-violence and a culture of peace and publicizing the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, as well as its contribution to the formulation of a global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration, slated for adoption in 2018.
Maher Nasser, Acting Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications and Head of the Department of Public Information, outlined the Department’s extensive efforts in publicizing United Nations counter-terrorism efforts. He also echoed the concerns of delegates about “fake news”, and said the Department would examine a proposal that it meet regularly with press attachés of the various Permanent Missions. It was a “service department” mandated by Member States themselves, he emphasized.
Also speaking today were representatives of Paraguay, Nepal, Republic of Korea, Belarus, Cuba, Portugal, Brazil, China, Pakistan, India, United States and Morocco, as well as the observer for l’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.
The Committee on Information will reconvene at a date and time to be announced.
JULIO CÉSAR ARRIOLA RAMÍREZ (Paraguay), associating himself with the Group of Friends of Spanish, the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), highlighted the important role of multilingualism within the United Nations and reiterated the need for “fair and just” dissemination of information in all languages, including indigenous ones. Noting with concern that the Organization’s daily press releases were still not published in all official languages, he said that situation was not due to limited resources, but instead was the result of other factors that should be closely examined. Despite challenges in realising linguistic parity, a number of important positive developments had been made in that regard, including the webcasting of meetings in all six official languages, he said.
MARIA ZAKHAROVA (Russian Federation) said that, as in previous years, the reports before the Committee lacked a focus on analysis and forecasting, and instead devoted attention to work already carried out by the Department. There was also an imbalance in their focus on thematic issues, noting that they paid little attention to the United Nations counter-terrorism efforts. Going forward, the Department should sharpen its focus on publicizing the victory of humanity over the Nazi threat and preventing the spread of hateful ideologies, she said, noting that both were all the more relevant for the recent rise of radical ideologies around the world. Regarding the broader trajectory of communications, she expressed concern about the deteriorating global media space, which was fragmenting into various factions, with journalists facing unprecedented risks amid rising impunity for those committing crimes against them. With countries resorting to “informational confrontations” in the model of the cold war, media outlets were experiencing a crisis of trust, sparked by a sharp drop in professional standards and the proliferation of “fake news”, she said. Warning that disinformation was as damaging in the communications sphere as were viruses in the medical one, she called for an international strategy akin to those developed to combat global epidemics, and proposed that the Committee develop concrete recommendations to help the Department combat “fake news” and disinformation.
SURENDRA THAPA (Nepal), associating himself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, pointed out that most of the world’s population did not speak any of the six official United Nations languages as their mother tongue. Nepal encouraged enlarging the number of languages in which United Nations information was disseminated to include Nepali, he said, urging the Department also to enhance the technical and infrastructure aspects of the United Nations information centres. The Central Library of Tribhuvan University, Nepal’s repository for United Nations publications, also required modernization, he added. Noting that poor technical capacity and high costs hindered access to Facebook, Twitter and other new media in developing countries, he said that made television, radio and print media the primary information sources, he said, urging the Department to use “the right mix” of traditional and cyber media.
HWANG YOOSIL (Republic of Korea) declared: “Turning our words into concrete action will only be possible with the active participation and support of diverse multi-stakeholders, as well as Member States.” Noting that the Department’s outreach raised awareness and engaged the public, she said it had made progress in getting United Nations stories heard, often under difficult resource constraints. The Republic of Korea had been participating in the Department’s activities, including by hosting its recent Public Diplomacy Symposium and the sixty-sixth Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organization Conference. She went on to underline the importance of the Department’s Academic Impact initiatives — particularly against the backdrop of violent extremism and inequality threatening global peace and security — urging the Department to help tackle such issues by fostering global citizenship, filling gaps in knowledge and facilitating better understanding of core United Nations principles and activities.
Mr. MIRONCHIK (Belarus) welcomed the mention, in the Secretary-General’s report on strategic communications, of his country’s “Leaving No One Behind in Implementing the SDGs” campaign, a logical extension of its “Express to Sustainable Development Goals” campaign of 2015. Such experience could be useful to other Member States, he said, welcoming also the report’s mention of information materials in the Belarus language. Such efforts were essential in preserving cultural and linguistic diversity, he said, adding that it created space for dialogue and understanding. Belarus and Azerbaijan had proposed an International Day of Translations and consultations were under way, he said, adding that the Department’s News Services content should target regions and languages. Noting that most websites today offered options for sorting news depending on the user’s location, and the same could be done for the United Nations site by creating a “UN Close to You” tab, which was cost-neutral and would bring the United Nations closer to the world’s people. That notion was applicable to news, as well as other issues, such as Chernobyl, for countries of Eastern Europe, or rising sea levels, for coastal ones. On linguistic parity, he said Belarus was promoting Russian language accounts on social media platforms, and requested that New York be more active in communicating any news about offices using Russian. Member States should have the prerogative to choose the information published in the UN Journal, he emphasized. Citing the Secretariat’s seizure of information on photo exhibitions, he urged participation in a show organized by Belarus, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) country office in Minsk and two non-governmental organizations devoted to helping children in Chernobyl.
ANAYANSI RODRIGUEZ CAMEJO (Cuba), associating herself with the Group of 77 and China, CELAC, and the Group of Friends of Spanish, said communication and information strategies must consider the realities and context of each audience. While new information and communications technologies were important, traditional means must not be forgotten, she emphasized. Cuba was concerned that the Organization’s daily press releases were still not published in all six official languages, she said, recalling that Assembly resolution A/RES/71/101 A-B requested that the Department develop a strategy for that purpose and present it at the Committee’s thirty-eighth session. There was still no strategy and no report, she said, recalling that there had also been a request that the UN Journal be published in all official languages, and the Ad Hoc Working Group on General Assembly Revitalization had made a proposal in that regard. She said the eradication of colonialism and other forms of occupation must remain a priority for the Department, noting that millions of people still lacked access to the Internet and to information and communications technologies, and urging action to bridge the divide. The United Nations must promote factual and impartial news through traditional means, radio in particular, while information and communications technologies must be used in accordance with the United Nations Charter and international law, ensuring particular respect for the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in State affairs. Pointing to a particular form of aggression, she objected to the more than 1,875 hours per week of illegal radio and television programmes broadcast from 25 frequencies in the United States with the aim of overthrowing Cuba’s constitutional order, stressing that they violated her country’s radio electric space.
CRISTINA PUCARINHO (Portugal), associating herself with the European Union, welcomed the creation of the new position of Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, as the United Nations brand relied to a large extent on how it influenced public opinion. The Secretary-General’s 1 January Appeal for Peace was a far-reaching call made possible by a successful broadcast strategy, she said. That reflected how a multilingual approach and well-established partnerships could facilitate the distribution of information in eight languages to a record 400 outlets. She encouraged collaboration among the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe, the United Nations Information Centre in Rio de Janeiro and the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS) to develop Portuguese-language content. She also recalled the decision to create an information centre in Luanda, emphasizing that the significant expression of Portuguese in Africa called for prompt implementation of that decision. Underlining the status of Portuguese as the official language of nine countries — and one Special Administrative Region of China — comprising 260 million people, she said that she wished to see those facts reflected in the United Nations communication strategy. Also, Portugal had been monitoring the Portuguese-language “ONU-News” and wished to see it enhanced to a platform using a variety of media formats, he said.
ANDRÉ DUNHAM MACIEL (Brazil), associating himself with the Group of 77 and CELAC, encouraged the Department to continue to disseminate United Nations ideals and activities in as many languages as possible, taking into account the linguistic diversity among countries and their varying degrees of digital development. In that regard, it should continue to combine Internet-based media and traditional means of communication, bearing in mind the limited access of developing countries to the former. Reaffirming his delegation’s commitment to multilingualism and the principle of linguistic parity among the Organization’s six official languages, he also encouraged the use of other languages — including Bengali, Hindi, Kiswahili and Portuguese — noting that the latter alone was spoken by some 258 million people around the world. Brazil was a firm supporter of “UN News Portuguese”, on average the third largest audience for United Nations news, he noted, underlining also the importance of United Nations information centres, including the one based in Rio de Janeiro since 1947.
MASUD BIN MOMEN (Bangladesh) welcomed the Department’s collaboration with his country in organizing the observance of International Mother Language Day on 21 February, the first such observance at Headquarters since the proclamation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He sought further explanation of the conceptual framework for “sustaining peace”, urging the Department to continue advocating that concept, promoting a culture of peace and non-violence, in addition to pushing for implementation of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and a settlement of the Palestine question. Bangladesh looked forward to the Department’s contributions to the formulation of a global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration, he said, underscoring the importance of forging global public opinion in that regard.
WANG GANG (China), associating himself with the Group of 77, said his country continued to provide personnel and assistance to the Department, including through a partnership aimed at promoting the 2030 Agenda. It should strengthen its efforts around major themes, improve its overarching structure, encourage media and the public to pay greater attention to sustainable development and promote a balanced and inclusive global economic paradigm. Calling on the Department to uphold United Nations Charter principles in its work, he voiced hope that it would improve its internal management of new media so that it would reflect the positions of Member States in a more objective and accurate manner. Noting that Chinese was both an official United Nations language and the one with the largest number of speakers worldwide, he said it was nevertheless relatively less used in the Department’s work and resources, calling on the Department to enhance efforts to promote multilingualism and linguistic parity.
YARON WAX (Israel) said he was encouraged by the Holocaust Outreach Programme, emphasizing that anti-Semitism was on the rise, with more than 600 cases recorded in 2016. “Hatred and intolerance can only be cured by means of education, promoting awareness of the tragedies of the past and the distribution of critical information,” he said, welcoming the Department’s partnership with the Permanent Mission of Austria in featuring the film The Children of Willesden Lane, about the journey of 10,000 children in Nazi-controlled Germany rescued by the Government of the United Kingdom. Urging the Department to hold an educational seminar on combating anti-Semitism, he expressed regret that it had not always been accurate and unbiased. The Department’s Special Information Programme on the Question of Palestine had, since inception, offered a misleading narrative of the situation in the Middle East and circulated prejudiced materials. The 2016 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, held in Pretoria, was a stellar example of that bias, featuring one-sided panels that presented an exclusively Palestinian narrative. The promotion of anti-Israeli sentiment undermined the integrity of the United Nations, he said, calling on the Department to consolidate all political media platforms under one authority, and to strengthen its oversight of communications distributed by United Nations entities to ensure they lived up to the Organization’s values.
MASOOD ANWAR (Pakistan), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, thanked the Department for its coverage of events relating to the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, urging it to do the same for the people of Kashmir, who continued to suffer under foreign occupation. The department should also extend its focus and organize events to ensure that millions of refugees displaced for decades did not become “forgotten refugees in forgotten situations”. Welcoming the activities carried out by the United Nations information centre in Islamabad around the Sustainable Development Goals, human rights and climate change, he urged the Department to better project the work of peacekeepers in maintaining international peace and security, and to expand its partnerships with airlines carrying United Nations-produced media on their flights.
ANA CAROLINA RODRÍGUEZ DE FEBRES-CORDERO (Venezuela), associating herself with the Group of 77 and China, CELAC and the Group of Friends of Spanish, called for a coherent focus to bridge the cross-cutting factors of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. The Department should increase its outreach work to eradicate colonialism and promote the right to self-determination, she said, expressing particular support for publishing pamphlets on the ways in which the United Nations could help Non-Self Governing Territories. UN Radio, for its part, must continue to promote the struggle against terrorism, in accordance with the Charter and United Nations resolutions. The Department must also ensure that information was broadcast in all six official languages, as well as others, she said, stressing the need for greater synergies between the United Nations and community media, which produced distinct content from that disseminated by commercial conglomerates. Venezuela welcomed the Department’s joint effort with the Department of Political Affairs around the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, she said. Opposing the dissemination of discriminatory or distorted information in relation to certain events, she said media could be a constructive resource in the service of social justice and solidarity. Venezuela rejected inappropriate use of information and communications technologies by “some international Powers” through interference in internal State affairs, she said, adding that the Department must strengthen multilingualism and seek out the most innovative media to disseminate information about the United Nations.
HASSAN IDRISS AHMED SALIH (Sudan), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, said that while considerable progress had been made in use of the six official United Nations languages, further efforts were needed to bridge the gaps. Calling on all United Nations departments and offices to respect the equality of all six languages “in credence and position”, he welcomed the Department’s efforts to communicate in local languages, and to broaden its use of social media, which had become “part and parcel of our globalized world”. However, the focus on new media must not be at the expense of more traditional forms, he warned, noting that many people in developing countries depended on them. He also cautioned against improper use of information, which could have a negative impact on people around the globe when distorted. The United Nations and the Department in particular must set an example in terms of trust, accountability and integrity, as well as compliance with the principles of the Charter and of international law.
SRINIVAS PRASAD (India) welcomed the Department’s promotion of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as it continuing focus on climate change. As one of the world’s largest economies, India was conscious of its responsibilities under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, he said, expressing satisfaction with the Department’s short video marking India’s ratification of that accord. India was also a major contributor of troops to United Nations peacekeeping operations, and thus welcomed the Department’s close management of the peacekeeping website, as well as the development of a new web platform for field missions. In that regard, he urged the Department to consider whether regional language versions tailored for wider access in major troop-contributing countries could be developed. He also urged it to enhance multilingualism in regional information centres, citing the example of the Department working with the information centres in South Asia to produce content in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and other languages of the region.
JITU SARDAR (United States) said the current discussion was an excellent opportunity for Member States to renew their commitment to transparency, accountability and accessibility for all. Emphasizing that the Organization’s public information efforts must be sustainable and offer measurable results, he said discussions about expanding the Department’s work in the area of multilingualism should consider budgetary realities, adding that “innovative, creative approaches” could help in addressing such concerns. The Department continued to play a vital role in the areas of transparency and civil society participation, he said, adding that guaranteeing credibility and integrity required the elimination of bias. However, the Special Information Programme on the Question of Palestine promoted misperceptions to the detriment of Israel, he noted. “Seminars, information materials and other initiatives that only present the Palestinian side of the conflict only exacerbate tensions in the region, give ammunition to enemies of Israel to incite hatred and terror and harm the reputation of the UN,” he stressed.
YASSER HALFAOUI (Morocco), associating himself with the Group of 77 and l’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, said that despite criticism, the United Nations enjoyed an aura of unparalleled legitimacy. The promotion of peace, international solidarity and tolerance, as well as climate change and sustainable development issues, must remain at the heart of the Department’s activities. Commending the Special Information Programme on the Question of Palestine, as well as departmental activities on climate change, human rights, peacekeeping and combating terrorism, he called for more activities relevant to the question of Palestine. Issues of peacekeeping, peacebuilding and the concept of “sustaining peace” could also benefit from more media coverage. Emphasizing the Department’s pivotal role in combating sexual exploitation and abuse, he urged it to support all departments, in all languages, in that regard. He also emphasized that while new technologies were useful, traditional means were just as important, and the Department must adapt its programmes to that reality. He encouraged it to expand the “Common Ground” partnership to include companies in Africa, and pressed Governments to seize opportunities for their national airlines to partner with the Department on media content. Morocco, with its numerous languages, was committed to the equitable treatment of all six official United Nations languages, he said, adding that local languages should also be used where appropriate.
SAHAR SALEM, State of Palestine, associating herself with the Group of 77 and China, hailed the Special Information Programme on the Question of Palestine, saying it effectively and objectively raised awareness in a manner consistent with international law and United Nations resolutions. Citing General Assembly resolution 71/22, adopted by an overwhelming majority in 2016, she said it again reaffirmed international support for the Special Information Programme. She thanked the Department for its related activities, including the International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, recalling that the Pretoria Seminar had offered an exclusive opportunity for civil society and media to discuss prospects for peace in the Middle East. Moreover, the State of Palestine supported the Department’s work on the Permanent Exhibit on the Question of Palestine, at Headquarters, its activities in relation to the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, and its valuable assistance to Palestinian journalists through its annual training programme. She emphasized the importance of activities requested by the Assembly, including fact-finding news missions to the Occupied Palestinian Territory for journalists, which hopefully would soon be carried out with sufficient funding and staff.
PATRICIA HERDT, l’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, said her organization counted on the Department to help raise awareness and to promote cultural and linguistic diversity. It shared the Department’s vision for developing partnerships, which should take the know-how of all stakeholders into account, she said. La Francophonie stood ready to promote UN Radio content in French to local partners, she said, emphasizing the links among multilingualism, transparency and democracy. Concerning United Nations websites, she referred to the Department’s minimum standards for multilingualism, intended to reduce disparities among its various sites, noting that the Organization’s websites were usually only available in English, as was the case with social media. She urged better maintenance of those standards.
MAHER NASSER, Acting Under-Secretary General for Global Communications and Head of the Department of Public Information, responded to comments and questions raised throughout the general debate, noting that most delegates had underscored the importance of multilingualism. “We heard you loud and clear,” he said, agreeing that the principle was critical to the work of the United Nations. The Department was working to utilize both partnerships and technology to deliver content in all six official languages, as well as in Kiswahili and Portuguese, whenever possible, he said, pointing out that, of the 195 websites currently under the United Nations domain name, more than 170 were already available in all six languages.
He went on to describe a number of cost-effective collaborations aimed at improving multilingualism, including a partnership with Shanghai International Studies University to translate both the UN Chronicle and Basic Facts into Chinese, and support from the United Arab Emirates to translate the latter into Arabic. The Guided Tours Units in all United Nations Headquarters were available in the six languages, as well as other high-demand languages, while the network of 63 United Nations information centres worked to amplify the Organization’s work in both official and local languages on the ground. In that regard, he said the Department was working towards tighter planning and coordination between Headquarters and the information centres.
Regarding the Department’s daily press releases, he recalled that a recent pilot attempt to translate them into Spanish had proven unsatisfactory due to problems in both timelines and accuracy. A proposal for more resources had been made, but ultimately rejected in the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary). Emphasizing that United Nations press releases were not verbatim records, nor intended to contain full coverage of intergovernmental meetings, he said they were produced under pressure and issued within two hours of a meeting’s conclusion. However, press officers would be reminded to be as accurate as possible, he stressed.
Turning to the increasing use of social media — which many delegations had welcomed but about which they had nevertheless voiced concern — he said both new and traditional media were integral to the Department’s work and would continue to be used. “This is not an either/or proposition,” he said, adding that the Department would continue to “be where people go to get their information”. He responded to several related questions raised by delegates, noting that the Department was strengthening its internal oversight over new media accounts and that the membership of developing countries in its Academic Impact initiative was expanding rapidly.
He went on to outline the Department’s extensive efforts in publicizing United Nations counter-terrorism efforts — including the creation of a dedicated web portal on that subject — echoing delegates’ concerns about “fake news” and expressing the Department’s readiness to identify tools and best practices for tackling it. In particular, he said it would examine the proposal that it meet regularly with press attachés of the various Permanent Missions. Reminding Member States that the Department was a “service department” mandated by Member States themselves, he concluded by saying that issues falling outside its agreed mandates were, therefore, “not in our hands”.