Delegates Stress Importance of Multilingualism, Parity among United Nations Languages, as Debate on Information Questions Begins
Reform efforts currently under way are designed to help the Department of Public Information (DPI) become more agile in operation and have a greater impact on communications, both within the United Nations and in relation to external stakeholders and the public, the Organization’s head of public information told the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) as it began its consideration of questions relating to information today.
Alison Smale, Under‑Secretary‑General for Global Communications, said that, through a staff-led process and with the assistance of independent evaluation, the Department has started implementing a work plan based on three imperatives: leadership and strategy; resource management; and operational efficiency. Reform efforts have already begun, she said, explaining that administrative and programmatic support for DPI’s global network of 59 active United Nations information centres is being decentralized to ensure that they receive faster and more streamlined assistance in real time.
With better and earlier planning and coordination, the Department produced more integrated, visual and impactful content across languages and platforms, to reach audiences around the world, she reported. Indeed, almost all metrics showed larger audiences and greater engagement, she added, emphasizing that webcast viewer statistics during the high-level period demonstrated that the world is paying attention.
She went on to state that the launch of the United Nations Youth Strategy has enhanced engagement by young people, particularly on social media. DPI has also built or strengthened partnerships with the entertainment industry to promote the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically in collaboration with toymaker Mattel and Japanese character Hello Kitty. In addition, the United Nations Academic Impact initiative is engaging university students, researchers and scholars on how the Goals can be implemented at the campus and community levels and supported by scientific and academic research.
Hajime Kishimori (Japan), Rapporteur of the Committee on Information, presented the report on that body’s fortieth session, recalling that delegations in attendance stressed that any reform should be implemented in a cost-neutral manner. Language parity remained a central issue for many delegations, he reported. He added that the Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications also addressed the session, confirming that budget proposals for the biennium 2018-2019 seeking additional resources for multilingualism were not approved.
In the ensuing general debate, many speakers stressed that multilingualism must remain a priority. “Multilingualism truly is the foundation of effective multilateralism,” Madagascar’s delegate emphasized on behalf of the Group of Francophone Ambassadors. Every country must have the same opportunity to participate in debates and the same access to information, she added.
El Salvador’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), expressed concern that the daily press releases are not issued in all six official United Nations languages despite repeated requests, and emphasized that financial and human resources provided to the Department must be properly distributed among all official languages.
Agreeing, Paraguay’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends of Spanish, said the Department must realize that the world population is linguistically diverse and thus the volume and quality of information produced in all languages must be balanced and equal.
Also speaking today were representatives of Egypt (for the “Group of 77” developing countries and China), Indonesia (for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Trinidad and Tobago (for the Caribbean Community), Cabo Verde (for the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries), Argentina, Guatemala and Thailand.
A speaker representing the European Union also delivered a statement.
The Fourth Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 19 October, to continue its general debate on questions relating to information.
Introduction of Report
HAJIME KISHIMORI (Japan), Rapporteur of the Committee on Information, introduced the report of that body’s fortieth session (document A/73/21), recalling that among the topics covered were communications campaigns, webcasting, meetings coverage, the use of traditional and new media, the importance of youth and departmental reform. Delegates underscored the contributions of the Department of Public Information (DPI) on such issues as poverty and disarmament, he said, adding that multilingualism remained a priority for many delegations, with some calling for parity in communications and dissemination of materials. Some delegations said that better mainstreaming of multilingualism will increase the Organization’s efficacy and transparency, he said, noting that others expressed concern over the lack of press releases in all six official United Nations languages.
He went on to report that other delegates warned about the dangers of “fake news”, calling upon the Department to counter misinformation. Some pointed out that while new media offer opportunities, traditional media — particularly radio — remain effective and their use must continue to reach the widest possible audience, he said. As such, they called for balance in the variety of tools deployed by the Department, with several urging stronger support for United Nations information centres. While expressing support for renaming DPI the “Department for Global Communications”, delegations stressed that any reforms should be implemented in a cost-neutral manner, he noted, recalling also that some underlined the importance of strategic alliances with civil society and academia. He reported that the Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications also addressed the session, confirming that budget proposals for the biennium 2018-2019 seeking additional resources for multilingualism were not approved.
Statement by Under-Secretary-General
ALISON SMALE, Under‑Secretary‑General for Global Communications, Department of Public Information, said the Department is undertaking a reform plan designed to help it become more agile in operations and more impactful in communications, both within the Organization and in relation to external stakeholders and the public. Through a staff-led process and with the assistance of independent evaluation, she continued, the Department has started implementing a work plan based on three imperatives: leadership and strategy; resource management; and operational efficiency. Reform work has already begun, she said, explaining that administrative and programmatic support for the Department’s global network of 59 active United Nations information centres is being decentralized to ensure that they receive faster and more streamlined assistance in real time.
She went on to report that DPI accredited about 4,000 journalists from 150 countries who came to Headquarters to cover the high-level period, adding that the Department’s own news platforms — traditional and social — reported on events and activities in up to nine languages. Highlighting climate change as a departmental priority, she said DPI will be providing extensive coverage of the meeting of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in Katowice, Poland, in December, and of the Secretary‑General’s own summit on the issue next September at New York Headquarters. The global media insight report produced by the Department identified more than 310,000 individual articles about the United Nations from around the world during the high-level period, with gender, climate change and migration drawing the greatest interest. With better and earlier planning and coordination, she said, the Department produced more integrated, visual and impactful content, across languages and platforms, to reach audiences worldwide. Indeed, almost all metrics showed larger audiences and greater engagement from UN News to UNifeed and UN Photo to social media, she added, citing webcast viewer statistics during the high-level period as demonstrating that the world is paying attention.
Last month, she recalled, the Department launched the SDG Media Compact, a worldwide alliance of news and entertainment media networks, to raise awareness and motivate action around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), she said, recalling that members already reach a combined audience of more than 1 billion people. Highlighting the importance of engaging with civil society, she said the sixty-seventh Department of Public Information/ Non-Governmental Organizations Conference brought more than 1,000 representatives from some 400 NGOs from 80 countries to New York Headquarters in August. The outcome document, “People-Centred Multilateralism: A Call to Action”, and “We the Future”, a youth declaration, were adopted by acclamation. The launch of the United Nations Youth Strategy has enhanced engagement by young people, particularly on social media. DPI has also built or strengthened partnerships with the entertainment industry to promote the Sustainable Development Goals, in collaboration with toymaker Mattel and Japanese character Hello Kitty, she said. The United Nations Academic Impact initiative is engaging university students, researchers and scholars on how the Goals can be implemented at the campus and community levels and supported by scientific and academic research.
DPI supports journalist training programmes to help build capacity to cover the work of the United Nations, she continued, recalling the last visit of young journalists from developing countries and those with economies in transition participating in the Department’s Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship. Noting that Africa remains a focus of activity and energy for DPI, she said that can be seen during Africa Week, when the United Nations is able to engage in interactive discussion about how to advance economic and social progress across the continent. However, the Organization’s work is beset on all sides by misinformation, disinformation and a lack of information, she cautioned, expressing hope that the Department of Global Communications will help to close the trust gap by becoming a trusted source of information.
The Under-Secretary-General displayed a set of digital slides with photographs illustrating the Department’s work.
The representative of Algeria said that he has raised the question repeatedly as a legitimate request, but the problem is persistent and recurring: why do the Department’s press releases and their sensationalist headlines not reflect events in the general debate, particularly in the Fourth Committee? Measures must be taken to ensure that press releases and reports on sessions reflect actual discussions, he said, emphasizing that those charged with writing the reports should not include their own comments. He asked what measures will be taken to ensure that the situation does not continue.
The representative of Sudan asked about the Department’s role in gender issues, migration and other important priority topics. He also asked what departmental activities can help reach out to the world, considering all languages spoken, in order for the message to reach everyone.
The representative of Paraguay, highlighting the growing Spanish-speaking audience for the Department’s work, asked what measures were being taken to address the increasing demand.
The Under-Secretary-General emphasized that the Department’s commitment to multilingualism is very strong, noting, however, that a request to increase the budget in that regard was not met, adding, however: “It is top of our minds.” In 2018, the Department has begun service in Hindi, illustrating its openness to multilingual offerings, she said. Regarding Algeria’s concerns, she said the Department is always considering how best to present its offerings. Responding to Paraguay, she said the Department has taken note of the growing Spanish-speaking audience and will be addressing that by picking themes of interest to Spanish speakers and by enhancing its Spanish offering.
HUA JIANG, Director, News and Media Division, Department of Public Information, said in response to Algeria that she appreciates the attention that delegates pay to the product, including by pointing out occasional mistakes. While emphasizing that the Department takes such mistakes seriously, she pointed out that its press releases are not official records of meetings. Rather, they represent a summary of remarks by delegates, she said, adding that verbatim records constituting the official record are available for most meetings. While DPI press officers are very professional and work under tremendous pressure, they occasionally make mistakes, she said, thanking delegates for their support in that regard.
The representative of Algeria said that mistakes made repeatedly are not acceptable. While press releases do not constitute official records, the information they contain directly affects opinion and is used by the media, he said, adding that their misuse harms the objectivity and transparency of the United Nations system, DPI in particular. Those who write press releases should not express their own opinions and should not choose the titles of meeting, he stressed, pointing out that such changes do not require financial resources, but only instructions. “We don’t accept mistakes that become the rule,” he stressed.
The representative of Argentina said DPI’s name-change the Department of Global Communications has important implications, noting that United Nations activities involve many actors and that communications entails collective production. He expressed appreciation for the exchange of best practices taking place among departmental staff. Moreover, multilingualism becomes even more important considering the paradigm change, he said, asking for more details on how the envisioned reforms might favour and promote further multilingualism.
The representative of France said multilingualism is a priority for many delegations and should be taken into account within existing resources. From the beginning of any process, communications should be perceived as multilingual and programmes must be calibrated accordingly, he added.
The representative of the Russian Federation recalled that during the most recent session of the Committee on Information, many delegations discussed the closing of the Economic and Social Council and General Assembly archives, as well as their meta-data. However, the situation has not changed, he observed, asking for a specific deadline in that context.
The representative of Morocco welcomed the Department’s considerable efforts and the neutrality and professionalism it demonstrates in its coverage of meetings.
The Under-Secretary-General, noting that key initiatives are pushing the Department forward, said reforms mean that each of its work streams are based in multilingualism as a foundation. That is not always easy because financial means are not infinite, she added, while emphasizing that it is a priority.
MAHER NASSER, Director, Outreach Division, Department of Public Information, highlighted DPI’s upcoming contributions and collaborations in relation to human rights and the culture of peace, including programmes involving youth outreach.
Ms. JIANG, responding to the Russian Federation, noted that in the case of audio and visual records, the Department of Management and the Office of Information Communication Technology are responsible for maintenance. Regarding the webcast of videos, she clarified that covered meetings are posted online, but that does not reflect official record-keeping. Therefore, older videos are deleted because of storage fees. Moreover, maintaining the meta-data from previous years in all official languages cannot continue owing to budget cuts, she added.
The representative of the Russian Federation said he is grateful that efforts are being made to keep the meta-data so as to allow specific meetings to be searchable in all languages, noting that the meta-data are not currently included in certain languages. They must be preserved in different official languages, he stressed.
TAREK MAHFOUZ (Egypt), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, expressed appreciation for the Department’s outreach efforts and communications plans in relation to sustainable development, climate change, peacekeeping and other fields. The Group of 77 expects that DPI will cover all summits, international conferences and high-level meetings on an equal basis, he said. Emphasizing the importance of multilingualism, he said it is a core value of the Organization and one of the main promoters of unity and international understanding. Expressing the Group’s support for the work of United Nations information centres, he called on DPI to continue strengthening them through staffing and equipment.
However, the Group of 77 remains concerned at the continuing disparity in the use of all official languages in United Nations public information materials, he said, encouraging the Department to narrow that gap. While acknowledging the importance of modern communications technology, he emphasized that the use of legacy media must continue because they remain predominant in several developing countries. Regarding inappropriate use of public information, DPI should lead by example in adhering to the highest standards of accuracy, integrity and accountability, he stressed. He went on to call for an end to the use of information and communications technologies in contravention of international law and against any State, underscoring the need to ensure that the use of such technologies is in accordance with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
RUBÉN ARMANDO ESCALANTE HASBÚN (El Salvador), speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), expressed support for the Department’s reform efforts and said they should be inclusive, with the Committee on Information playing a major role in the process. While there is value in digital communications, it is important to continue the use of traditional media so as not to exacerbate the growing digital gap in some developing countries, he said, while highlighting the importance of the work of United Nations information centres.
The Special Declaration on Internet Governance Processes reaffirms the need for Internet governance frameworks, he continued. Expressing concern over the violation of radio-electronic frequencies, he said it is critical to ensure that the use of such technologies is in accordance with international law and the United Nations Charter. Turning to multilingualism, he voiced concern that the daily press releases are not released in all six official United Nations languages despite repeated requests. Emphasizing that financial and human resources provided to the Department should be properly distributed among all official languages, he urged the Secretariat to ensure that United Nations Webcast video files are available in all six languages, even after the end of General Assembly and Security Council meetings.
JULIO CÉSAR ARRIOLA RAMÍREZ (Paraguay), speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends of Spanish, said multilingualism is vitally important to the United Nations as it allows for a multilateral dialogue. Describing Spanish as the world’s second most spoken language, he said data shows the increasing interest in the Organization among Spanish speakers. Expressing concern over the ongoing disparity of language parity, he said the Department must realize that the world population is linguistically diverse. The volume and quality of information produced must be balanced and equal among the six languages, across both traditional and new media.
He went on to state that rationalization of United Nations information centres must be carried out on a case-by-case basis and with due consideration of the nuances of each situation. Turning to the Department’s daily press releases, he pointed out that they continue to prioritize English and French over all the other official languages, and called for the creation of an archive of webcasts in all the official languages. Expressing hope that DPI reform will have an impact on questions of multilingualism, he said the recommendations of the Committee on Information should be considered when making changes within the Department.
INA KRISNAMURTHI (Indonesia), speaking on behalf of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), encouraged the Department of Public Information to make greater efforts to profile United Nations peacekeeping and peacebuilding. In doing so, it should maintain the use of traditional means of disseminating information — radio, television and print media in particular — in order to reach those without access to the Internet and social media. Noting that it is becoming ever more difficult to maintain credible news and information, she urged the Department to be ready to counter unfounded information or “fake news” by ensuring the accuracy and timeliness of its materials.
She went on to call upon the Department to work with the 59 United Nations information centres in using the six official languages, as well as local languages when appropriate, in order to reach the widest possible audience. In addition, greater efforts should be made to take on regional or local staff to help promote workforce and viewpoint diversity and to increase local engagement where it matters — on the ground. The Department should also work with United Nations regional offices in translating United Nations publications so that the information disseminated can be conveyed to a greater number of people.
ARISOA RAZAFITRIMO (Madagascar), speaking on behalf of the Group of Francophone Ambassadors, noted that language has an impact on substance and policy, and that national ownership of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development requires multilingualism at all stages of implementation. “Multilingualism truly is the foundation of effective multilateralism,” she emphasized, adding that every country must have the same opportunity to participate in debates and the same access to information. Citing a report detailing the increase in the number of French speakers, she stressed that the United Nations must be able to speak to young Francophone people.
She went on to state that linguistic diversity must be enshrined in the Organization’s modernization and reform efforts. All United Nations departments must incorporate multilingualism in their programmes, and DPI must ensure balance among all six official languages. While information and communications technologies represent invaluable opportunities, it is also important to use traditional media to ensure that no one is left behind, she said, highlighting in that regard the importance of United Nations Radio, particularly for developing countries. Welcoming specific solutions proposed by Member States considering the Department’s budget limitations, she emphasized that free and pluralistic media are vital to strengthening democracy and the rule of law.
PENNELOPE BECKLES (Trinidad and Tobago), speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) while associating herself with the Group of 77 and CELAC, noted that modern technology and interconnected communications offer new capabilities to reach wider audiences. However, they also present new challenges, since they can be used to spread misinformation, promulgate messages of racism or xenophobia and cast doubt on scientific fact. The United Nations must stand as a counter-narrative to the noise of misinformation by actively promoting its principles as well as its efforts in advancing global development goals.
She went on to emphasize that inclusivity remains essential in ensuring that all individuals, regardless of background, world views or language, are kept faithfully updated and engaged in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals. Robust efforts must be made to ensure effective use of existing communications platforms and to find innovative ways to use new and evolving media outlets, she stressed. The Department of Public Information should pursue creative and effective mechanisms for sharing information, using traditional and contemporary media to galvanize action on the development agenda across all constituent groups, especially youth.
JOSÉ LUIS FIALHO ROCHA (Cabo Verde), speaking on behalf of the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries, highlighted the importance of cultural diversity and inter-cultural dialogue to achieving the 2030 Agenda. The Community firmly supports the Department’s pursuit of its objectives in disseminating information about the United Nations in Portuguese, he said, pointing out that the language, reaching almost 300 million people, plays an important role in that regard. Citing the report of the Secretary-General report “Questions relating to information” (document A/73/288), he noted the growing number of Portuguese speakers and their increasing use of United Nations media platforms.
Welcoming the use of new digital communications outlets as well as traditional platforms, he said that creating multimedia and social media content has a particular impact on young people in the Portuguese-speaking world. Citing the Secretary-General’s report, he noted the 40 per cent increase in subscriptions on the Portuguese-language YouTube channel over five months. He went on to express appreciation for the work of the Rio de Janeiro United Nations information centre in developing an interactive multimedia web portal for the Organization’s country team in Angola. Commending the Department’s willingness to reform, he emphasized the necessity of ensuring that United Nations stories reach people in languages they understand via traditional and digital platforms. He announced that his country will convene the fourth International Conference on the Future of the Portuguese Language in the World System, to highlight the global and plural character of Portuguese and its contribution to multilingualism.
GERTON VAN DEN AKKER, European Union delegation, described multilingualism as essential for accountability and transparency, and for promoting global ownership of United Nations actions and values. Noting that the European Union has 24 official languages, he acknowledged the operational challenges that entails, but also the necessity of “ensuring the inclusion of our audience”, and the support and engagement therein.
Commending the United Nations Youth Envoy and her team for their outreach to students and academics around the world, he encouraged partnerships in multiple domains as “pivotal in tackling the world’s problems”. Turning to digital cooperation and the Internet, he said “the dark side of innovation” includes cybersecurity threats, magnification of hate speech and violations of privacy, while underlining the Department’s key role in taking on those challenges.
MARTÍN GARCÍA MORITÁN (Argentina), associating himself with the Group of 77, CELAC, the Group of Friends of Spanish and the Group of Francophone Ambassadors, said the increasing use of artificial intelligence is part of an emerging landscape. Such changes are reshaping public discourse and the United Nations should adapt accordingly, while not losing sight of the digital divide and asymmetries within each region, which exclude people from the benefits of the digital age. Highlighting the issue of multilingualism, he called for moving away from the culture of translation based on the use of English, emphasizing that campaigns must be multilingual from the moment of their launch and design. Unfortunately, the growing demands of Spanish speakers have not been accompanied by changes within the Department aimed at providing better Spanish-language coverage, he noted, calling for equitable allocation of resources in that regard. Highlighting the value of press releases, he stressed that DPI must ensure they are published in all languages. He also expressed concern that video and audio archives are no longer available in all six official languages.
JORGE SKINNER-KLEÉ ARENALES (Guatemala), associating himself with the Group of Friends of Spanish, the Group of 77 and CELAC, said the need to reform DPI is clear. Highlighting the importance of multilingualism, he urged equitable use of the six official languages, noting that the quantity and quality of information available should be comparable across all the languages. Recognizing the value of new technologies, he voiced support for traditional media such as radio. Moreover, he underlined the importance of the Department’s work in promoting peace operations, calling for closer cooperation in that regard. Noting the necessity of modifying the Organization’s information structure, he underlined that the principle of parity cannot be limited to the Secretariat’s two working languages, pointing out that DPI’s daily broadcasts and press communiques do not respect that principle.
PEERAPAT TONGROD (Thailand), associating himself with ASEAN, said that effective strategic communications within and outside the United Nations system must be the ultimate goal of the Department’s ongoing reform process. He expressed appreciation for the availability of United Nations websites and various social media accounts in the Thai language. He noted that Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosts a series of outreach and awareness-raising activities every year aimed at the student population. The rescue of 12 boys and their football coach trapped in the Tham Luang Cave illustrates the unique capability of social media and digital technology, he said. “Social media and digital technology was most useful not only in connecting, but also in bringing together the best of us.”