Speakers Stress Need to Bridge Technical Divide, End Language Disparity
The Department of Public Information was undergoing a process of “review and reform” of how it communicated United Nations values in a world where trust in major institutions was increasingly difficult to maintain, and “fake” stories competed with legitimate news for public attention, the Committee on Information heard today as it opened its fortieth session.
“Our aim, therefore, is to create rapid, strategic and integrated communications,” said Alison Smale, Under‑Secretary‑General for Global Communications, laying out the broad contours for Department‑wide change in her first address to the Committee. The United Nations story must be shared with people in languages they understood and via platforms they could use and access.
She said the reform, requested by the Secretary‑General, was being conducted in parallel with other system reform streams in development, peace and security, and management. Colleagues had come together in eight working groups to discuss areas where the Department could improve. Their proposals would form the basis of a broader plan that she would take to the Secretary‑General later this month.
She looked forward to hearing the Committee’s observations throughout the week, and more generally, ensuring that its support for the Department was equally expressed in terms of funding and providing mandates that allowed it to build support for the United Nations in line with modern communications.
With that in mind, Committee Chair Jan Kickert said he would work with the Committee to develop a “productive” consensus that would offer the Department clear guidance on the policies and activities that would best communicate with the global audience served by the United Nations.
In the ensuing general debate, delegates agreed that the Department’s work had taken on new importance in a media landscape evolving away from simple information provision to intimate — and sometimes immediate — engagement with local populations. Several underscored the importance of communicating in the six official languages, especially to bridge the technical divide preventing many people from accessing new media.
“We strongly encourage [the Department] to continue to exert efforts aimed at narrowing this existing gap,” said Egypt’s delegate on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China. He advocated continued use of print, radio and television broadcasts, which were the predominant means of communication in some developing countries. Senegal’s delegate, broadly agreeing, underscored the need for continued focus on Africa.
The representative of the Russian Federation meanwhile supported the Department’s attempts to “move with the times”, but not at the expense of established instruments. He voiced concern that meetings of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council had stopped being webcast in all United Nations languages, and rejected attempts to make knowledge of English a “passport” into the Organization’s work.
In that context, El Salvador’s delegate, on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), asked the Secretary‑General to ensure the Department had the necessary capacity in all official languages and that it be included in its future programme budget.
China’s delegate similarly said reforms would focus on increasing the Department’s global scope and modernizing its strategies. She expressed hope that, following exchanges with the Committee, those reforms would better meet the global community’s needs and spread the United Nations voice. Paraguay’s delegate, on behalf of the Group of Friends of Spanish, was among those underscoring the need for consultation with the Committee before any reforms were carried out.
Looking at the United Nations’ impact on the ground, the European Union delegate said the freedom of opinion and expression was more important than ever. Attacks on journalists were those against the cornerstones of societies and the Organization’s principles. Drawing attention to World Press Freedom Day on 4 May, he said the bloc would continue to provide the Department with resources and remained eager to engage in discussions about its proposed reform.
In other business, the Committee approved its work programme for its fortieth session. It postponed the election of its remaining Vice‑Chair as it had not received a nomination from the Group of African States.
Also today, the Committee held an informal interactive discussion aimed at exploring the Department’s future work. To a question about whether the name change to the “Department of Global Communications” would imply a shift in its practical work, the Under‑Secretary‑General replied that the term “public information” was reminiscent of the 1940s, when information was thought to be declared or pronounced. “Global communications” had a modern connotation, in line with the Department’s collaborative, interactive efforts.
Also speaking today were representatives of Nepal, Morocco, Algeria, Argentina, Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, Azerbaijan, Republic of Korea, United States, Portugal and Chile.
The Committee on Information will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 May, to continue its fortieth session.
JAN KICKERT (Austria), Chair of the Committee on Information, said the Under‑Secretary‑General for Global Communications had held an informal briefing earlier this year about her ideas for a new approach to delivering on the mandates of the Department of Public Information. “We look forward to hearing more in this direction,” he said, noting that the Committee would also hold a general debate, consider the Secretary‑General’s reports on the Department’s activities — strategic communications services, news services and outreach services — as well as meet in its open‑ended working group, and finally, adopt its report to the General Assembly. “We shall do so in what has become the extremely fluid context of contemporary global communications,” he said, amid a rapid transformation in the media field. “People today wish not merely to be informed as a whole, but moreover to participate individually,” he said, to “debate and decide” and contribute in more immediate ways to shaping their world through shared discourse. Guiding the United Nations to become a more relatable and approachable institution had become especially important for responding to the needs of younger generations.
Noting that World Press Freedom Day would coincide with the Committee’s session, he said 4 May would be an opportunity to celebrate and assess the state of press freedom throughout the world. He looked forward to working with the Committee to develop a “productive” consensus that, reflected in the concluding resolution, would offer the Department clear guidance on the policies and activities that must be best communicated with the global audience served by the United Nations.
ALISON SMALE, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, addressing the Committee for the first time, said the Department was undergoing a process of “review and reform”, recalling an informal briefing she had given to the Committee on 28 March. The reform had been requested by the Secretary‑General and was being conducted in parallel with other system reform streams in development, peace and security, and management. It started with one question: How should the Organization communicate the values it upheld on behalf of all Member States?
Indeed, the United Nations was operating in a world where 5G was the near future, and yet a substantial digital gap persisted between and within countries. It was a world in which trust in major institutions was increasingly hard to maintain; where the public was overwhelmed by news that was sometimes fake. The Department’s aim was to create rapid, strategic and integrated communications — to have in place an operation that ensured “we can tell the UN story to people in languages they understand and via platforms they can use and access”.
Recognizing that it must be nimble with resources at a time when State budgets were being stretched, she nonetheless called for investing in training to ensure that the Department’s staff had the skills needed to carry out their tasks. In addition, developments in emerging technologies, including better use of artificial intelligence, must be monitored so the Department could keep pace with the evolving field of communications. The Department’s reform had been informed by several analyses, she said, citing an evaluation by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) of the Department’s work from 2012 to 2017, as well as a staff engagement survey and a senior staff retreat earlier this year.
“Ultimately, this is a staff‑led and staff‑driven exercise,” she said, noting that colleagues across the Department had come together in eight working groups to focus on areas where the Department could improve. Their ideas and proposals would form the basis of a broader plan that she would take to the Secretary‑General later this month. But plans for change had started with a name change, from the Department of Public Information to the Department of Global Communications, in line with the title that the Secretary‑General had given her. “This is much more than a cosmetic change,” she said, “it is a signal of the direction in which we are heading”, and she would keep the Committee informed of new developments.
Already, the Department was innovating its products and structure, she said, finding new ways to work, smarter ways to partner and more effective ways to make an impact. The new United Nations news portal, launched last year, offered both the latest news as well as more than 400,000 historical radio, photo and print legacy items, enhancing the intellectual and historical value of the site. An updated United Nations news reader smartphone app carried all United Nations related news in the six official languages. Its core platforms — the digital asset management system for audio and video content, as well as new systems for photo management and archiving, and for webcast livestreaming — had been updated.
More broadly, the Department was creating better stories, and packaging multimedia materials to be socially optimized, as well as continuing to provide rich content for traditional media. It was exploring virtual reality films, offering 360‑degree experiences, with the first such film to be available later this month. In the eight months since the social media team was created, the number of followers had increased by 2 million to 31 million, reflecting improvements in all languages. Meanwhile, the flagship un.org website continued to grow in reach and engagement. The Department would soon embark on a project to “review and refresh” the homepage, which would include an analysis of audience behaviour, and would continue to digitize the United Nations historical and audiovisual records to preserve our common legacy.
Globally, the Department’s 59 United Nations information centres worked with local audiences in more than 80 local languages, anchoring the global communications efforts with audiences in every region of the world. She sought to strengthen their contributions to all Department‑wide functions, which in turn would help programmes become more impactful. That would require the information centres to be integrated into the Department’s strategic planning, digital and multilingual content development, audience analysis and youth outreach. As part of the reform, the Department was conducting a programmatic and operational review of each of the field offices to ensure they met the Organization’s strategic communications needs.
At the same time, she said the Department was discussing with the Secretary‑General how changes within the development system would affect the information centres, voicing hope that the centres would be fully equipped to support those reforms and strengthen coherence throughout the United Nations system, especially regarding the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The centres must continue to promote the broader United Nations agenda as mandated by member States, including the issues of peace and security, humanitarian assistance and promotion of human rights. On the digital front, she cited in particular the “Service and Sacrifice” campaign as an example of behind‑the‑scenes storytelling about a unique United Nations endeavour that both resonated positively with local populations and built support for the Organization’s mission. The “Add Your Voice” video project meanwhile had seen more than 3,000 people record videos of themselves reading out an article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Turning to events on the peace and security agenda, she said the Department would provide communications support for the first‑ever high‑level conference for the heads of counter‑terrorism agencies next month, and for the process leading to the adoption of the global compact on migration in Marrakesh in December. Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals would occupy the centre of attention at the high‑level political forum in July, and the Department was exploring “fresh” approaches to inspire public action to achieve the Goals. It was also engaged in preparing for a climate change agenda, through the twenty‑fourth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Poland, in December, and to the United Nations climate summit, slated for September 2019.
In terms of outreach, she said the United Nations digital library continued to grow, noting that the Dag Hammarskjöld Library was improving the ways it collected, preserved, organized and shared United Nations materials with clients. “If we are to succeed across the 2030 Agenda, young people must be informed and engaged and working with us at every stage,” she said, stressing that the Special Envoy on Youth, which was funded entirely by extra‑budgetary means, required more support from all sources. The Department was exploring creative avenues for fundraising to ensure it met all its mandates, especially for multilingualism.
To promote the Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations Academic Impact today launched a series of articles highlighting the importance of higher education in achieving the Goals. She also announced that the sixty‑seventh Non‑Governmental Organization Conference would be held at Headquarters on 22 to 23 August. In conclusion, she looked forward to hearing the Committee’s observations throughout the week, and more generally, ensuring that its support for the Department was equally expressed in the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary), providing the Department with mandates that allowed it the flexibility to build support for the United Nations in line with modern communications and on the basis of research and analytics.
AHMED ELSHANDAWILY (Egypt), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the efforts of the Department of Public Information were especially important in light of the common challenges faced by the international community. Citing several important global milestones reached over the past year — which had been addressed by the Department’s various campaigns — he encouraged it to continue to promote important conferences, decisions, resolutions and agreements, as well as those that would hopefully be reached in the coming months. Multilingualism remained a main promoter of unity and international understanding and a core value of the United Nations. While recognizing some progress made in promoting, protecting and preserving the diversity of languages and cultures, he nevertheless voiced concern about a continued disparity in the use of all official United Nations languages in the Organization’s public information materials. “We strongly encourage [the Department] to continue to exert efforts aimed at narrowing this existing gap,” he said.
Highlighting the importance of modern communications technologies, he said the use of legacy media such as print, radio and television broadcasts must also continue, as they remained the predominant means of communication in some developing countries. The risk of inaccurate information as well as the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to subvert the legal and political order of States could potentially have a very significant negative impact on the global community. Communications must always be fully compatible with the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter and international law — especially those of the sovereignty and non‑interference in States’ internal affairs — as well as internationally recognized rules of civil co‑existence among States. The question of Palestine continued to deserve special attention, he said, commending the Department for its continued work in that area. Regarding the Department’s reform, he emphasized that the process should primarily take into account the priorities set out by the Committee. Once the internal assessment had been completed, and before implementing reforms, the Department should hold consultations with the Committee’s members.
GERARDUS VAN DEN AKKER, European Union, cited several major accomplishments in public diplomacy over the last few years, noting that the Department had played a key role in achieving them. Multilateralism was now more important than ever, and effective communication among all stakeholders, including civil society, was critical. Special attention should be paid to such issues as the development of strategic alliances with academia, private sector and other actors; improved delivery of information through partnerships, including the United Nations country teams and information centres; the development of innovative ways to streamline administration and information‑sharing between headquarters and field offices, while maximizing outreach; and identifying and reaching previously untapped audiences with a special emphasis on youth and human rights issues.
Noting that multilingualism remained a priority for the bloc — where 24 official languages and many regional and local languages were spoken — he expressed support for the implementation of all the Department’s relevant mandates, issued by the General Assembly, which would help increase responsibility, transparency, ownership and accountability. Language diversity among the Department’s staff was also critical. Turning to the freedom of opinion and expression, which was more important than ever, he said journalists often risked their lives and paid the ultimate price in pursuing their professions. “Unfortunately, even in Europe, no one has a safe haven for the freedom of speech,” he said, warning that attacks on journalists were attacks on the cornerstones of societies and the United Nations principles. Welcoming efforts deployed by the Organization, and the Department in particular, to spotlight World Press Freedom Day, he said the bloc would continue to provide it with resources and remained eager to engage in discussions about its proposed reform.
RUBÉN ARMANDO ESCALANTE HASBÚN (El Salvador), speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), said questions of public information should always be in line with international law and the United Nations Charter. Recognizing the work of the Department in establishing a new, more just and effective global information and communications order aimed at strengthening peace and international understanding — including by adopting innovative methods allowing for greater fluidity of information, accuracy in its distribution and its non‑discriminatory and inclusive access — he voiced support for the proposals aimed at reforming the Department. Once the eight working groups had completed their internal assessment, Member States should have a chance to express their views prior to the implementation of any reform. Moreover, the reform should take into account the Committee’s priorities and concrete recommendations, particularly with regard to multilingualism as reflected in the annual resolutions of the General Assembly.
Reaffirming the Community’s full respect for free speech and freedom of the press as fundamental principles of a democratic society, he also emphasized the need to conceive and carry forward policies and mutual cooperation strategies aimed at closing the digital divide between and within countries, while preserving manifestations of pluriculturality and diversity. Information and communications technology should be used in accordance with legal frameworks and international commitments, he said, rejecting their use in violation of international law and especially in any action directed against a Member State. Reaffirming the importance of multilingualism as a fundamental United Nations value, and of parity among the Organization’s six official languages, he expressed concern that the Department’s daily press releases had yet to be issued in all official languages despite General Assembly resolutions that had repeatedly requested it to do so through creative schemes and in a cost‑neutral manner. In that regard, he asked the Secretary‑General to ensure that the Department had the necessary capacity in all official languages and that it be included in its future programme budget.
JULIO CÉSAR ARRIOLA RAMÍREZ (Paraguay), speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends of Spanish, said it advocated the principle of multilingualism as a core value of the United Nations, given the central role of languages in developing tolerance and understanding between peoples of the world. Spotlighting the importance of Spanish, the second‑most spoken language in the world, he said the United Nations Spanish website had seen the largest growth in recent years, which revealed a strong interest in the Organization’s work among Spanish‑speaking audiences. A disparity still existed between the Organization’s use of English, as opposed to its other five official languages, he said, calling for a progressive review to help it address an increasingly diverse global population. In particular, the United Nations websites and social media platforms should distribute the same volume of information in all languages, and update them at the same rate. Campaigns must adopt a multilingual approach from the start, he said, adding: “It is a question of audiences owning and understanding the messages we are trying to promote.” Noting that ongoing debates regarding reform of the United Nations development system could impact the Department’s multilingual work, as well as its budget, he echoed calls for consultation with the Committee — including the main language groups — after the internal assessment was completed but before any reforms were implemented.
Mr. BUIAKEVICH (Russian Federation) supported the Department’s attempts to “move with the times” and adapt to new realities. With regard to reform proposals, he hoped Member States would be provided with expanded information as well as the reasons behind them, along with relevant budgetary information. No changes should lead to the loss of established and vetted instruments, he warned, noting with grave concern that, beginning in February 2018, meetings of the General Assembly plenary and the Economic and Social Council had stopped being webcast in all the United Nations official languages. A significant portion of the Organization’s target audience had lost its ability to find recordings in any languages other than English, he said, rejecting attempts to make the knowledge of English a kind of “passport” into the United Nations work. Against the backdrop of an increasing risk of “fake news” around the world, as well as multiple interpretations the Organization’s work, there could be no restrictions on the dissemination of the United Nations original content.
Spotlighting efforts undertaken by the United Nations Information Centre in Moscow to translate information about the Sustainable Development Goals into such local languages as Chechen and Tatar, he said the Centre was awaiting further resources for such work. He also expressed concern about widespread efforts to whitewash the historical actions of Nazis and their collaborators, which must be firmly rejected by the United Nations and all Member States. Last year, the Russian Federation had proposed parameters for the Department to help combat the dissemination of fake news, but no action had yet been taken on that front, and some States had continued “informational combat” reminiscent of the cold war era. Moreover, some States were trying to use fake news for their own self‑serving goals and to legalize censorship, which was totally unacceptable. Fake news could undermine the principles of international law, leading to increased pressure in the international information space. States should therefore create joint mechanisms to combat the phenomenon, he said, strongly urging the Department to focus on that issue in its coming work.
SURENDRA THAPA (Nepal), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, encouraged the Department to further enlarge its basket of languages and to include Nepali, which was spoken by millions of people. Expressing support for the Department’s work to promote the contributions of United Nations peacekeepers — particularly in its “Service and Sacrifice” campaign — he said United Nations information centres remained the Department’s key instrument for reaching out to the global population in their own languages. Those centres should be further strengthened with technical and infrastructure capabilities, and stronger synergies should be built among them to ensure their efficient use and maximum impact. More repositories like the Central Library at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University should be established to help disseminate United Nations information. In spite of the growing popularity of social media platforms, their availability and accessibility was often hindered in developing countries, meaning that traditional formats such as radio, television and printed materials were also important. The Department should consider making the current telephone access to the United Nations materials free of charge through designated toll‑free numbers available to the public throughout the world.
YASSER HALFAOUI (Morocco), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, and the International Organization of la Francophonie, said the issues of peace, solidarity, tolerance, climate change, the emancipation of the African continent and gender equality, must remain at the heart of the Department’s activities. He welcomed the creation of a website about Africa and the United Nations, pressing the Department to ensure coverage of the conference for the global compact on migration. Noting that universal values of tolerance and respect for the other had been part of Morocco’s commitment to pluralism, he reiterated the Government’s commitment to the Department to promote those ideas. Peacebuilding and country configurations should be better covered. He suggested the Department use Facebook and Twitter as necessary alongside traditional radio and print activities, and called on the Department to balance and adapt its programmes. There was a need for new partnerships, he said, stressing that the United Nations information centres required constant support from the Department, and underscoring the importance of multilingualism.
MOHAMMED BESSEDIK (Algeria), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, supported the Department’s initiatives, and called for awareness‑raising on decolonization, peacekeeping, disarmament, human rights, sustainable development and poverty eradication, climate change and the identification of Africa’s needs. He looked forward to the translation of the “What the United Nations can do to assist Non‑Self‑Governing Territories” leaflet into other official languages, pressing the Department to consider disseminating information on the work of the Special Political and Decolonization Committee and to continue its annual training programme for Palestinian journalists. Multilingualism was essential for accountability and transparency and he welcomed all efforts to mainstream multilingualism into all communications and information activities. It was important to make use of all official languages, notably Arabic, and to ensure staffing in all official languages. Reform of the Department should consider the priorities set out by the Committee as the main body mandated to make recommendations relating to its work. He also noted discrepancies in the press releases related to the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization).
ALEJANDRO GUILLERMO VERDIER (Argentina), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, CELAC and the Group of Friends of Spanish, said the United Nations communications strategy must adapt to a global communications stage, offering objective information, while taking advantage of new tools and formats and not losing sight of technological differences between countries and regions. It was essential that States offered their inputs on the Department’s reform, in line with what was happening in the development, administration, and peace and security reforms, recalling that the Committee was tasked with making recommendations. Multilingualism must be fully integrated into all the Department’s activities, with reforms moving the Department away from “a culture of translation” towards a real multilingual culture. The specifics of each language must be considered during all stages of communications campaigns. The Secretariat should consider the growth of user traffic on Spanish language websites in such efforts, especially in recruiting staff. He voiced concern over disparity among the six official languages, stressing that multilingual coverage of the main organs should be a priority. The ease of access to press releases required that the Department implement all reasonable mechanisms to ensure that information was accurate without significantly affecting their timely publication. He voiced concern that press releases were available only in two of the six official languages and despite the Assembly’s renewed mandate to respect the principle of parity among the languages. He also called for restoring the practice making audio and video files of the main organs available in the six official languages.
YUANCHUN MA (China), associating herself with the Group of 77, said her country’s cooperation with the Department had been both strong and productive. Citing several relevant partnerships, she said China’s Xiamen Airlines had partnered with the United Nations to display images of the Sustainable Development Goals on its aircrafts, while the Secretary‑General had held significant exchanges with Chinese media outlets during his recent visit to the country. Going forward, the Department’s reform would put greater emphasis on increasing its global scope and modernizing its communications strategies and materials. Following exchanges with the Committee, she expressed hope that those reforms would cater better to the global community’s needs, spread the United Nations voice more widely and galvanize the international community. She spotlighted such critical issues as overcoming the current financial bottleneck, increasing efficiency within the Department’s existing resources, bridging the digital divide and addressing the issue of language parity. Multilingualism must always be upheld, she stressed, noting that despite its very high speaker population the rates of United Nations products produced in Chinese remained low. China was willing to support efforts to increasing language parity as much as possible, she said.
OLEH NIKOLENKO (Ukraine) said the Department’s news websites in all six official United Nations languages, as well as Portuguese and Kiswahili, had become user‑friendly, modern and public‑oriented sources of information. Also welcoming its increasing focus on social media and youth, he emphasized the critical importance of free media and spotlighted Ukraine’s efforts to limit State influence, including through the privatization of hundreds of print outlets. Legislative measures had been undertaken to strengthen the safety of journalists and remove impediments to their work. Meanwhile, eastern parts of the country — which were not under Government control — remained “no‑go areas” for critical journalists and foreign observers, and the Russian Federation had launched systemic and massive abuses of fundamental human rights and freedoms in Crimea. “Journalists and activists who dare to report a view different from the position of the occupation authorities are systematically harassed, detained or interrogated,” he said, describing the targeting of Ukrainian journalists as a tactic of war. Voicing general concern about the Russian Federation’s massive propaganda campaigns, which had become an issue of national security for Ukraine, he said hybrid hostile practices involving State‑controlled media represented a direct threat to the values of the United Nations. The Committee and other bodies should rapidly react to all attempts to falsify information and use it as a tool to fuel regional conflicts.
KHADY MBACKÉ DIOP (Senegal), associating herself with the Group of 77 and China, said radio was an effective medium for political, economic, cultural and social mediation and it must remain alongside television and the possibilities offered by the worldwide web. Indeed, the Department must continue to use traditional media. The United Nations had tools to better account for its activities, and she advocated a continued focus on the needs of Africa through information policies addressing its challenges. An ambitious communications strategy required bridging the digital divide between the global North and South. The United Nations, development partners and Member States must adopt measures to fill that gap. The success of United Nations information offices was based on the quality of services they offered and Senegal would continue support with the Dakar centre. Multilingualism must remain a priority, she said, stressing that information must be disseminated in the greatest number of languages possible. She encouraged the Department to apply the principle of respect for all languages.
JORGE ARTURO REYES HERNÁNDEZ (Venezuela), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, CELAC and the Group of Friends of Spanish, said he would welcome additional efforts to raise awareness about the importance of the 2030 Agenda, notably as achieving Goal 5 was a challenge and that women, girls and adolescents comprised half of the global population. Underscoring Venezuela’s respect for the promotion and protection of all human rights, he drew attention to the campaign to commemorate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the international Decade of Afro‑descendants in that regard. The Department must disseminate truthfully the principles used in defending such rights, he said, rejecting the biased use of information by some Member States and advocating more debate on the quality of such material. Addressing such practices must be a priority. He voiced support for overcoming the digital divide. Indeed, communications could be used in the service of social justice and solidarity among peoples, and he encouraged measures to enable democratization in the use of ICT. He also advocated the balanced use of the six official languages, stressing that websites must be accessible to persons with disabilities and calling on the Department to equitably promote the six official languages.
MARATEE NALITA ANDAMO (Thailand), associating herself with the Group of 77 and China, said it was important that all stakeholders collectively reviewed how to better represent the United Nations’ work so that the Organization could address complex challenges. She advocated ensuring that information and communications was coordinated and strategic across countries and regions, stressing that multilingualism allowed more people to understand the United Nations work, and she called on the Department to continue its efforts in that regard. She encouraged the continued expansion of the United Nations website and social media accounts in the Thai language. More broadly, ICT must be used gradually and strategically, she said, advocating closer attention to addressing disinformation and “fake news”. As the digital divide persisted, the Department’s traditional media activities must continue, as they were the primary means of communication in large parts of the developing world.
ILKIN HAJIYEV (Azerbaijan), citing his Government’s national‑level support for United Nations information programmes, spotlighted several events undertaken in 2017 on the occasion of the twenty‑fifth anniversary of Azerbaijan’s accession to the Organization. Among other things, it regularly synchronized its social media hashtags with the United Nations, and it continued to provide leadership for the Alliance of Civilizations programme. Calling for more emphasis on both multilingualism and multiculturalism — as well as more attention to the failure by some parties to implement Security Council resolutions, including those calling for the full withdrawal of troops from occupied Azerbaijani lands — he said the phenomenon of propaganda cited today by many delegates was neither a new problem nor an issue foreign to the United Nations. Indeed, the Organization condemned all forms of propaganda in various resolutions as early as 1947. Since the earliest days of its independence, Azerbaijan had dealt with propaganda campaigns relating to Armenia’s ethnic cleansing practices, which regrettably continued today. Warning against any violation of foreign media accreditation rules, he expressed support for the safety and security of journalists and for fair and accurate coverage of conflict zones, warning that the lack of clear definitions and the inconsistent use of terms could hamper fair reporting and increase the risk posed by propaganda.
This afternoon, the Committee held an informal interactive discussion aimed at further exploring the Department’s current and future work. Led by Under‑Secretary‑General Alison Smale, it also featured responses by Hua Jiang, Director of the Department’s News and Media Unit. Following a brief video clip highlighting the Department’s work spanning the United Nations three substantive pillars, its six official languages and its multitude of media platforms, speakers asked Ms. Smale to respond to both conceptual and pragmatic questions related to the Department’s work in today’s rapidly evolving media landscape.
Austria’s representative, citing regional and linguistic differences in the United Nations website and social media traffic, asked what factors accounted for such discrepancies.
Responding, Ms. SMALE said that, while some differences were indeed evident, there were not yet sufficient audience analytics to completely understand them. As the United Nations did not own social media platforms, tracking its content on those sites was not always straightforward. However, it was important to note that digital content could “puncture some illusions” long held by traditional media outlets that its readership correlated to its number of advertisements. Digital media “reveals the harsh truth” regarding the actual number of clicks. On the other hand, it also allowed the United Nations to reach audiences that had never been reachable before.
The representative of Azerbaijan, noting that “bad news always makes the headline”, asked how the United Nations could better promote positive messages in a largely negative global media atmosphere. He also pointed to the Security Council’s various recent stalemates, asking how the Department should attempt to frame those issues.
To that, Ms. SMALE said the mandate of the Department would never be to report in a totally impartial way on the United Nations work. However, its work must always be accurate and should reflect all relevant points of view, including those that had contributed to deadlocks such as the ones in the Security Council.
Argentina’s delegate asked what traditional means were currently being used by the Department. It was time to stop thinking about an information environment where there was a creator and an end user, he said, urging the Department to instead consider such modern media trends as robotic intelligence. He also asked for more detailed information about audience segmentation.
Ms. SMALE, reiterating her emphasis on the need for more nimbleness and a stronger focus on youth, spotlighted gender as another important focus for both the Department and the United Nations as a whole.
Ms. JIANG, responding to the question about traditional media platforms, said the United Nations regularly created feature television programmes such as the “UN in Action” in the Organization’s six official languages. It maintained its New York‑based cable television station, and thousands of additional products were translated by United Nations information centres and other partners across the world. While the Department was focusing more on social media, it also paid significant attention to traditional media, which continued to be prominent outlets in many parts of the world. The Department also produced regular daily video programmes, including three‑minute daily Spanish programmes that were downloaded and used by many partners.
A discussion also emerged about the Department’s response to the Organization’s recent budget cuts. Costa Rica’s delegate, pointing out that archived meeting webcasts were particularly critical because meeting press releases were not published in Spanish, asked how her delegation could access webcast files.
To that, Ms. SMALE responded that it was with great reluctance that the Department had been forced to reduce some of its services late in 2017 following the United Nations overall budget cuts.
Ms. JIANG, providing more details, said the Department had regrettably lost funds it had gained in the last biennium, with which it had hired five staff members to work on the webcast and its archives in the six official languages. Having unfortunately now lost those staff members under the current budget reductions, the live webcast remained available in all the official languages, but archives in those languages were only available for Security Council meetings with English metadata. However, she said, the Department was actively looking into ways to revive those functions.
Responding to a question by the representative of Jamaica regarding the Department’s work to achieve “sustained messaging”, instead of clicks or hits, Ms. SMALE said the Department was putting a new emphasis on sustained results by asking its offices to justify their budgets by describing how their work — and the funding behind it — had made a difference for people on the ground. One example was the “Service and Sacrifice” campaign, which had helped explain what peacekeeping was and highlighted the Secretary‑General’s zero‑tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and abuse.
The Russian Federation’s delegate asked whether the Department of Public Information’s name change to the “Department of Global Communications” would imply a shift in its practical work with regards to the development of methodologies to protect journalists in conflict areas.
To that, Ms. SMALE responded that the Department’s name change did not indicate a change in its focus in that area. While it remained very interested in the security of journalists, such work was largely led by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The name “public information” was reminiscent of the 1940s, when information was thought to be declared or pronounced, while “global communications” had a more modern connotation in line with the Department’s collaborative, interactive work.
Also participating in the dialogue were the representatives of the Dominican Republic and Japan.
YOUNG-HYO PARK (Republic of Korea) said strategic messaging about United Nations reform should be coherently communicated. Without strong advocacy for shared values and vision from people around the world, the United Nations would not achieve its desired outcomes. Welcoming campaigns on sustainable development and climate change, she drew attention to the remarkable increase in audience reach since the launch of the multilingual social media team and commended its tailored and targeted data‑driven approach. The Department’s renaming should entail reallocation of resources and adjustment of priorities to ensure better planned and coordinated communications. Message coherence across the system, and the impact of communications campaigns should be closely monitored, with activities further improved in a deepened culture of quantitative and qualitative evaluation. He supported efforts to reposition information centres, and welcomed the Academic Impact initiative’s exchanges with higher education institutions, which would help foster global citizenship amid the rise of violent extremism and xenophobia.
ANDREA STANFORD (United States) said her country was a leading proponent for the freedom of expression, committed to providing assistance to all societies to develop the capacity for the free flow of and access to information by all people, including through development of a robust free and independent press. It fully supported the United Nations work in that sphere and would continue to do so. At the same time, it was important to eliminate bias across the United Nations system and she expressed concern over the special information programme on the question of Palestine, which promoted misperceptions to the detriment of Israel. Seminars and information materials that only presented the Palestinian side of the conflict gave “ammunition” to enemies of Israel to incite terror. She strongly encouraged the Department to address those concerns. Reaffirming support for multilingualism, she said the United States was committed to the Department’s work to ensure the United Nations’ work was effectively communicated to all Member States.
CRISTINA MARIA CERQUEIRA PUCARINHO (Portugal), pressing the Department to adapt in order to reach different audiences, underscored the importance of multilingualism in conveying the United Nations messages to the widest possible audiences. She praised United Nations News for producing materials in eight languages, including Portuguese. The dissemination of those materials relied on the outstanding performance of United Nations information centres, she said, drawing attention to those in Brussels and Rio de Janeiro and stressing that an additional centre in Luanda would foster dissemination in Portuguese‑speaking African countries. While social media had expanded the United Nations reach, traditional media was equally important, especially as radio had the widest reach. Spoken by 260 million people today, Portuguese would be the official language of an estimated 400 million people by mid‑century and she advocated expanded use of it in the Department’s work. The Secretary‑General’s report on news services provided impressive statistics on the following of the Portuguese Language Unit, she said, as well as information on partnerships with media outlets in Angola, Brazil and Cabo Verde.
PABLO IGNACIO CALLIS GIRAGOSSIAN (Chile), associating himself with the Group of Friends of Spanish, CELAC and the Group of 77 and China, emphasized the importance of strengthening multilingualism in United Nations communications, notably because of the need to achieve higher standards of accountability and transparency. In an age of viral disinformation, so‑called fake news and the emergence of post‑truth, he said provable facts and objective reality had less impact on public opinion than appeals to emotions and beliefs. As such, he called on the Department to keep up its efforts in the global struggle against disinformation. He welcomed the Department’s progress in incorporating ICT into its work, welcoming the United Nations News app as an important tool for outreach in the twenty‑first century and underscoring nonetheless the importance of radio, television and print in reaching people without Internet access. He also voiced concern that electronic communications had increased the digital divide among countries.