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United Nations: Journalists Increasingly Targets Of Violence, Secretary-General Says At Headquarters Observance Of World Press Freedom Day


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With journalists increasingly becoming the target of violence, the main task of the United Nations was to be an “unflinching defender” of press freedom, as well as a defender of “the women and men whose talent and dedication bring it to life”, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today at the Headquarters commemoration of World Press Freedom Day.

In a message delivered by Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Kiyo Akasaka, Mr. Ban said: “Most alarmingly, in seeking to shed light on the plight of others, journalists themselves become targets.” Drawing attention to the more than 150 media professionals who had lost their lives in the line of duty, in addition to many others who had been injured, detained, harassed or held hostage, he added that attacks against journalists were contrary to the very things the United Nations stood for -- international law, humanity and freedom itself.

A free, secure and independent press was among the very foundations of democracy and peace, he said, adding that attacks against journalists happened not just in the midst of armed conflict, but also in pursuit of stories on corruption, poverty and abuses of power. Governments, international organizations, the media and civil society all had a role to play in upholding those foundations, and he called on all to reaffirm their commitment to that mission.

He also appealed for the immediate and safe release of BBC journalist Alan Johnston, whose plight he had been following with dismay. Mr. Johnston’s coverage of issues relating to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had rightly earned worldwide respect, he said, adding that no cause was served by his continued captivity.

General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa ( Bahrain) also called for the release of the BBC correspondent, as well as other unlawfully imprisoned journalists, in a message read out by Assembly Vice-President Christian Wenaweser ( Liechtenstein). “Our hearts go out to all journalists who have been silenced or those whose freedom has been restricted in any way, and to those who have paid the ultimate price, giving up their lives in pursuit of freedom of expression and greater public awareness.”

Hélène-Marie Gosselin, Director, New York office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), spoke on behalf of UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, and noted that 2006 had been the bloodiest year on record, with more than 150 killings of media professionals. Hundreds more media workers had been arrested, threatened or attacked because of their work. “Being a journalist has never been more dangerous,” she said, adding that the UNESCO Director-General had decided to dedicate the Day to the theme of journalist safety.

Particularly hazardous to members of the press was Iraq, where 69 media professionals had been killed last year, she stated. More than 170 media professionals, the vast majority being local journalists, had been killed in the country since the conflict began in April 2003. Never in recorded history had there been such a large-scale killing of journalists.

The Chairman of the Committee on Information, Rudolf Christen ( Switzerland), noted that press freedom was not only in danger in war zones or conflict areas, but was also in danger where the journalistic curiosity was lost, and where independence of thinking was under pressure. Press freedom was founded on the freedom of expression and was “neither a gift nor a political concession”, but a fundamental human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Human Rights Council, he said, should seek ways to help interested countries improve their press record, and to name names where countries failed to uphold press freedom. He also called on the United Nations to help tear down the digital divide, which stood between the rich and powerful and the poor and the weak.

Speaking on behalf of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), its President, Tuyet Nguyen, added that the problem lay in getting Governments -- who were a major “shareholder” at the United Nations -- that had signed treaties and conventions to show a commitment to those accords, particularly in upholding freedom of the press and expression. The media was merely the messenger; it was up to Governments to ensure that human freedoms were being upheld.

Under-Secretary-General Akasaka presided over an interactive panel discussion, entitled “The United Nations and Freedom of the Press: What More Can Be Done”, saying that everyone shared the common interest to protect media professionals. Besides its crucial role to inform, an independent media provided a check on corruption and mismanagement, as long as it was unhindered in its access to information. In all those functions, the media contributed to peace, development and the protection of human rights, he said.

Members of the panel included Evelyn Leopold, Chief of Bureau, Reuters United Nations Office; Juan Francisco Ealy Ortiz, Publisher, El Universal, Mexico; Yuwel Zhang, United Nations Chronicle; Abderrahim Foukara, Chief of Bureau, Al Jazeera Arabic for the Americas; and Josh Friedman, Director of International Programs, Columbia School of Journalism.

Participants discussed the difficulty of “selling” United Nations stories, ways to make the Organization’s stories more interesting, and how the United Nations could make itself more accessible to journalists. Panelists emphasized the need for the United Nations to tell its story clearly and to resist the tendency towards censorship, but stressed that the Organization was a rich source of information.

Background

The Department of Public Information (DPI) this morning held the observance of World Press Freedom Day. Customarily held within the framework of the annual session of the Committee on Information, the event includes a panel discussion -- part of the weekly DPI/NGO briefings programme -- on “The United Nations and Freedom of the Press: What more can be done?”

Opening Statements

KIYO AKASAKA, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, delivered a message on behalf of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in which he reaffirmed the Organization’s commitment to the right of freedom of opinion and expression, as enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

He said that, as more people gained the means to reach -- and reach out to -- a wider audience, too often, they faced attempts to restrict, deny or block the flow of information and ideas. In the face of those threats, it was the job of the United Nations to be an “unflinching defender” of press freedom, and of “the women and men whose talent and dedication bring it to life”.

He said that journalists had alarmingly become targets, as they sought to shed light on the plight of others. Over the past year, more than 150 media professionals had lost their lives in the line of duty, while others had been injured, detained, harassed or held hostage. Such acts happened not just in the midst of armed conflict, but also in pursuit of stories on corruption, poverty and abuses of power.

Most recently, the Secretary-General had been following with dismay, the abduction of BBC journalist Alan Johnston, he noted. Mr. Johnston’s coverage of issues relating to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had rightly earned worldwide respect. No cause was served by his continued captivity. The Secretary-General appealed for Mr. Johnston’s “immediate and safe release”.

Such attacks, he said, were against international law, humanity and freedom itself; in short, those things the United Nations stood for. A free, secure and independent press was among the very foundations of democracy and peace. Governments, international organizations, the media and civil society all had a role to play in upholding those foundations. He called on all to reaffirm their commitment to that mission on this Day.

Mr. AKASAKA then invited participants to observe a minute of silence, in tribute to the men and women worldwide that had lost their lives in the pursuit of information.

CHRISTIAN WENAWESER (Liechtenstein), delivering a message on behalf of General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa (Bahrain), said that humanity’s perpetual search for freedom of expression was ultimately demonstrated by its resolve to guarantee freedom of the press. From reporting on world wars, natural disasters or social and political upheavals to nourishing the minds of society, journalists were always in the forefront of the fight to inform and enlighten. Today, on World Press Freedom Day, there was an opportunity to reaffirm the commitment, enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to freedom of opinion and expression.

“Our hearts go out to all journalists who have been silenced or those whose freedom has been restricted in any way, and to those who have paid the ultimate price, giving up their lives in pursuit of freedom of expression and greater public awareness,” he said. “Their memories will be forever etched in our hearts,” he added.

He made a special plea for the immediate and safe release of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston and not just for Mr. Johnston, but for every unlawfully imprisoned journalist, who must be set free.

RUDOLF CHRISTEN ( Switzerland), Chairman of the Committee on Information, said World Press Freedom Day had come to symbolize the firm commitment of the international community to the promotion of the freedom of the press, as well as freedom itself. The Day also served as a reminder that members of the United Nations had an obligation to uphold those rights, because when journalists were denied that basic right, both democracy and development suffered. But when the press enjoyed freedom, a society was better equipped to fight the abuse of other rights.

He said the freedom of expression, which was the foundation of press freedom, was “neither a gift nor a political concession”; it was a fundamental human right, and one that was enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That freedom was guaranteed to everyone and not confined to a few, showing that the drafters of the Declaration five decades ago had been aware that no society could be free without a free press.

He said the theme of today’s panel discussion “The United Nations and Freedom of the Press: What more can be done?” was relevant in more than one way. While the United Nations had campaigned relentlessly to advance freedom of the press, that -- and other rights -- continued to be violated everywhere. Journalists continued to be attacked, assaulted, jailed and tortured, and often became victims of those in power or who sought to grab power. In each case, the perpetrators were those who feared the dissemination of correct information. It was a “sad reality of our current times”.

Mr. CHRISTEN said he had been a journalist for many years, in many hot spots, and had felt, more than once, to be in danger. He had learned one thing as a result: press freedom was not only in danger in war zones or conflict areas, but also at home in the well-heated news rooms. The French expression “la pensée unique” was a good description of that kind of danger, where “everybody had to think in the same direction, in the same way” and where contradictions were not welcomed and the free flow of ideas not requested. Similarly, press freedom was also in danger where the journalistic curiosity was lost, and where independence of thinking was under pressure.

He said that the United Nations was well-suited to discuss and agree on ways and means to put an end to the continuing violation of press freedom. The Human Rights Council could take a bolder role in naming Member States that failed to uphold basic human rights, including freedom of the press. But naming names was not enough; the Human Rights Council should seek ways to help interested countries improve their press record, as well.

He said most journalists he had asked said they were “quite happy” with the work of the Department of Public Information, though others hesitated or had no quick answer. Someone told him that he believed the United Nations should do nothing. “I am fine as long as the United Nations has its scandals,” the person had said. The United Nations should certainly not do more in that regard, remarked Mr. Christen.

But the United Nations could do more to attract the media to untold stories, especially untold success stories. The advancement of communications technology, especially the Internet, had greatly contributed to the demolition of the “old walls of media control”. The Department of Public Information could help the world overcome the digital divide, which was an “artificial barrier” that kept the weak, poor and underdeveloped behind, 62 years after the creation of the world body. Mr. Christen called on the United Nations to help tear down the artificial barrier created by the digital divide, saying it “can be done and must be done”.

HÉLÈNE-MARIE GOSSELIN, Director, New York office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), speaking on behalf of UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, said World Press Freedom Day was an occasion to remind the world of the importance of protecting the fundamental human right of freedom of expression. With violence against media professionals today constituting one of the greatest threats to that freedom, the Director-General had decided to dedicate the Day to the theme of journalist safety.

She said that, over the past decade, there had been a dramatic escalation of violence against journalists, media professionals and associated personnel. In many countries around the world, media professionals were harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered. According to professional organizations, 2006 was the bloodiest year on record, with more than 150 media killings. Hundreds more media workers had been arrested, threatened or attacked because of their work. “Being a journalist has never been more dangerous,” she stressed.

Everyone knew that conflict zones, and post-conflict zones, were particularly hazardous environments, she said. The worst example was Iraq, where 69 media professionals had been killed last year. More than 170 media professionals, the vast majority being local journalists, had been killed in the country since the conflict began in April 2003. Never in recorded history had there been such a large-scale killing of journalists.

She said that those who risked their lives to provide independent and reliable information deserved admiration, respect and support. They understood better than anyone that media contributed significantly to processes of accountability, reconstruction and reconciliation. Indeed, the growth in violence against journalists was a telling, if tragic, testimony to the importance of the media to modern democracies.

The safety of journalists affected all, she said. Every aggression against a journalist was an attack on the most fundamental freedoms. Press freedom and freedom of expression could not be enjoyed without basic security.

On World Press Freedom Day, she urged everyone to pledge to strengthen efforts to secure journalist safety. In particular, she called on Governments and public authorities to end the pervasive culture of impunity that surrounded violence against journalists. Governments must fulfil their responsibility to ensure that crimes against media professionals were investigated and prosecuted.

Today was also an occasion to recognize the progress that had been made in protecting press freedom, she went on. UNESCO welcomed the adoption of Security Council resolution 1738 (2006), in which the Council condemned attacks against journalists in conflict situations. That resolution represented a victory for the campaign against impunity, and for those committed to protecting the independence and rights of media workers. “We must exploit this momentum to build a culture of safety within media,” she stressed.

As the Day was celebrated, she asked participants to reflect on ways to propagate values that respected the media’s vital role in promoting sustainable peace and development. “Let us commemorate media professionals who had lost their lives, and honour those who bring us information despite danger and risk,” she said, adding, “above all let us appreciate the intimate relationship between securing the safety of journalists and realizing our own freedoms. Our ability to act as informed citizens of the world depended on a media that can work freely and safely.”

TUYET NGUYEN, President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), speaking on behalf of the Association, said the media had an important role to play in disseminating information to all corners of the world. It was true that the media faced difficulties in carrying out its work at times, as speakers before him had already explained. Yesterday, the Committee to Protect Journalists had published a survey revealing that freedom of the press and expression had regressed throughout the world, rather than improved. It had been a strong message on the eve of World Press Freedom Day.

He said that for many journalists, work at the United Nations might become routine and boring after a while -- not for the lack of opportunities to meet with Government leaders and representatives. Rather, it became boring and routine when “things did not improve or change, when change was needed”.

Covering the United Nations was a good beat, he said, and an opportunity to write stories focused on humanitarian and political issues, which were picked up by the media around the world as well as by the United Nations itself. For instance, if Governments were to disagree among themselves, or with the United Nations, on the interpretation of the freedom of press or expression, it was a good thing for journalists, since they “love sensational stories”.

He said journalists wished to see Governments that had signed treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to know their obligations, especially regarding freedom of press and expression. Those Governments should continue to remain open, or try to be more open, to the media. The Secretary-General had, in the past month, made himself available to UNCA as often as he could. It was UNCA’s hope that the Secretary-General and his senior aides continue to remain open to the press.

He said the Security Council was an important beat for reporters, since its meetings and decisions had a strong impact on the world. Another important source of information was the United Nations Daily News bulletin, sent by e-mail every day, and which helped fill any gaps in terms of United Nations activities.

As for what more could be done by the United Nations, he said the problem lay in getting Governments -- who were a major “shareholder” at the United Nations -- that had signed treaties and conventions to show a commitment to those accords, particularly in upholding freedom of the press and expression. The media was merely the messenger; it was up to Governments to ensure that human freedoms were being upheld.

Summary of Panel Discussion

Participating in the panel discussion that followed, entitled “The United Nations and Freedom of the Press: What More Can Be Done”, were: Evelyn Leopold, Chief of Bureau, Reuters United Nations Office; Juan Francisco Ealy Ortiz, Publisher, El Universal, Mexico; Yuwel Zhang, United Nations Chronicle; Abderrahim Foukara, Chief of Bureau, Al-Jazeera Arabic for the Americas; Josh Friedman, Director of International Programs, Columbia School of Journalism.

Opening the discussion, Under-Secretary-General Akasaka said that overshadowing all of today’s discussions were threats to the safety of journalists and to the freedom to pursue their profession. Unfortunately, that remained a feature of the international landscape. The year 2007 was one of the bloodiest years for journalists, in which more than 150 were killed and many more were injured, harassed or detained. One purpose of World Press Freedom Day was to call attention to that intolerable situation.

He added his voice to those who had called for the unconditional, immediate and safe release of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, whose detention served no purpose and contravened human dignity and decency.

Besides its crucial role to inform, an independent media unhindered in its access to information, provided a check on corruption and mismanagement, he said. In all those functions, the media contributed to peace, development and the protection of human rights. Everyone shared the common interest to protect media professionals and, together, had done, and was doing, a great deal, but there was probably more that could be done. He hoped today’s discussion would provoke some suggestions about precisely what more could be done.

Ms. LEOPOLD said “this place”, much more than any other, gave journalists a lot of freedom –- to wander the 2nd floor, and have access to diplomats and even some officials as they emerged from meetings. “But nag we must, or we wouldn’t be journalists,” she said.

The United Nations had many skilled people in the field who knew what tools were needed to improve outreach, but information specialists were often constrained by Member States refusing to invest in bringing the Organization fully into the age of media by giving the Department of Public Information (DPI) “ridiculous chores and reports to write”, rather than putting the emphasis “where it counts”.

She said that the Department needed to reach both sophisticated urbanites and village-level audiences. Instituting that culture among Member States was as hard as to institute democracy. Gigantic information conferences were staged, while at the same time, efforts were made to control freedom of information at United Nations Headquarters.

Electronically, the website could be wonderful, but it was also a “nightmare”, she said, adding, “thank goodness for Google”. Someone should re-arrange the website. There was also too little field reporting, not enough equipment, and not enough hours on the air in languages that mattered.

She said, “The UN shoots itself in the foot very often, usually from the 38th floor, regardless of who is Secretary-General.” The Oil-for-Food scandal, for example, was handled very leisurely until some top-notch people took over. Still, the new Secretary-General appeared at the stakeout after his trip to Syria last week and he managed not to give any news. Rarely did a press briefing by a Secretary-General result in news stories around the world. Advisers should rethink appearances; “just because you say it doesn’t mean it’s news”.

She learned an enormous amount from reports on peacekeeping, she said, but those needed to “name the enemy”. That kind of self-censorship would never stop criminal activities, and “nobody should be afraid of armed groups suing”. The writing was about “looping backward constructions”. “Dig beneath the surface”, and the construction was vague and confused.

News conferences should make their point and tell their story clearly, she continued. And remember, she urged, “If everything is an issue, nothing is an issue, so make the point.” Television was very important, and the Organization should make “far more use of it”. In the Organization, there was just “not enough TV”.

She said she had a real problem with the Security Council and the General Assembly. The names of speakers were not mentioned, only the countries. How could anybody use a direct quotation without someone’s name? Also, if there was an agenda, people needed to know what it meant. A recent Security Council meeting was to take up the situation concerning the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the twenty-third report of the Secretary-General, the situation in Georgia and the report of the Secretary-General on Abkhazia, and threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts. She had no idea what they were talking about and had needed to make several telephone calls to Council members so that they could spell it out. The meetings were about extending peacekeeping missions, respectively, for one month, six months, and a statement on the suicide bombing in the Iraqi Parliament. It was impossible to know that from the agenda.

“So if you can’t communicate to the in-house press, please rethink that,” she urged, adding, “Tell the story. The world is busy, and if you have a good story, tell it; tell it over and over again.”

Mr. ORTIZ said the Inter-American Press Association was a group of publications from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, covering a large part of the Western Hemisphere. Its concerns included in particular the severe deterioration of the freedom of expression in Latin America. The number of crimes against journalists in that region was at its highest level, and many of the perpetrators were not punished, nor were many of the crimes seriously investigated. The main threat to democracy and freedom in the region was the lack of the rule of law. In 2006, 17 Latin American journalists were killed -- seven of them in Mexico alone. Several others had been kidnapped by criminal organizations, and the number of such cases increased by the week.

He said that when a society’s means of communications came under assault, it was often followed by aggression against other democratic institutions. The freedom of expression nourished all others. The Secretary-General was right to have lamented the journalists who became targets of abuse and, hopefully, the current meeting would help shake up the conscience of journalists, society and Governments throughout the world. “Our collective freedom was mutilated each time a journalist was shot down” by organized crime, for example.

He also drew attention to the dangers facing journalists in the United States and Mexico. The Inter-American Press Association provided training to editors and journalists working on high-risk stories, such as the issue of drugs and organized crime. It was also following up on cases where crimes against journalists had been committed, bringing it to the attention of international human rights authorities.

He said silence on the part of journalists and others in society allowed the enemies of journalists to triumph. In Latin America, self-censorship was not only common but also allowed communities to continue to be affected by violence. Apathy was equally terrible. Violence against journalists also included harassment, such as when President Chavez’s Government had annulled the license for Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), the most important television station in that country, and when 23 journalists had been imprisoned in Cuba because of their work. In the United States, a significant number of journalists had been pressured and had gone to prison for refusing to reveal their sources. In view of such situations, much more needed to be done. It was dangerous when expression was suppressed in any part of the world.

MR. FOUKARA, discussing how to cover the United Nations for television, said the Organization could be a treasure trove of information, albeit one that required a road map to tap. Al Jazeera, his television station, had a “reputation that preceded us”, leading people to approach him with trepidation. The United Nations had paid much attention over the past 50 years on that part of the world where his audience was concentrated.

As he continued to cover the United Nations, he said development issues became of increasing interest to himself and Al Jazeera. But conveying the story presented a challenge. Although the information was available, how could it be put to use in a visual medium? Without the picture to illustrate the story, even “the most amazing information from the most amazing source” was of no use to television. In the last four years, the United Nations had been grappling with that issue, and had begun providing video images of Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other places. But it had a long way to go.

He said being at the United Nations was both a blessing and a curse. There was a plethora of sources to tap, both on and off the record, and journalists did not have to travel far to tap those sources or to verify the information they gave. But he had also encountered some censorship by people who wanted “to control the flow of information”. Some United Nations officials in high places, for example, were not willing to part with information except to a select few.

He remarked that the United Nations had always spoken with multiple voices about the plight of journalists. As an Arab journalist working for an Arab media outlet, he felt the Security Council resolution denouncing the killing of a Lebanese journalist had been a milestone. However, it was disconcerting to know that the Security Council only moved to denounce that killing because the “big powers” had had a vested interest in Lebanon and in making that denouncement. Such resolutions would be of greater moral magnitude if the Security Council were to act every time a journalist was harmed, such as with Alan Johnston and others, rather than produce resolutions tied to one particular journalist or instance.

Mr. FRIEDMAN said that the Committee to Protect Journalists, upon its twenty-fifth anniversary, had taken a look back and found that the vast majority of journalists killed had been local journalists, and not high-profile ones. Most of the deaths had been related to local grudges, often involved drug lords or some kind of clandestine criminal activities, and perpetrators who feared exposure by the press. The way to deal with that was by attacking impunity, as UNESCO was doing. Because criminals knew they would not be prosecuted for killing or kidnapping journalists, they did it with impunity. That must be attacked on the legal level, and Governments had to spearhead that.

He emphasized that the people who really suffered from a lack of free press were the journalists working in remote areas, and not in the capitals. Advertising could be curtailed, or extremely high fines could be imposed on newspaper publishers who stepped out of line as far as a Government was concerned. In Ethiopia, for example, a fine of $20,000 or $30,000 could put a newspaper out of business. The fear such action engendered caused a great deal of self-censorship. There was also the problem of criminal libel. However, if a Government did not have a means of disseminating accurate information, journalists were likely to make mistakes and could then be guilty of criminal libel. It was a “catch-22”.

Uncertainty was another unstable area for journalists, he said. A clever step taken by the Bush administration was to make the accreditation system for journalists in Iraq horrendous, especially for local Iraqi journalists. The system was very complicated or non-existent. As a result, if an American soldier encountered a young Iraqi worker claiming to be working for Reuters or The New York Times, the Iraqi could be arrested or even shot because of a lack of an adequate way for him to prove his employment. Thus, the United Nations, wherever it operated, should have a very clear system of media accreditation and make available access to transportation for journalists, such as the use of United Nations airplanes.

Ms. ZHANG explained that she was a freelance journalist who had recently “stepped into the vast world of journalism”. She believed strongly in the Organization’s legacy, which in the context of today’s discussion was freedom of the press. Although everyone’s remarks had concentrated on that theme and the responsibility of others to ensure journalists’ freedom and safety, she said that perhaps mainstream media, the journalists themselves, especially young journalists, should censor themselves in terms of the stories they told. They should explore stories that had more influence on the diverse societies that made up the modern world.

In March, she said, she had been assigned by the United Nations Chronicle to cover young underprivileged girls from Arica, Nepal and Thailand on such issues as child labour, HIV/AIDS, underage prostitution and sexual violence against women and girls. Those stories were often underreported. Freedom of press should include issues that truly affected people around the globe, be they the poor or people in conflict-strife areas –- stories that readers would like to know, despite what editors thought might sell. The United Nations should act as an information base for the mainstream media by seeking to make local stories global stories, via state-of-the-art technology.

In the ensuing discussion, participants talked of the difficulty of “selling” United Nations stories, particularly to the American audience; how to make the Organization’s stories more interesting; and how the United Nations could make its experts more accessible to journalists. They also discussed how to make the United Nations “more available for people to see”, on a major television or cable channel, and whether the dearth of United Nations news on American television was due to American domestic policy.

Comments arose about a television station that had used the term “cockroaches” in relation to the Rwanda genocide having been jammed. Participants also exchanged information about programmes to train young journalists to cover United Nations conferences.

A representative from Cuba countered what was said by Mr. Ortiz about journalists in her country, stressing that a journalist must serve his or her community, and the people who had been imprisoned did no such thing. Those individuals were “mercenaries”, as Cuban people themselves called them. They were paid a salary by the United States, and propagated false information on the country, in violation of the Cuban constitution.

In response to the Cuban delegate, Mr. FRIEDMAN commented that it was difficult for journalists to work when they had no ready access to information. He said he preferred to obtain information from the private press rather than the Government. He agreed with the need to prevent the use of inflammatory language, but was unsure where to draw the line. He also said that he believed the United Nations did not seem to understand how the American press worked, which made the work of disseminating information difficult.

Mr. FOUKARA said that many in the Western world viewed the Arab media as very biased, but if they were sitting in the Middle East and looking at the American media for example, specifically how the Bush administration dealt with the invasion in Iraq, they would talk about a conspiracy between the American media and the Bush Administration. In both cases, clearly the media had become part of the problem. He did not have the solution, but as long as journalists were coming to a story from different backgrounds, there would be different interpretations of their respective messages. Journalists should try as hard as they could, despite the many constraints, to be responsible in the way they reported.

He said there was definitely room for that school of journalism that said that the reporters were not the story, and the way they felt about a story should not be part of the story; they should be in the business of reporting the facts. It was inevitable, however, that there would be a bit of personal bias; but then journalists’ emotions would become the story. “I think that’s when we begin to swim in dangerous waters.”

Ms. LEOPOLD indicated that “Mr. Foukara had said it all” on that topic because they basically “grew up together” as journalists. As for whether the United Nations was “dull”, she said, yes, “terribly so”. The Organization was very difficult to cover, just in terms of how it worked and how it was structured. The language needed to change. When officials spoke, they should consider that they were addressing, not just the media, but the whole world. “Gender mainstreaming”, for example, was one of the “stupidest” terms. The “MDGs” did not mean anything to anybody; even if it was spelled out. It sounded like an herb one would put in food. And, what did “stakeholders” mean? That referred to human beings. Her point went to almost every United Nations department. When language like that was used, an issue was being covered up, being papered over.

A delegate from the Sudan said that media professionals were torch bearers and leaders in their own societies and beyond. While they had their rights, they also had their obligations and duties. The international community expected the media to be at the vanguard of world efforts to spread the culture of peace, development, dialogue among civilizations, respect for diversity, and to avoid inflaming passions and incitement to hatred. Today, he saluted the Sudanese photographer from Al Jazeera who had been captured while covering the war in Afghanistan and had flown to Guantánamo, where he had been imprisoned now for more than five years.

A representative of Venezuela said it was the responsibility of journalists to be truthful and timely. Mr. Ortiz had mentioned some false facts. It was not true that the television station in question had been closed after its license had expired. It could continue its service through its signal. The decision taken by the Venezuelan Government had been framed in the Constitution and in communications law. Both of those instruments had been praised as being among the most advanced in the world.

A speaker from Kenya said that without free media, it was difficult for poor countries to access information. However, he raised several pertinent questions, including what one should do when the media abused its own power. When a Government abused its power, it was possible to overthrow it. But when the media did so, what options were there? Also, what do you do when journalists demanded money before writing stories, or when they censored opinion, or when media owners became terrible exploiters of journalists? What do you do when the media believed it must propagate negativity for profit? What do you do when the Western media based in Africa decided that only they could speak for the people of Africa, when they lived in a world of their own and did not mix with the Africans, and when it seemed they were writing about the moon rather than Africa?

In reply to the delegate of Cuba, Mr. ORTIZ said he did not believe the 23 imprisoned journalists served the imperialist cause. As for the situation in Venezuela, he said the news had been brought to the open by members of the Venezuelan press themselves, at a conference held by his organization in Cartagena.

On defining journalism, Mr. FOUKARA said there were as many definitions as there were different audiences. For example, popular television “news shows” that did not heed strict journalistic guidelines were still seen by their audience as such. With each new trend in communications, there were always predictions that traditional media would meet their demise. “Video killed the radio star,” were the words to one song. But radio not only survived, but remained a powerful tool in American culture. What applied to radio would seem to apply to the Internet, which in some minds threatened to eclipse television and print news.

Turning to the issue of development and free press, Mr. FRIEDMAN said a mature press took time to grow, much like people. Developing countries must trust the market to favour respectable members of the press, and learn to embrace the concept of a “free press”.

Regarding online journalism, Ms. ZHANG said she thought it was a useful way to start a conversation and to learn about new issues. For that reason, it was a valuable resource, and people should be taught how to use it for those purposes. Also, news was circulated rather fast online, which was another benefit, and helped bridge geographic distance.

As for the press in Sudan, Ms. LEOPOLD said she thought the country had an enormous number of good writers. Turning to another topic, she stressed that United Nations press conferences were not seminars, yet some attendees insisted on giving speeches and offering their opinions on what the United Nations should or should not do, which “bothered” her.

The Kenyan representative took the floor again to clarify that he had begun his career as a journalist and had experienced being in detention. It was fine for the press to act as a platform to criticize society and help society rejuvenate and advance. But a press that did not, or could not, subject itself to criticism or engage in self-criticism could not be called “free”. “To criticize the press, you need the press” -- a press that was truly free.

To that, Mr. FRIEDMAN replied that what Kenya needed was, possibly, a press criticism journal.

One participant asked how the media could promote better understanding of issues. Another commented on the low public opinion of the United Nations, and asked how civil society groups could frame the Organization’s positive results to transmit to their communities.

To that, Ms. LEOPOLD remarked, “The UN needs you more than you need the UN”. She urged the United Nations to speak in “plain language”, such as on climate change, for example, and at the same time urged participants not only to dwell on the positives. They should not shy away from the problems.

Mr. FRIEDMAN added that news was “something interesting”, something that people wanted to read, and might not necessarily be positive.

Concluding the discussion, Under-Secretary-General AKASAKA thanked participants for their comments and questions, saying that he would pay heed to the calls to combat impunity and strengthen the rule of law, the need to combat silence about harassment against journalists, the importance of visual media in relaying the United Nations message and the importance of removing the threats and obstacles to journalism, particularly in high-risk areas. The United Nations and non-governmental organizations would strive to make information available to those that needed it, while making sure to strengthen the accreditation system to protect journalists.



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