Press Releases

    OBV/209
    PI/1341
    4 May 2001

    UN OBSERVANCE OF WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY FOCUSES ON RELATION BETWEEN RACISM AND PRESS FREEDOM

    NEW YORK, 3 May (UN Headquarters) -- Today’s observance of World Press Freedom Day and its focus on the relationship between racism and press freedom was a reminder that with freedom came responsibility, General Assembly President Harri Holkeri said this morning at the Headquarters observance of World Press Freedom Day.

    The observance, held in connection with the current session of the Committee on Information and organized by the Department of Public Information (DPI), also included a panel discussion. The panel’s theme, "Fighting racism and promoting diversity: the role of the free press", was chosen in light of the upcoming World Conference against Racism, to be held in Durban, South Africa, from 31 August to 7 September.

    Freedom of expression, Mr. Holkeri said, should not be interpreted as the freedom to incite or promote racial hatred, discrimination or violence. At the same time, efforts to combat racism, xenophobia and related intolerance must strike a balance with the need to protect freedom of expression. Hate speech, such as hate sites on the Internet, were best countered not by censorship but by fostering free access to information, which exposed those ideas for what they were.

    Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that freedom of the press ensured that the abuse of every other freedom could be known, challenged and even defeated. It was important to appreciate the role that a free and vibrant press could play in bringing the horror of racism to light, and inspiring people to act on behalf of victims of racism, discrimination and bigotry of every kind. A great debt was owed to the courageous journalists who, in many cases, risked careers and lives to tell the story of injustice and discrimination.

    The Deputy Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Marcio Barbosa, said the Day symbolized the commitment of the international community to defend and promote the fundamental human right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. The most disturbing recent phenomenon was the upsurge in the worst form of censorship -– physical violence against journalists. Intimidation, kidnapping, imprisonment, torture and murder of journalists were much too common. The fact that more than 750 journalists had died in the line of duty since 1985 was unacceptable and could not be tolerated by the international community.

    Shashi Tharoor, Interim Head of the Department of Public Information, said the establishment of an independent press was essential to the maintenance of democracy. The press must use its freedom to awaken dormant consciences and sometimes to challenge the established order. It was ultimately the best guardian of liberty, change and progress. There was no development without democracy, and no democracy without freedom.

    The Chairman of the Committee on Information, Milos Alcalay, agreed that a free, pluralistic and independent press was fundamental for a democratic society. The best weapons against racism and hegemony were freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The international community had the means to transform words into acts. Everyone must work together to achieve freedom and solidarity, which could only be done with a free press.

    In the discussion that followed, moderated by Mr. Tharoor, the panelists were: Justin Arenstein, Editor of the African Eye News Service of South Africa; Ana Baron, Bureau Chief of Clarin of Argentina; Ghida Fakhry, Bureau Chief of Al-Jazeera TV of Qatar; Frances Hardin, Member of the Board of Directors of the International Center for Journalists; and James Ottaway, Chairman of the World Press Freedom Committee.

    Background

    This morning, a formal observance of World Press Freedom Day, co-sponsored by the Department of Public Information and the International Center for Journalists, is taking place at Headquarters.

    The General Assembly in 1993 declared 3 May as World Press Freedom Day (decision 48/432 of 20 December). That action stemmed from the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which, by a 1991 resolution on "Promotion of press freedom in the world", had recognized that a free, pluralistic and independent press was an essential component of any democratic society. The General Conference had transmitted to the General Assembly the wish of UNESCO member States to have 3 May declared "International Press Freedom Day".

    That date commemorates the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press, adopted on 3 May 1991 by the Seminar on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press, organized by UNESCO and the United Nations in Windhoek, Namibia.

    Statements

    SHASHI THAROOR, Interim Head of the Department of Public Information, said the year marked the tenth anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, and a celebration to commemorate World Press Freedom Day was also taking place in Namibia. The establishment of an independent press was essential to the maintenance of democracy. In the spirit of the Declaration, and in support of the upcoming World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance to take place in Durban, South Africa, in September, the theme, "Fighting racism and promoting diversity: the role of the free press" had been chosen. The press must use its freedom to awaken dormant consciences and sometimes to challenge the established order. It was ultimately the best guardian of liberty, change and progress. There was no development without democracy, and no democracy without freedom. In the panel discussion to follow, the role of the media in confronting racism would be addressed.

    Secretary-General KOFI ANNAN said that World Press Freedom Day was a day for every citizen of the world to reflect on the value of a free press and its importance to every other freedom. Freedom of the press ensured that the abuse of every other freedom could be known, challenged and even defeated. Where a free press was imperilled, muzzled or banned altogether, every other freedom was limited too, and democracy itself threatened. That was why the fight for a free press was a priority for the United Nations and a central part of its larger mission to promote better standards of life in larger freedom.

    In the year of the World Conference against Racism, it was important to appreciate the role that a free and vibrant press could play in bringing the horror of racism to light, and inspiring people to act on behalf of victims of racism, discrimination and bigotry of every kind, he said. While the danger of the mass media spreading false and ugly stereotypes must be recognized, the solution lay in an ever-livelier debate in which racist ideas could be defeated. A great debt was owed to the courageous journalists who, in many cases, risked careers and lives to tell the story of injustice and discrimination.

    This year also marked the tenth anniversary of the historic Windhoek conference, which gave birth to World Press Freedom Day, he said. The legacy of Windhoek continued to inspire work for press freedom around the world. In particular, Windhoek’s acknowledgement of the role of a free press in the maintenance of democracy and promotion of development had made it far more difficult for those who wished to treat freedom of the press as a luxury of development, rather than a condition of democracy. In Africa, a free press could act as the voice of the people against tyranny and oppression, and could serve as the essential link between the government and the governed.

    Efforts must be redoubled to help those journalists and newspapers whose only crime had been to tell the truth, he said. Journalists were needed more than ever to help fight racism, to heighten awareness of the scourge of HIV/AIDS, to secure democracy and to promote development. Where their rights were denied, no one could be free, where their voices were silenced, no one could rely on being heard.

    HARRI HOLKERI, President of the General Assembly, said that freedom of the press and the free flow of information and ideas were powerful ways to combat racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. Societies that inhibited freedom of expression also inhibited the full enjoyment of human rights and fostered intolerance. Yet, even when freedom of the press was guaranteed, it did not guarantee that incidents of racism, discrimination and xenophobic behaviour would not occur. Indeed, it was a sad commentary on the world today that not only were such incidents on the rise but they were manifesting in terrible outbreaks of ethnic cleansing, genocide and other crimes against humanity.

    "Today’s observance of World Press Freedom Day and its focus on the relationship between racism and press freedom reminds us that with freedom comes responsibility", he stated. Freedom of expression should not be interpreted as the freedom to incite or promote racial hatred, discrimination or violence. On the other hand, efforts to combat racism, xenophobia and related intolerance must strike a balance with the need to protect freedom of expression. Hate speech, such as hate sites on the Internet, were best countered not by censorship but by fostering free access to information, which exposed those ideas as being racist, or as inciting violence, hostility and discrimination.

    In the fight against racism, he said, the best weapon was education that fostered tolerance and an understanding of differences. In that connection, the media could have an enormous influence. The media had an obligation to make a positive contribution to the fight against racism. That could be as simple as ensuring that in the media racist terms or derogatory stereotypes were not used and that there were no unnecessary references to a person’s race, religion or related attributes.

    Combating racism was not only a matter of ending ignorance and fear of differences, he noted. However, education and understanding could go a long way towards fostering a more tolerant and discrimination-free society. In that regard, the news media had an important role to play, as society relied on it to bring acts of racism or discrimination to the public’s attention and to report factually on them, to give all groups and communities a chance to be heard, and to promote a culture of intolerance and a better understanding of the evil of racism.

    MILOS ALCALAY, Chairman of the Committee on Information, said that since the Assembly proclaimed World Press Freedom Day in 1993, the Committee had devoted an annual day every year to stress its commitment to its commemoration. The Secretary-General’s presence at today’s commemoration showed the important recognition given by the Committee to a free, pluralistic and independent press, a fundamental condition for a democratic society.

    Freedom of expression and freedom of the press were essential for fighting racism, he said. Freedom of expression was the right way for people to fight for justice and the best instrument to free minorities, as seen in the civil rights movement. The best weapon against racism and hegemony were also freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The free press played a crucial role in bringing news about injustices during the Second World War, the civil rights movement and apartheid to the world. It was crucial to fight injustice and poverty. The high level of illiteracy and the lack of infrastructure were not going to help the international community fulfil the proposals of the Millennium Assembly. The commitments to achieve the overall development of society must be met.

    The international community had the means to transform words into acts, he said. Everyone must work together to achieve freedom and solidarity, which could only be done with a free press. "Long live the free press and its fight against racism and intolerance."

    MARCIO BARBOSA, Deputy Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said the Day symbolized the commitment of the international community to defend and promote a fundamental human right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers. Ten years ago, participants from 35 African countries met in Windhoek, Namibia, at what became a series of five regional seminars on press freedom, media interdependence and pluralism. At the first seminar, organized by UNESCO, the

    Department of Public Information and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the idea of World Press Freedom Day was launched.

    The Director-General of UNESCO, who was currently hosting the tenth anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration in Namibia, had just awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize to the imprisoned Myanmar editor, U Win Tin, he said.

    The Day was special because it symbolized the long way that UNESCO had come since the mid-1980s, when the subject of information and communication was at the centre of controversial debate within the context of the cold war, he said. Ten years later, there were many reasons to rejoice. Since that time, thousands of independent newspapers, radio stations and television channels had emerged. There had also been the liberalization of media laws and airwaves and the growing accessibility of the Internet throughout the world. All that had helped to involve grass-roots communities in democratic governance and mainstream development processes.

    The end of the cold war and the wave of democratiziation across the world had created favourable conditions for a freer and more pluralistic press, he said. However, the age-long tradition of censorship was still very much alive. Paradoxically, cases of censorship, for different reasons and at different levels, were reported even in well-established democracies, not to mention countries where democratic practices had yet to take root. In more than 20 nations, press freedom simply did not exist. In 1999, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange Network Clearing House had reported some 1,761 cases of press freedom violations across the world. Last year, that number had increased to around 2032. Since the beginning of 2001, the number had already exceeded 700.

    The most disturbing phenomenon was the upsurge in recent years of the worst form of censorship – physical violence against journalists, he said. Intimidation, kidnapping, imprisonment, torture and murder of journalists were much too common. Since 1985, more than 750 journalists had died in the line of duty. That was unacceptable and could not be tolerated by the international community. He appealed to governments to do everything in their power to make sure that such crimes were punished. Open dialogue was a most effective means to fight intolerance and racism and to promote diversity.

    Mr. THAROOR then drew attention to the joint statement issued by the Secretary-General, the Director-General of UNESCO, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which was available at the back of the room.

    Presentations by Panelists

    JAMES OTTAWAY, Chairman, World Press Freedom Committee, said that a free and independent press could best fight racism and intolerance precisely by being free and independent. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights stated that everyone had the right to freedom of opinion and expression. "We must be careful in our zeal to oppose racism and intolerance not to violate this article." It was stated recently that the free flow of ideas was one of the most powerful ways to combat racism. More speech, not restricting speech, was the best instrument to fight racism and intolerance.

    Freedom of the press must include the freedom to express unpopular ideas and views, he said. Too often the control of hate speech was used as a smokescreen for censorship. The silencing of certain forms of speech was only restricting the freedom of expression. "Do not command the press to do anything or support censorship." There was, of course, a difference between reporting the news and propaganda. It was not difficult to distinguish between those journalists doing their work and those involved in propaganda. The best way for the press to play its role was simply to do its job and to do it accurately.

    FRANCES HARDIN, Member, Board of Directors, International Center for Journalists, said that the Center was founded in 1984 by the former managing editor of the Boston Globe. Its goal was to improve the quality of journalism in nations where there was little or no tradition of journalism. An independent press was a powerful instrument in the fight for freedom and justice. The Center had provided training to over 1,200 journalists from 170 countries and had programmes on fighting racism and protecting the environment, among others. It promoted the exchange of journalists to teach them techniques to improve their reporting skills. Ultimately, however, the courage to report accurately and truthfully came from within.

    GHIDA FAKHRY, Bureau Chief, Al-Jazeera TV, Qatar, said journalists had given up on their questioning role. The shared concept of a free press was a contradiction in terms. While State-controlled media did not have much freedom, reporting in the supposedly free press was affected by certain pressure groups. That was apparent in the misuse of words when describing events or conflicts that were not well known. It was dangerous when journalists used broad terms to describes peoples and situations. Looking at the situation in the Middle East, the choice of words affected the way one looked at the region. In the current conflict, terms such as "extremists" and "terrorists" were always assigned to Arabs. That was when journalism became unfair in its depicting of certain people. Free press must be careful not to use the terms of officials in their reporting. The word "occupation", for example, was often dropped into reporting and did not give the accurate story. In too many instances, one side was not well characterized and terms were used that led to ignorance.

    ANA BARON, Bureau Chief, Clarin, Argentina, said that 15 days ago, in Washington, D.C., she had been invited to a press conference at a prestigious American think tank. The next day, Clarin published her story. When she arrived at her office, she had received a voice mail message from a person telling her that she was a writer of fiction. He told her that he would go after her. She was shocked and invited a friend to hear the message because she could not believe what she had heard. The case was currently under investigation. That would not have happened to an American journalist. Even if it were a small incident, it indicated that the fight for freedom of the press must be continued. In her country, 85 journalists had disappeared during the period of dictatorship. She had had to leave. While the situation had improved, things were not as good as they could be. Freedom of the press was something that must be confronted each day by journalists. It was a subject that must always be discussed.

    JUSTIN ARENSTEIN, Editor, African Eye News Service, South Africa, said that for 300 years racial discrimination had been the cornerstone of the State. Everyone in South Africa had experienced some form of racial discrimination regardless of racial background. Racism in Africa today was result of misunderstandings of complex economic and social conditions on the ground. Very few Western journalists took the time to report contextually on underlying reasons for situations in Africa. The media had failed because of a lack of resources, deadlines and the difficulty in finding credible sources on complex issues.

    The South African media constituted an example of racist reporting, he said. Identification by race was still the norm in the media. Newspapers still gave more editorial space to white victims, and still devouted massive resources to events affecting whites. While it was beginning to change, reportage remained superficial and events driven. Ironically, much of the slanted reportage was the work of young black reporters who were not given proper training. Racism was not only unfair discrimination between whites and blacks but also between tribal groups. Reverse racism was the easy way out. It was too easy for African leaders to use the race card to silence or smear critics. The best guard against racism was to ensure a diverse media. Journalists must commit themselves to giving voice to ordinary people.

    Discussion

    In response to a question on balancing freedom with responsibility, Mr. OTTAWAY said that a greater diversity of voices was the only solution. The alternative was governmental or international regulation or control, which required someone deciding what was good and acceptable. The fundamental problem with press freedom today was outlined by a report published by Freedom House on press freedom in countries all over the world. It noted that press freedom was alive and well in 32 countries, which only represented 20 per cent the world’s population. A diversity of voices was necessary to expose hate speech and racism in every country.

    Ms. FAKHRY said that it was important to look at ways in which issues were represented in the press, particularly the way hate was characterized. Another concern was how the public was allowed to get caught up in rhetoric. The public should be more critical of what was written to really see what lay beneath the story.

    Ms. HARDIN stated that the problem came when countries had only one or two newspapers and there were not enough checks and balances. How could there be press freedom when there was not a range of newspapers to provide a variety of views and opinions?

    Ms. BARON said that the concept of press freedom was two-fold. One was allowing journalists to do their job and the other was providing a variety of viewpoints. The role of journalists was to describe the reality as it was and then comment on that reality. When democracy came to Argentina, journalists became free and it was not an easy process. In beginning, journalists felt that they had to tell everything and play the roles of judge, prosecutor and jury. There was confusion between giving information and judging a situation. Perhaps, journalists could not be totally free to say whatever they wanted.

    Ms. FAKHRY said that there was no harm in using words as long as they were attributed to those who used them and were not used as general terms.

    Mr. ARENSTEIN said that the balance between press freedom and responsibility should not be legislated.

    On the use of references to race, religion or other attributes of those being written about, he asked who would determine whether such references were relevant. The word "fundamental" usually prefixed references to Palestinians in media reports in his country, which were derived from American sources.

    Ms. FAKHRY said that race and religion were very played up in the context of the Middle East. References such as Jews and Arabs could not be compared, as one related to religion while the other to a culture.

    Mr. OTTAWAY said that within American journalistic practices, there was a general rule on not stating a person’s race unless it was relevant to the story itself. If an Arab and Israeli were fighting out on the street, their racial or religious reference was relevant to the story.

    A member of the audience said that there was a lack of coverage in the media on the United Nations and its impact on youth.

    Mr. ARENSTEIN responded by saying that information should be made more accessible. If United Nations programmes impacted people, the United Nations could make that information immediately available to the local media.

    Ms. FAKHRY said that she was constantly trying to sell stories about the United Nations to her editors. Lack of transparency at the United Nations was a problem. Security Council meetings, for example, were worth covering but closed meetings were difficult to cover.

    What was needed, Ms. HARDIN said, was "UN-span" in which viewers could watch constant United Nations coverage without commentary.

    Mr. THAROOR said while that was a good idea, the problem was a lack of resources. The United Nations did offer some live feeds and packages in the evenings.

    Mr. OTTAWAY said the dilemma of the editor was, were readers interested in the story? In the United States, editors tried to localize international stories for small-town America by showing how the crisis in the Middle East affected gasoline prices. Around the world, most people were not worried about what was being debated at the United Nations but were merely struggling to survive.

    Another member of the audience said the media must uncover the stereotype of class and race and the gap between the rich and the poor –- in other words -- the structure of poverty.

    A member of the audience said racism existed within the Untied Nations. It was a taboo issue. He had tried to be heard on the subject many times but had been prevented from accessing senior officials.

    Mr. THAROOR said the United Nations had no tolerance for racism. If racist incidents occurred, they were dealt with immediately. He would be happy to hear what the audience member had to say at another venue.

    On the issue of bias in the press, a member of the audience said a handful of corporations controlled the major media. What implications did that have on the ability to generate a diversity of voices?

    With regard to the ownership of the media by large corporations, Mr. OTTAWAY said that the number of daily newspapers in America had been declining over the past 50 years. It was basically the economics of publishing that drove them into smaller groups of ownership. At the same time, that had given publishers the responsibility to present as many viewpoints as possible in order to appeal to the whole population. It also changed the character of journalism in trying to be more objective in news coverage. There was a real freedom of speech within the media groups.

    Disagreeing with the notion of greater freedom within such media groups, Ms. FAKHRY said that the same amount of freedom was not given to those writers who had differing or opposing views to those of the group. The financial situation also impacted the number of viewpoints presented.

    Mr. ARENSTEIN said that it was true that funding made life difficult. What should happen was that large corporations should be using local reporters and not someone brought in for a year or two. In South Africa, the media was controlled by four large corporations. While there was massive freedom inside the group for those who got hired, only those who subscribed to the views of the group got hired.

    Ms. BARON said that if one did not have the resources, one could not inform the public. Small newspapers did not receive the same sort of advertising that big newspapers did. Without money, the little voices could not be heard.

    Mr. ARENSTEIN pointed out that if the little voices were credible enough, large corporations would start to take notice. The challenge was to create more diversity within the large corporations. Also, don’t get someone sitting in Washington to write news stories about Palestine or South Africa.

    Before departing the panel, Mr. OTTAWAY noted a recent article by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times on the proliferation of FM radio stations in Ghana. Radio should be promoted in those countries where people could not afford newspapers or other forms of news coverage.

    Asked what freedom the press had if they had to write stories that went along with the editorial views of the newspaper for which they worked, Ms. BARON noted that if one could choose where one worked as a journalist, that was a form of freedom. If there was only one newspaper, then you did not have freedom of the press.

    Mr. ARENSTEIN pointed out that for $10, a person could set up an on-line news service, which could be an alternative if one could not afford to set up a newspaper.

    The International Center for Journalists, noted Ms. HARDIN, provided people with the skills to improve the quality of journalism. Radio was a powerful tool for informing people, since many people could not afford computers or television sets.

    In response to a question on how else to describe bombings, hijackings and other such acts as anything other than "terrorism", Ms. FAKHRY asked why violent acts committed by the Israeli Government were not labeled as what they were.

    With regard to the amount of space given to stories on violence, Ms. HARDIN said that the duty of news organizations was to lead and not follow. They wanted to have stories that were of interest to the people. If there was violence in your community, then certainly it must be reported. Sometimes, however, prominence was given to such stories rather than taking leadership and trying to judge what other stories really interested people. Regardless of what a story was about, if it was well written or well-produced on television, people would be interested in it.

    Ms. BARON noted that most of the news written in her country was bad news, because editors often felt that bad news sold better.

    In response to a question of the use of new technologies, Ms. BARON said that the impact of the Cable News Network (CNN) on journalism had been amazing. It was a complicated problem. CNN set the agenda. If it was on CNN, it was news.

    Mr. ARENSTEIN said that television networks were expanding in Africa. Broadcasters were creating networks. The only way to challenge the official view was through the creation of radio stations. The danger with news was that people relied on handouts. News was not to entertain but to inform.

    A member of the audience said that the problem with freedom of the press was that it had become entertainment.

    Mr. THAROOR said that the amount of foreign news that the average American received today was much less than what their parents might have seen a generation ago. There was a great difference between the amount of international news on CNN domestic and CNN international. It was a matter of real concern.

    Ms. FAKHRY said what was on American TV today reflected a state of "inward-lookingness".

    Ms. HARDIN said the danger was the failure of leadership on the part of news organizations. It was dangerous if Americans did not understand what was going on in the world. That would allow governments to do what it wanted to in international affairs.

    Mr. THAROOR said there was a proliferation of networks and channels. While one could find a story on famine in Chad, the problem was that there was no longer a means to find a large portion of society. They had gone from broadcasting to narrowcasting.

    Ms. BARON said globalization was not opening up society, but closing it down.

    Ms. FAKHRY said that news on international affairs could be found when it had to do with national interest.

    In response to a question on the responsibility of the media to tell the truth, Ms. BARON said that image was the problem. If television portrayed a situation to be a certain way, it was understood to be that way.

    The representative of Chile asked what happened when -- because of diverse economic processes -- all the media ended up in the hands of one political sector?

    In closing, Mr. ARENSTEIN said that the emergence of alternative media, such as smaller publications and pirate radio stations, in addition to the mainstream media, had created another way for different views to be heard. Constitutionally, the South African Government was trying to control cross-ownership of the media.

    Ms. FAKHRY said that the way economics affected the media was similar to the way economics affected politics. The true way to appreciate press freedom was to have greater diversity and more points of view. There was still too much dependency on powerful elites. The challenge for journalists was to survive in a world dependent on and directed by economics. There was room for journalists to remain impartial. If they lost that sense of impartiality, then they should not be in the business.

    Ms. HARDIN said there was a role for governments to prevent monopolistic ownership of news outlets. Like hope, journalism sprang eternal. There would always be other voices to oppose the perceived majority.

    Ms. BARON said that although there were at least two multimedia groups in Argentina, it would be better if there were more. The Internet provided a new media outlet and it was the main source of information for a large part of the population. It would change the means of communicating and circulating information. It would also be a place for the little voices to be heard.

    At the same time, it must be noted, said Mr. THAROOR, that only 5 per cent of the world had access to the Internet and there were more Internet connections in Manhattan than in the entire continent of Africa. The panel had made clear that a free press was seen as the protector of democracy. In the twenty-first century, the free press also needed to work for a world safe for diversity.

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