5 May 2003
Independent Press Lifeblood of Strong, Functioning Societies, Says Secretary-General on World Press Freedom Day
NEW YORK, 2 May (UN Headquarters) -- Following is Secretary-General Kofi Annan's message on World Press Freedom Day, which was observed at Headquarters, 2 May:
On World Press Freedom Day, we reaffirm the right of the press to do its job. Unless ideas and information can travel freely, both within frontiers and across them, peace will remain that much more elusive. Where censorship is imposed, both democracy and development are the losers. A free and independent press is the lifeblood of strong, functioning societies, and a lifeline to progress itself.
World Press Freedom Day is also an occasion to remember the many journalists who lose their lives while pursuing their mission. Uppermost in many of our minds just now must be the 14 killed -- and two still missing -- in the war in Iraq. We do not yet know -- perhaps we never will -- the exact circumstances of all those deaths. What we do know, thanks to the Committee to Protect Journalists, is that as dangerous as war can be for those covering it, most journalists who die in the line of duty around the world are murdered -- deliberately targeted, as individuals, for exposing corruption or abuses of power; for opposing entrenched interests, legal or illegal; in short, for doing their jobs. Journalists are also imprisoned for the same reasons -- 136 at the end of 2002, according to the Committee. Many hundreds more face harassment, intimidation and physical assault. Quite apart from the individual tragedies involved, such acts can have a chilling effect on society at large -- stifling dissent and debate. Such attacks must not be tolerated. Their perpetrators must be brought to justice.
This year, World Press Freedom Day comes at a moment when the press is reckoning with the complexities of its role in armed conflict, and trying to address the professional practices, as well as ethical norms, that should guide media coverage of war, and their continuing responsibilities during the aftermath of conflict.
Journalism always involves difficult choices, but wartime raises the level of intensity, leading you into a veritable minefield of issues: objectivity versus propaganda; scepticism versus chauvinism; big-picture context versus single-dramatic images; the struggle by reporters to balance the need for objectivity with the benefits of access from being "embedded" with troops; the need to convey the impact of conflict, particularly on civilians, without displaying images of death and suffering that are an affront to human dignity; and whether saturation coverage actually ends up diminishing our capacity to feel, to care, and to act.
One issue that particularly troubles us here at the United Nations is that of selectivity: why, we ask, do some issues and situations attract coverage, while others of seemingly equal importance fail to achieve critical mass?
There are no simple answers to such questions. As we continue grappling with them, I would also like to use this World Press Freedom Day to call for action on at least one major issue where we should all be able to agree: hate media. In Rwanda, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the world saw genocide and crimes against humanity triggered in part by nationalistic and ethnocentric hate campaigns, propagated through the mass media. More recently, in Côte d'Ivoire, many media outlets began to use what were widely regarded as xenophobic messages, political manipulation, unsubstantiated claims, and incitement to violence against individuals and groups, especially of specific foreign origin. The situation has eased somewhat, but the world saw again that the misuse of information can have deadly consequences.
The prosecution by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda of the principals involved in the promotion of genocide by Radio-Télévision Mille Collines is a significant step. But what really matters is that we succeed in preventing such incitement in the future. The best antidote is the development of free and independent media that serve the needs of all parts of society. The United Nations is working closely with media and non-governmental organizations in many countries to support objective broadcasting and other initiatives aimed at promoting professional standards and the free exchange of information. We need more such partnerships, and we need to sustain them over the long term.
The World Summit on the Information Society, the first part of which takes place in Geneva in December, can make an important contribution to the cause of press freedom. The term "Information Society" is an attempt to capture the new contours of our times. Others have called it the digital era, or the information age. Whatever term we use, the society we build must be open and pluralistic -- one in which all people, in all countries, have access to information and knowledge. The media can do more than anyone to help us reach this goal, and bridge the digital divide. And the press can also benefit from the Summit, if it elicits a strong commitment from world leaders to defend media freedom. I hope the press will cover this event with the full energies of the profession.
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