Press Releases

    OBV/477
    PI/1649
    4 May 2005

    World Peace Freedom Day Seminar Examines Role of News Media in Promoting Tolerance

    Effects of “Hate” Media Considered; "Ten Stories World Should Hear More About" Introduced

    NEW YORK, 3 May (UN Headquarters) -- Recognizing and avoiding soft prejudices and stereotypes, being wary of using national filters to the exclusion of international and foreign perspectives, and encouraging critical reasoning on concepts of “otherness” were among the methods to promote tolerance cited by participants in this morning’s seminar on “Fanning the Flame of Tolerance:  The Role of the Media”.

     The seminar, the third in a series by the Department of Public Information on “Unlearning Intolerance”, was organized on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, and aimed to consider the effects of “hate” media and to discuss how the media could educate people through reporting and confronting manifestations of intolerance around the world.  Its programme included a message by the United Nations Secretary-General, and the introduction of the “Ten Stories the World Should Hear More About” for 2005.

    Opening the seminar, Ramu Damodaran, Chief of the Civil Society Service, Outreach Division, United Nations Department of Public Information, read out a message by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which stressed that, while journalists continued to work on the front lines of history, many continued to be persecuted, attacked, imprisoned and murdered for their work.  In 2004, 56 journalists had been killed in the line of duty, another 19 remained missing and feared dead, and some 124 had been imprisoned.

    World Press Freedom Day should serve as an occasion to pay tribute to those that had fallen, and to reflect upon the role of the media, in general, he continued.  Press freedom would continue to play a central role in enlarging freedom for all, and today should be the occasion to reaffirm that essential human right, and collectively to pursue its realization.

    In presenting the annual list of underreported stories, Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, cited:  Somalia and progress towards a fragile peace; obstetric fistulas; the humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda; disarmament of former combatants in Sierra Leone; growth in the number of human rights institutions; farming in the dark; Grenada’s struggle to recover from Hurricane Ivan; violence against women; curbing illicit drugs through crop substitution; and the need for environmental preservation to safeguard potential cures for infectious diseases.

    During the panel discussion, which included an interactive dialogue among panellists and the audience, Ghida Fakhry, New York Bureau Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, drew attention to the difficulty of delineating softer, more benign, yet pernicious forms of hate speech.  In giving an impression of fairness, the media also proffered subliminal messages that promoted stigma and made people more prone to intolerance.  For example, since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, the word terrorism had been used to describe many things, although the United Nations continued to struggle to define that phenomenon.  Furthermore, the word “Islamist” had become almost synonymous with “terrorist”.  Tolerance grew out of knowledge, and the media had a responsibility to promote better understanding on both sides.

    Erol Avodvic, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for Deutsche Welle, Bosnian Radio and Television, and the Vjesnik daily, said the Balkan wars of the 1990s had illustrated the capacity of some journalists to light the flame of war.  The State-run media of Serbia had excelled in demonizing the other, while the independent media had been charged as traitors and external agents.  It was essential that the alarm about similar phenomena in other societies be sounded immediately.  All journalists should ask themselves whether they were peacemakers or warriors, whether they were part of the solution or of the problem.  Fine journalism must equip people to think, not prevent them from doing so.  A tolerant journalist should build a ground for his audience to question his findings.

    For his part, Alfonso Armada, United Nations and New York Correspondent of the Spanish News Daily ABC of Madrid, said that the impression left by the conflicts in the Balkans and Great Lakes regions was that, despite media portrayals of the terrible things that happened, the reaction from those countries that could have done something to prevent such horrors had always come too late.  With so many conflicts occurring at the same time, there was a feeling that nothing could be done; still journalists retained the belief that trying to write about forgotten stories could make a difference.

    Overall, pluralism should eventually overtake mere tolerance, stressed Mihnea Ioan Motoc (Romania), Chair of the United Nations Committee on Information.  The aim should be to acknowledge the intellectual or cultural “otherness” of those who had different opinions.  In that effort, the journalists and societies of Eastern Europe could play a catalytic role; caught between North and South -- between the developed and developing worlds -- they could promote reform, which was so important to the Organization today.

    Acting as discussants for the seminar were James Wurst, President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), and Suzanne Bilello, Interim Director of the New York office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

    World Press Freedom Day is part of the annual session of the Committee on Information, which makes recommendations to the General Assembly on the policy and activities of the United Nations Department of Public Information.

    Background

    The Department of Public Information (DPI)’s series on “Unlearning Intolerance” continued today with a seminar on “Fanning the Flame of Tolerance:  The Role of the Media”, organized on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.

    The third in a series of programmes aimed at examining manifestations of intolerance and exploring ways to promote respect and understanding among peoples, today’s seminar will consider ways to counter the effects of “hate” media and how the media could educate people through reporting and confronting manifestations of intolerance around the world.

    The seminar, which is to be chaired by the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Shashi Tharoor, will include presentations by four panellists:  Mihnea Ioan Motoc (Romania), Chair of the United Nations Committee on Information; Erol Avdovic, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for Deutsche Welle, Bosnian Radio and Television, and the Vjesnik daily; Alfonso Armada, United Nations and New York correspondent for Spanish Daily News ABC of Madrid; and Ghida Fakhry, New York Bureau Chief for Asharq Al-Awsat.  A general discussion will follow those presentations.  Furthermore, the annual list of “Ten Stories the World Should Hear More About” will be released during the seminar.

    Statement by UN Secretary-General

    Opening today’s commemoration of World Press Freedom Day on behalf of Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Shashi Tharoor, RAMU DAMODARAN, Chief, Civil Society Service, Outreach Division, DPI, paid tribute to Yasunori Fukuda of Kyodo News of Japan, who had passed away on Saturday last.

    Mr. Fukuda had been a member of the United Nations generation, a member of the press corps who had grown up with the Organization, and who had converted his knowledge into first-hand reporting on the United Nations and the concerns that it addressed.

    Subsequently, Mr. Damodaran read out the message of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.  That statement noted that journalists continued to work on the frontlines of history, unravelling the tangle of events, giving them shape, and giving the people of the world a narrative sense of their lives.  Yet, many journalists continued to be persecuted, attacked, imprisoned and murdered for their work.  In 2004, 56 journalists had been killed in the line of duty, another 19 remained missing and feared dead, and some 124 had been imprisoned.

    World Press Freedom Day, therefore, constituted an occasion to pay tribute to those that had fallen victim to the perils of their calling, as well as to reflect upon the role of the media in general.  The United Nations Department of Public Information had organized a seminar to focus on “hate media”.  In Rwanda, in Côte d’Ivoire, and in other places, the world had seen fanatical groups fill airwaves and television screens with incendiary messages designed to incite.  The seminar would examine how the media could protect against fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia, to promote tolerance and understanding.  Press freedom would continue to play a central role in enlarging freedom for all, and today should be an occasion to reaffirm this essential human right, and to pursue its realization.

    Panel Statements

    MIHNEA IOAN MOTOC (Romania), Chair of the United Nations Committee on Information, said the Committee on Information had focused recent efforts on ways to expose, excise and unlearn all forms of intolerance.  That had direct bearing on the purpose of the United Nations, and should constitute an important component of the Organization’s ongoing transformation process.  Noting that the spiral of violence had begun as a spiral of distorted communication, which had led, in turn, to a breakdown in information, he said that the DPI had covered enormous ground in pushing intolerance into withdrawal through its seminars on unlearning intolerance.

    A wealth of information had been shared, and there had been progress in bringing down enduring prejudices, he noted.  In January, the General Assembly had held a special session to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation oft the Nazi death camps, and world leaders would soon commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, as well as the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations.  However, many challenges continued to confront the freedoms of the press, communication and speech.  There was an ongoing struggle between those forces that viewed globalization as a means to achieve progress, and those who would derail it.  Many sought to play legitimate differences against each other.  Thus, today was a good day to pay tribute to those servants of the press that contributed to managing differences and overcoming them.

    Eventually, he concluded, pluralism should overtake mere tolerance.  The aim should be to acknowledge the intellectual or cultural “otherness” of those who had different opinions.  In particular, he felt that the journalists of Eastern Europe had been able to transform and reinvent themselves, much like the societies to which they belonged.  Those societies, situated between North and South, between the developed and developing world, could serve as a remarkable catalyst for reform, for the word of the day was reform, and the Organization must become more responsive to today’s needs.

    GHIDA FAKHRY, New York Bureau Chief, Asharq Al-Awsat, said she thought it more appropriate to talk about quelling the flame of intolerance rather than fanning the flame of tolerance.  There were hate media with more obvious manifestations, like Rwanda’s Radio Milles Collines, as well as those in the United States and other countries.  It was more difficult to delineate and discuss the forms of hate media that were softer, more benign, but, at the same time, more pernicious, giving an impression of fairness, but also offering subliminal messages that promoted stigma and making people more prone to intolerance.

    She said the media was a very powerful tool that more often than not reflected its audience, but was also a product of the history and political system in which it operated.  In the modern world, media organizations were, first and foremost, commercial entities operating in competitive real-time markets.  The audience frequently had no time to analyse the information disseminated and was exposed to subliminal messages that, when repeated often enough, often caused them to accept certain bigoted notions.

    Regarding terrorism, she said it was seen by Americans as hatred of the United States and its freedoms, while the Arab world saw American reactions to terrorism as meddling in the affairs of other countries and blamed whatever went wrong in the region on the United States agenda.  The focus at the moment was on Iraq.  Terrorism that targeted the United States and the West more generally was the primary concern, as in the recent attacks on tourists in Egypt, while the interests of local Arab populations became a secondary concern in the United States media, as in terror attacks on Saudi nationals.  On the other hand, Arab media covered the United States in the context of the impact that its actions made on the Middle East, reducing the picture to one of the violence of policies.

    Since the 1980s, there had been a decrease in the coverage of international news in the United States, except stories in Israel and now Iraq, she said.  There was a focus on retaining market share, as well as on the shallow and sensational.  Each side seemed to cover the other in terms of what each perceived as threatening or in its own interests.  Since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, the word terrorism was used by everyone to describe just about everything, and yet Member States of the United Nations were still struggling to find a definition of the phenomenon.

    It was the same with the word “Islamist”, which had become almost synonymous with “terrorist”, she said.  In many cases where the word “Islamist” was used, the words “presumed”, “alleged” and “suspected” were often omitted.  The public at large framed the Middle East conflict as being between Arabs and Jews.  Most American media reported the conflict as if those two peoples were mutually exclusive, making it seem incomprehensible that there could actually be Arab Jews.  Tolerance grew out of knowledge, and the media ultimately had an important role in that context, as well as a responsibility to promote better understanding on both sides.

    EROL AVDOVIC, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for Deutsche Welle, Bosnian Radio and Television, and the Vjesnik daily, said he too continued to ask why journalism had colonized the world’s mind, why it dominated thinking, and how it could be better employed.  Asking whether tolerance would prove the magic word to fix the situation, he said that “tolerance” was not merely a fancy word to be used by columnists, nor an ideological mantra belonging exclusively to politicians and technocrats.  Tolerance had not been made a universal law, which was why racism, xenophobia, intolerance and genocide continued to happen.  Instead, tolerance was a struggle, a call for reasoning.  It incorporated an open mindset that enabled individuals to change their minds and hearts when confronted with differences, to confront all evidence.

    Noting that his former editor had suggested that the media had played a key role in provoking the war in Bosnia, he added that, every time there were armed conflicts and death, the media played a destructive role.  There were two aspects of intolerance in that regard: t he first was political, and its objective was to produce hatred to move masses; the second was commercial, and its objective was to create a consuming mind that did not examine whether the information was true or not.  During the 1990s Balkan wars, it had become normal for the media to demonize the other side, and the State-run media in Serbia had been the champion of that effort.  Some journalists had lit the flame of war, while the independent media had been charged as traitors and external agents.  What this taught others was that now was the moment to raise the alarm about similar phenomena in other societies.  The call for reasoning and tolerance could not wait.

    A central problem of intolerance was some people’s inability to accept the truth, he concluded.  Those who controlled the media should not be politicians or politically tied, as that could lead to corruption.  All journalists should ask themselves whether they were peacemakers or warriors, whether they were part of the solution or of the problem.  Fine journalism must equip people to think, not prevent them from doing so; a tolerant journalist should build a ground for his audience to question his findings. Among other tools to improve the journalistic profession, he encouraged further professionalization.  All aspects of class, nationality and civilization should be abandoned, and human rights and core professional and ethical values should be encouraged to confront the challenge.

    ALFONSO ARMADA, United Nations and New York Correspondent of the Spanish News Daily ABC of Madrid, said he had the impression from the conflicts in the Balkans and the Great Lakes that, despite the media portrayals of the terrible things that had happened on those battlegrounds, the reaction from the countries that could have done something to prevent it had always come too late, as in Srebrenica and Rwanda.  That had caused a sceptical reaction because it was almost impossible to be completely objective after seeing events unfold every day, watching them again on television and then seeing how slow was the reaction of the Powers that be.  It seemed that the power of journalists was not successful.

    He said that while on the plane to Rwanda for the Spanish newspaper El Pais, he had asked himself why he was going, perhaps because he had felt he could make a difference to history.  That was part of the everyday struggle of journalists, struggling as they tried to do their job while trying not to become part of the conflict.  It was difficult to do that job when one had a passport and return ticket in one’s pocket while the country’s nationals had to stay behind, often becoming victims.  From Rwanda, one could see that everybody, including the Security Council, was aware of what was going on, but that many had decided that for political and many other reasons nothing was to be done.

    The same thing was happening in much the same way in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, he said.  In trying to find room to explain the history and context of conflicts, sometimes it seemed as if the hate came out of nowhere and that the people involved were devoted to hate, violence and war.  It could be possible to have that impression in the case of Radio Milles Collines.  In the modern era of so many conflicts happening at the same time, there was a feeling at the end of the day that nothing could be done because there was too much happening at the same time.  Still there remained a belief that trying to write something about forgotten places could make a little difference.

    Panel Discussion

    JAMES WURST, President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), acting as a discussant for the panel, first paid tribute to two colleagues who had died in the line of duty in Iraq and Haiti.  He then noted that the panellists had raised definite means by which the media could promote tolerance.  He noted that one was not always dealing with a phenomenon as blatantly obvious as the hate-radio of Rwanda, and it had been recognized that journalists must confront soft prejudices and stereotypes, as well as avoid using the abbreviated story, just because they thought that that was what their bosses wanted.  Critical thinking should include what the journalist did in own mind, as well as what he conveyed to his audience.  Also noting that the Rwanda Tribunal had been the first court to convict an individual for hate-speech, he said it had been recognized that this precedent raised questions of the freedom of speech, and limits thereon.  Many accepted that speech remained free as long as it remained peaceful.

    Regarding the sense of nationalism, it had been noted that national powers often had an important role in shaping hate-speech and intolerance.  He suggested that the way an emerging power treated the media was a good indication of how it would use its power.  And while a national filter was not inherently bad, journalists should be wary of using a national perspective to the exclusion of the international and foreign perspectives.  Finally, he noted that the issue of radio had been raised frequently, and stressed the importance of this medium in poor and less literate societies.

    SUZANNE BILELLO, Interim Director, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Office, New York, said that independent, free and pluralistic media had a crucial role to play in democratic societies.  The UNESCO had a long history in promoting tolerance and professionalizing the media.  Promoting ethics was a major part of its mission around the world.  The UNESCO had brought journalists together around the world in an attempt to prevent the stereotypes found in conflict situations.  It had recently sponsored a workshop for South Asian women journalists aimed at giving a gender perspective to conflicts and prevent stereotypes imbedded in language and society.  Another important topic was diversity, which had been a focus in United States newsrooms for a long time, and which UNESCO was interested in addressing throughout the world.

    Mr. DAMODARAN then posed a question to the panel, and to the audience, on whether the United Nations was doing enough to confront hate-media.  In response, several panellists suggested that was a difficult question to answer.  It was also suggested that there was insufficient public awareness, when criticizing United Nations action, about what entity was being addressed.  Was it the United Nations as an organization or the United Nations as the collective of 191 Member States? 

    One non-governmental participant stressed that the press, in general, knew nothing about what the United Nations was doing, while the public had knowledge only of what the press conveyed to them.  In response, a member of the panel observed that it was often difficult to sell United Nations stories to media outlets, especially television.  Much of the difficulty had to do with what editors felt the audience wanted to hear and see.

    Statement by Under-Secretary-General – 10 Stories

    SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, introduced the stories that should have received more attention, saying there was no attempt on his part to deflect attention from other stories.  There was still a tendency for a narrow range of stories to grab the headlines, but stories flagged at the original launch were now generating a considerable volume of coverage.  The 10 stories had been picked by Yahoo! and had also appeared in the blogosphere.  Brave journalists everywhere continued to report diligently and sometimes in dangerous circumstances on some of them.

    He said the 10 stories were:  Somalia’s steps onto a path to fragile peace; the horrendous problem of obstetric fistula, a tragic blind spot in health care for women; the humanitarian crisis on northern Uganda, a tragedy for which the United Nations had enabled additional focus; the disarming of former combatants in Sierra Leone, the country’s elections and the need for the world to remain committed now that the United Nations was leaving; the growth of human rights institutions, with the emergence of more than 100 in recent years; farming in the dark, set in Cameroon, about the scant chances for small farmers to get a fair price for their produce; Grenada’s struggles to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Ivan, a story forgotten in the wake of the tsunami; behind closed doors, a universally significant story about violence against women; curbing illicit drugs, the United Nations showing the way out of  bondage to drug lords through crop substitution; and saving the environment to preserve potential cures for a loathsome catalogue of infectious diseases.

    Panel Discussion Continued

    The panel was asked what mechanism had been the most helpful in combating hate speech, to which Under-Secretary-General Tharoor responded that any solution, which could address the problem without imposing censorship, was the best.  The question was how the flaming of intolerance could be prevented without imposing controls that did damage themselves.

    Another questioner asked what the United Nations was doing to affect the news agenda, and to increase coverage for underreported areas of the world, to which one panellist stressed the economic imperative at work upon the United States media.  Actual, thought-provoking news did not sell, he said; scandal, war and large-scale natural disasters sold.

    In follow-up, the questioner raised the issue of group-think within the media, reiterating that there seemed to be inertia and a lack of self-censoring that acted against the media’s challenging of government handouts.  Among the points raised by panellists in response to that comment was agreement that individual journalists had the responsibility to confront media companies’ foci, and that they must ask who assembled and controlled the news agenda, and then try to influence the editors and media heads to buy or produce alternate stories.  Moreover, those with the responsibility to get their organization’s message out should work more with the media to facilitate their access to those stories.

    The final question related to the dominance of the American news agenda, and to how successful the United Nations had been in countering attacks on its image.  Under-Secretary-General Tharoor said that, while some people were fundamentally hostile to the United Nations, and would remain out of reach of the Organization’s message, there were also large sections of the population that had not made up their minds to be hostile to the United Nations.  It was to this audience that the United Nations was directing its attention in conveying its central message.

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