A free press can dispel racist attitudes and promote tolerance, UN panel told

A free press can dispel racist attitudes and promote tolerance, UN panel told

The role of free press in combating racism by dispelling stereotypes and casting a harsh light on the evils of discrimination emerged as a major theme today at a panel discussion that brought together United Nations officials and media practitioners to mark World Press Freedom Day.

"In this year of the World Conference on Racism, it is important to appreciate the role that a free and vibrant press can play in bringing the horror of racism to light, and inspiring people the world over to act on behalf of victims of racism, discrimination and bigotry of every kind," Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the panel at UN Headquarters in New York.

Mr. Annan paid tribute to journalists who tell the story of injustice and discrimination at great personal risk, and called for efforts to protect them. "Where their rights are denied, no one can be free; where their voices are silenced, no one can rely on being heard," he said.

The President of the General Assembly, Harri Holkeri of Finland, said that the right to free expression should not be interpreted as the freedom to incite racial hatred, discrimination or violence. "On the other hand, our efforts to combat racism, xenophobia and related intolerance must strike a balance with the need to protect freedom of expression," he said, adding that hate speech was best countered not by censorship but by fostering free access to information which exposed racist ideas for what they were.

"In the fight against racism, our best weapon is education that fosters tolerance and an understanding of our differences," Mr. Holkeri said, observing that the news media had a role to play in promoting a culture of tolerance and a better understanding of the evils of racism.

The Chairman of the UN Committee on Information, Milos Alcalay of Venezuela, joined others in highlighting the value of a free press in combating racism. He cited the successes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who showed that "freedom of expression is the right way for people to fight for justice." Journalists must also play a role in raising public awareness and promoting a culture of peace, he added.

The Deputy Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Marcio Barbosa, expressed concern about the recent upsurge in "the worst form of censorship -- physical violence against journalists." Intimidation, kidnapping, imprisonment, torture and murder of journalists were much too common, with more than 750 having died in the line of duty since 1985. "This is absolutely unacceptable and cannot be tolerated by the international community," he said.