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Media coverage of human rights issues examined at UN forum

Media coverage of human rights issues examined at UN forum

Quandaries facing news organizations in covering international affairs and the media's impact on public understanding of complex issues on the United Nations agenda were at the centre of a spirited debate today that brought together top UN officials and leading journalists from around the world.

Held under the theme of "News vs. Propaganda: The Gatekeepers' Dilemma," the forum at UN Headquarters in New York took place as part of the annual observance of Human Rights Day, with the UN's top rights official, Mary Robinson, joining the audience via a video link from Geneva.

With the recent UN anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, emerging as a major subject of discussion, Mrs. Robinson noted that the journalists who had followed the Durban preparatory process produced solid coverage of the meeting. On the other hand, she stressed, media outlets that had not put time and resources into preparation tended to "miss the history, in the rush to get the story. " She challenged journalists to engage in the Durban follow-up process and make an effort to "walk the walk of Durban."

Countering some of the criticism of the Durban conference in the media, Mrs. Robinson said many participants believed that the forum had been a success, empowering many people - like the Roma in Europe and the Dalits of India - who had previously been without much of a voice in the international arena.

Drawing attention to another burning issue on the UN agenda - Afghanistan - Lakhdar Brahimi, Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative for the country, welcomed the media attention now given to the suffering of its people. In the past, Afghanistan often suffered from a lack of media interest, said Mr. Brahimi, who was in Paris and also took part in the debate through a satellite link. In contrast, 1,200 international correspondents were covering the UN talks in Bonn on establishing an interim government, he pointed out, adding that media attention helped because it put an international spotlight on the actions of Afghan and other leaders, and obliged them to scrutinize their own behaviour.

This view was echoed by Shashi Tharoor, the head of the UN Department of Public Information, which helped to organize today's event jointly with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. There was no question, he said, that news executives had an impact on the coverage of world events, which helped to shape the opinions of audiences, whether they were in Cairo or Sydney or in a small village in Bangladesh. He also pointed to the inevitable focus by national media on issues of national importance, even at international conferences.

Among media participants, BBC World News Editor Steve Williams spoke about the benefits that media organizations gain through employing a diverse workforce. He cited the example of a Muslim colleague who drew attention to the use of "Islamic" to describe terrorist organizations, although the adjectives "Christian" or "Catholic" were never used to describe the Irish Republic Army - a comment, which led the BBC to change the way it spoke about events in Afghanistan.

For his part, Hafez Al Mirazi of Al Jazeera defended his network's much-criticized decision to air material from Osama bin Laden, pointing out that, in fact, it gave considerably more air time to statements and press conference from US officials. He called for consistency in the application of media ethics, and for attention to balance, rather than to the preferences of host governments.