Protecting media in fight against terror focus of UN observance of press freedom day
The need to protect world press freedom in the context of the global fight against terrorism was the subject of a probing exchange of views this morning, as high-level United Nations officials and senior representatives of world media met in New York to observe World Press Freedom Day.
"Terrorism can not be fought successfully without news media that are free to inquire into the causes of terrorism, and the political and social conditions in which it thrives," UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette said in her opening remarks at a special event that was webcast live on the Internet. The observance, which was organized by the UN Department of Public information (DPI), took place in the context of the meetings of the Committee on Information, a standing body of the UN General Assembly responsible for a broad range of issues related to communications.
Noting the case of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent killed earlier this year in Pakistan, she said, "others may fall victim, as many have in the past, to acts of repression or restriction applied by states in the name of counter terrorism." Echoing concern voiced by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, she stressed that while clearly measures were needed to protect against terrorism, counter-terrorism must not "become an all-embracing concept that is used to cloak, or justify, violations of human rights."
"What I'm sure we can all agree on is that, in protecting our security, we must not risk damaging fundamental freedoms - and that one of the most fundamental freedoms is freedom of the press," she added.
The kidnapping and murder of Mr. Pearl was "emblematic of the heightened risk as well as the increased responsibility that has devolved upon members of the press in this new age of global terror," said Shashi Tharoor, Interim Head of DPI, who moderated the discussion.
Journalists, "the eyes and the conscience of the world," must be championed as they faced the paralyzing effects of the war on terrorism, stressed Milos Alcalay, chairman of the Committee on Information. "It is our responsibility to defend truth of information," he said.
Speaking on behalf of UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Director of the agency's Bureau of Public Information Michel Barton, said that media professionals "are being intimidated, imprisoned, held for ransom and assassinated in growing numbers in a growing number of countries around the world."
In a videotaped interview shown to participants, Mariane Pearl, the wife of Daniel Pearl, said "journalists used to think that because they were journalists nobody would touch them" - obviously that was no longer true. Terrorists should not be allowed to win - in the sense that "if we don't go anymore they've won," she stressed.
Among other panellists, Hafez Al-Mirzai, Washington Bureau Chief of the Al-Jazeera television network, noted that while the definition of press freedom was clearly set out in the UN Charter, the definition of terrorism was not. "That unfortunately leaves the door open for anyone who would like to restrict the media under the name of fighting terrorism." For her part, Judith Miller, senior writer for The New York Times, stressed that while journalism should seek to investigate the root causes of terror, "our journalism should never seek to defend or justify what is done in their name."
World Press Freedom Day this year was devoted to the theme of "Covering the War on Global Terror." Celebrated on 3 May, the event was established in 1993. The General Assembly's decision to declare World Press Freedom Day stemmed from the 1991 UNESCO General Conference resolution on promotion of press freedom in the world, which recognized that a free, pluralistic and independent press was an essential component of any democratic society.