UN marks World Press Freedom Day with call to action against hate media
Freedom of the press must be safeguarded as a "lifeblood" and "lifeline" for peace, democracy and development, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette told a meeting at UN Headquarters in New York marking the Day, observed on 3 May.
She also called for an end to impunity for those who killed journalists, noting that most of those who died while performing their work were not killed in war but murdered by vested interests.
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. It also included a screening of the video "Media and War Coverage," as well as a panel discussion by working journalists.
In her opening remarks, Ms. Fréchette noted the impact of hate media in Rwanda, Bosnia and Côte d'Ivoire, and welcomed the prosecution of those involved in Rwanda. But, she said, "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."
Recalling the many journalists killed, she said: "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."
She said many were also imprisoned for the same reason, adding: "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."
Noting UN collaboration with the media and NGOs to support objective broadcasting, professional standards and the free exchange of information, she said: "We need more such partnerships, and we need to sustain them over the long term. I hope all of you will forge strong links with your colleagues around the world in pursuit of this shared objective."
The Chairman of the UN Committee on Information, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury of Bangladesh, said the Day had come to symbolize his panel’s firm commitment not only to the promotion of freedom of press, but also to the freedom of peoples everywhere to voice their opinion without fear or duress.
It was an incontrovertible axiom that no society could be totally free without a free press, he said. It was only through a free press that it was possible to hear the voice of the weak and the small. A free press and hunger were incompatible. Indeed, it was accepted wisdom now that a free press was a fundamental prerequisite for development.
Among the speakers at the panel discussion, the president of the UN Correspondents Association, Tony Jenkins of Portugal's Expresso, said that most of the media in the United States had been "a faithful echo chamber to the White House" in the coverage of the war in Iraq. "Like all rights, if you do not use the freedom of the press to its full, it will wither and I fear that is what is happening in the country as dissenters to the government line are forced to shut up, drowned out by the chorus of voices accusing them of being unpatriotic or traitors."
Other panellists included Joy DiBenedetto of CNN, Bernard Estrade of Agence France-Presse (AFP), Abderrahim Foukara of Al-Jazeera and Khalid Hasan of the Daily Times of Lahore, Pakistan.
Meanwhile, in a message to mark the Day, the Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Koïchiro Matsuura said: "At the very least, we must declare war on impunity. I therefore appeal to all governments, at all levels, to fulfil their responsibility to ensure that crimes against journalists do not go unpunished."
Mr. Matsuura is attending the opening session in Jamaica of the International Conference on Freedom of Expression, where he will award the Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, the UNESCO/ Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. Ms. Hass has been filing reports about the Palestinians’ daily hardships for the newspaper Ha’aretz despite restrictions from Israeli military and Palestinian authorities.
For his part, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello pledged to make the defence of press freedom, which is a fundamental human right, one of his priorities and to ensure that any violations of this right be addressed at the highest of level.