Independence of media stressed as UN observes World Press Freedom Day
Eminent writers and reporters gathered at United Nations Headquarters in New York today to observe World Press Freedom Day, which Secretary-General Kofi Annan said provided an opportunity for everyone to reaffirm their commitment to the independence of the media and ensure that journalists are able to do their vital work in safety and without fear.
"World Press Freedom Day is first and foremost a day on which we remember and pay tribute to journalists who have been killed in the line of duty, or whose reporting has led to their imprisonment or detention," Mr. Annan said in remarks kicking off a day devoted to discussions on the role and responsibilities of the world media in covering global issues.
Drawing on "painful and disturbing" statistics, he said that 36 journalists had been killed in 2003, 17 killed in the first three months of this year alone, and 136 had been jailed by the end of last year. Some of those journalists were deliberately targeted because of what they were reporting or because of their affiliation with a news organization, he added.
A sombre highlight of the programme was a screening of director Jonathan Demme's film "The Agronomist," which tells the story of Haitian journalist Jean Dominique who ran the country's first independent radio station, Radio Haiti-Inter, and became a national hero championing the cause of the poor and powerless. Mr. Dominique's fight for democracy was cut short when he was assassinated in 2000.
Mr. Annan said that although journalists have been resolute in the face of hostility and danger, "the continuing threat to their personal and professional integrity must concern all of us who rely on the media as an agent of free expression, as a defender of human rights, as an instrument of development, and as a means of rousing the world's conscience."
This year, World Press Freedom Day is also focusing on the "very contentious issue of what gets reported and what doesn't," Mr. Annan said. "Just as it should not take the collapse of a state for the international community to act, so it should not take a full-fledged crisis to attract the media spotlight. We should not, by our action or inaction, by what we report or do not, send a message - especially to those countries and people in need who struggle along in good faith - that only widespread bloodshed or total dysfunction will get them attention and help."
In that context, Shashi Tharoor, Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, moderated a panel discussion on "Reporting and Under-reporting: Who Decides?" with participants representing the media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations.
The panel follows last Friday's release of a list of "Ten Stories the World Should Know More About," that are, as Mr. Tharoor said last week, "compelling stories that, at this point in time, we believe are in need of more media attention."
Along with conflict situations, the list draws attention to the threat of over-fishing, to the plight of AIDS orphans and to a treaty now in the works to promote the rights of persons with disabilities, who now number roughly one out of every ten people on earth.
Opening the daylong programme, Ambassador Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury of Bangladesh, Chairman of the UN Committee on Information, said the world should celebrate freedom of the press because first, it reminded Member States that democracy and development suffered when journalists were too severely constrained. Second, its observation bettered the international community since press freedom was linked to many other equally important rights. And finally, it kept alive the idea that there was still "a long way to go" before press freedom was ensured throughout the world.
Meanwhile, the Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, Bertrand Ramcharan, issued a statement in Geneva stressing that freedom of expression was fundamental for the promotion and protection of all human rights. "The extent to which this freedom is respected or violated is like a barometer, indicating how well countries abide by their human rights obligations in general," he said.
"On this World Press Freedom Day," he said, "we must not only remember those who have fallen and been targeted for doing their job. We must also ensure that although they have been silenced, millions of other voices, dissonant and dissenting as they may be, will continue to be heard to denounce, inform, report, and educate freely."
Video of the event [2hrs]