Secretary-General, at Observance of World Press Freedom Day, Cautions against Attempts to Suppress Internet Access, Stifle Web-Based Journalists

7 May 2009
Meetings CoverageOBV/782
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

World Press Freedom Day


Secretary-General, at observance of world press freedom day, cautions against

attempts to suppress internet access, stifle web-based journalists

Panel on Arab Media Focuses on Potential to Foster Mutual Understanding

Cautioning against increasing attempts to suppress Internet access, stifle Web-based journalism and censor news reporters, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today urged Governments to uphold freedom of opinion and expression for all journalists, bloggers and media professionals, “as a matter of principle, and because a free press is essential for building a better world”.

Opening the United Nations observance of World Press Freedom Day, officially commemorated on 3 May each year, Secretary-General Ban declared that journalists should be able to do their jobs free of intimidation and harassment, and should not be forced to censor themselves out of fear.  “Around the world, men and women continue to report on our world, at times imperilling their lives while seeking the betterment of ours.  As we join together to mark World Press Freedom Day, let us resolve to safeguard their freedom, safety and rights, which benefit us all.”

He welcomed the decision by the Department of Public Information (DPI) to focus on the potential of the media to foster dialogue and mutual understanding, and to hold a panel discussion on Arab media.  “What happens in the Arab world matters to all of us and has valuable lessons for all of us.”

Citing the often mortal risks faced by journalists, and the “terrible frequency” with which they were being jailed –- 45 per cent of all media workers jailed worldwide were bloggers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists -– he called on Governments that had detained journalists to ensure that their rights were fully respected, including the right to appeal and defend themselves against charges.  The Government of Sri Lanka should ensure that those responsible for the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge were found and prosecuted.

A sombre highlight of today’s programme was the reading, by Giampaolo Pioli, President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), of the final editorial by Mr. Wickrematunge, who was posthumously awarded the 2009 UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize on Sunday, during a ceremony held in Doha, capital of Qatar.  The editorial appeared on 8 January 2009, just days after his murder, in the Sunday Leader, the newspaper he founded in 1994.

Mr. Pioli read:  “There is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security.  It is the call of conscience”, and “People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off.  Of course, I know that:  it is inevitable.  But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot.”  He went on:  “If you remember nothing else, remember this:  The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled.  Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed.”

Delivering a message on behalf of Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, President of the General Assembly, Sophia Clark, his Deputy Chef de Cabinet, hailed journalism as a proud profession that demanded vision, precision, courage and compassion.  “The freedom of journalists around the world to report through all available media is the bedrock of modern societies and the lifeblood for informed decision-making, forming enlightened opinions and policymaking.  We must defend this right and, like all rights, extend press freedom at every opportunity.”

That was all the more true when societies were overwhelmed with news and information about the crises facing their families and communities on both the national and international levels, she said, pointing out the irony that, despite the wealth of information available, people were starved for sources they could trust.  Information could guide societies in understanding an increasingly complex world, but to do so, people must trust the news and analysis.  Too often journalism’s sacred trust was broken.  Journalists must develop their own frameworks for more comprehensive and holistic reporting that grappled with the normative, ethical, and political dimensions of the world’s challenges.

In his remarks, Kiyo Akasaka, Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said the observance, proclaimed by the General Assembly in 1993, would not only take stock of the extent to which press freedoms were being respected around the world, but also aim to examine the role of media in promoting dialogue and understanding, and how those themes were playing out in the Arab world, “as an example of how journalists are contributing to these aims and shaping public opinion”.

He said the Department worked every day to further knowledge of the work of the United Nations and the state of the world.  It accredited more than 1,400 journalists each year.  It also conducted training for journalists from around the world, including Palestinians, and worked with media advocacy organizations to ensure that Governments and international organizations lived up to their commitments to press freedom and the protection of journalists.

Following a moment of silence in honour of all journalists who had lost their lives in the line of duty, Helene Gosselin, Director of the New York Liaison Office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), read out a statement on behalf of Koïchiro Matsuura, the agency’s Director-General, stressing that frank, even harsh speech, was a right unless it sought to incite violence and hate.

Strengthening the principles and practices of a free media was the most sustainable guarantee of press freedoms, she said.  “Only a media that is vibrant, pluralistic, editorially free and beyond censorship can contribute to bridging divides.”  All forms of media must value adversity as an opportunity for understanding.  It was important to build the type of media that brought competing narratives into the light.  Indeed, that was not a luxury that could wait for more peaceful times.

Calling journalists a “lifeline for imperilled societies on our planet”, Antonio Pedro Monteiro Lima (Cape Verde), Chairman of the United Nations Committee on Information, said freedom of the press and freedom of opinion were indispensable aspects of an even broader freedom:  that of expression.  By promoting and protecting freedom of the press, the international community was not only promoting the rights of individuals, but also empowering them to take decisions and express opinions about matters affecting their lives.

A free press encouraged democracy and human rights, he said, adding that, the world had, indeed, seen that, in cases where press freedoms were curtailed, other rights suffered.  At the same time, journalists should adhere, especially in the age of the Internet and other new forms of communication, to a code of ethics for their much-respected profession.  They must not trample on the rights or beliefs of others in carrying out their duties.

Opening the panel discussion, Alya Ahmed Al-Thani ( Qatar) highlighted her country’s national policy on press freedom, which had been established in 1995 with the abolition of media controls.  Three years later, the position of the Information Minister had been dissolved and the Government had gone on to create Al Jazeera.  The network had used cutting-edge technology and high professional standards to establish itself as an integral part of the regional and international media.

Qatar had taken further measures to enhance a climate of freedom for the media, including the establishment of a media centre which broadcast journalists’ reports throughout the world, she said.  “Our policy is perhaps quite courageous, but it was a necessity.  We had to ensure that our country became a mainstay of the region’s media to create a society founded on social freedom, prosperity and development.”

Al Jazeera International’s Washington Bureau Chief, Abderrahim Foukara, said that, with the advent of the network some 13 years ago, the geographical compass of the Arab world had changed dramatically.  As a result, people from Morocco to Oman could hold a mirror up to each other’s stories, joyful and mournful alike.  They were no longer distant shadows to each other, but recognized each other through the common glory and shame of the present.  That was the power of satellite television in the Arab world, and Al Jazeera particularly.

Moreover, satellite television allowed people to watch the favourites of other cultures and countries, from CNN and Al Jazeera, he said, going on to ask what happened when the world went to war.  One school of thought contended that the duty of journalists was to report on war, not stave it off.  But journalists had a double-edged power to defuse or ignite conflict as they could saturate the airwaves with deleterious psychobabble or refrain from saying anything, so that politicians could shape the storyline as they wished.  More importantly, journalists could use their intelligence to “shape words so they have wings of their own”.

He said that, as an African and Arab journalist living in the United States, he would like to see a United Nations effort to promote an international forum in which journalists could discuss the impact of their profession on the world.  War had always followed humankind, but journalists should agree on ways to avoid becoming pacemakers in the race to war.  Moreover, they must migrate north and south.

Focusing on press freedoms in the Arab world, Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa Programme for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that, while there were considerable variations in the limits imposed on freedom of expression and the press worldwide, the Arab region was by far the most restrictive.  That was especially true for bloggers, who lacked the relative institutional protections provided to other media.  While they had the advantage of writing, with increasing frequency, about things that traditional journalists would not touch, that freedom often carried a heavy price, including harassment, secret detention, torture and sexual assault.

When bloggers raised the alarm in cases of Government corruption, they were routinely charged with defamation, even when their claims could be substantiated, he said.  In the Middle East, where every single country considered defamation a criminal, rather than a civil, offence, journalists found guilty of that “crime” were not only fined, but often thrown in prison, as well.  As a result, print journalists spent an inordinate amount of time and money fighting charges in court.  Many in the Arab world were hailing recent press-law reforms in the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and the Kurdish Regional Government, but the issue required “a more nuanced approach”.  For example, while the United Arab Emirates had done away with prison terms for defamation, it had instituted fines as high as $1.5 million for vaguely defined offences.

Ebtihal Mubarak, Journalist with the Arab News newspaper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, said more was expected of the media in her country to counter the effects of “a closed society with stagnant political and social development”.  Indeed, the Saudi media acted as a substitute for an active civil society, which the country lacked.  Regarding the effects of new forms of communication, when the Internet had come to Saudi Arabia in 1997, it had opened the door for everyone to speak their mind, providing a forum for debate, especially for young people, who made up 60 per cent of society.  With the Internet, daily life was “no longer black and white, it was colourful and diverse”.

She went on to say that blogging had begun in 2003-2004, noting that she had herself learned about it from an Egyptian blogger who had contacted her on Facebook about the arrest of a Saudi blogger.  It had started cautiously in English at first, largely because blogs could be personalized and were under much less scrutiny than Internet forums.  As for Facebook, the social network was becoming an important way for people to communicate, but, two days ago, the Saudi Government had blocked the Facebook page of Human Rights Watch.

No one had been arrested or imprisoned, she said, adding that she believed the Government had learned the lesson that such action would bring more publicity to such cases -– and to Facebook.  She had used a women’s group Facebook page to petition the King to allow women to drive.  While some might say “all this is only virtual and not making any change”, the Internet was actually building real communities and encouraging people to speak out in new ways.

Taking a more academic approach, Ghassan Shabaneh, Assistant Professor of Middle East and International Studies at Marymount Manhattan College, said the “outburst” of hundreds of satellite television stations in the Arab world in the post-cold war era meant that press freedom was certainly better off than it had been in previous decades.  But it was still not free enough.  Social scientists did not follow stories; they tracked social change and from that point of view, the Arab world had not really moved from a lack of press freedom to one in which it was widely enjoyed.  Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya had started the discussion, cross-pollinating stories through cross-cultural exposure.  That had raised the ceiling of expectations in the Arab world.  Was the region moving towards democratization?  Only 10 per cent, because of those supporting the television media; regardless of what journalists wished to do or say, they were fearful of saying things that might upset the Governments supporting them.

Because they were State-sponsored and funded, media in the Arab world, had not reached the point where they should be, he said.  That did not mean that media in the United States were much better since they were also sponsored, albeit by the country’s corporations.  Although press freedom was in danger around the globe, socio-economic development in the United States allowed a much freer and stronger civil society.  Indeed, the lack of a strong civil society was the “number one” problem in the Arab world.  There was much room for improvement.  “We can help these Middle East journalists by not only speaking up, but by deepening the dialogue between academics and journalists.”

During the interactive portion of the discussion, the panellists fielded questions on the death of newspapers due to the rise of blogging and the blogosphere’s polarizing effect vis-à-vis its audience; how Arab media covered radicalism, in general, and suicide bombings, specifically; and the experience of women journalists in Muslim societies, among other topics.

Ms. Mubarak responded by stressing that newspapers and new media like blogs often worked symbiotically, but the influence and reach of new media was growing.  Mr. Dayem, citing research by the Committee to Protect Journalists, said 2008 had been the first year in which online reporters had been imprisoned more than those working in other outlets.

Mr. Foukara stressed that newspaper circulation in the Arab world typically did not come close to those in the Western world due to difference in living standards and literacy rates.  In the Arab world, the Internet’s impact was tempered by limited connectivity, which meant that satellite television was not going away quickly.  However, dialogue and understanding between the world’s peoples “will not happen” if left to television.  When push came to shove, in times of conflict and war, television closed ranks.  United States television closed United States ranks while Arab television closed Arab ranks.  Therefore, while truth might allow a culture more exposure to others, during conflict it was usually seen kaleidoscopically.

Ms. Al-Thani highlighted the role of media training centres in encouraging women journalists, pointing out that 15 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s female population worked, and a rising number of Saudi women were entering the profession.  But they were sometimes frustrated by gender divisions, which could, in some instances, prevent them from sharing bylines with their colleagues.

Taking up the issue of radicalism, Mr. Foukara said that covering suicide bombings and other similar events was a “thorny issue” for mainstream Arab media, and the dialogue on how to do so was circumscribed by constraints and dangers.  On the other hand, there were also questions about how radicalism was covered in the West, where the high levels of xenophobia that could be spotted in United States media reports on the Middle East was a serious concern for Arabs living in that country.  Mr. Shabaneh suggested that, because radicalism was universal, its root causes must be addressed.  Where one person saw a terrorist, another saw a freedom fighter; where some saw a hero, others saw a criminal.  Where someone saw liberation, another saw occupation.  The dialogue about those differences should begin at the United Nations.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.