|AT ISSUE IS FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION. SUMMIT ON INFORMATION
SOCIETY APPROACHES FAILURE DUE TO POLITICAL EXPEDIENCY AND LACK OF U.N. LEADERSHIP.
1 November 2003
The World Summit on the Information Society was announced two years ago as a watershed for placing the
U.N. in the mainstream of information and media technology. However, a third meeting of a prepatory
committee recently ended in yet another stalemate over the draft versions proposed. A clear position on
freedom of press and freedom of expression is a major issue of contention. On one side are cautious
bureaucrats with little knowledge of the realities of media work allied with certain
governmental officials still yearning to tutor and herd the press. Facing them are media professionals
insisting on open communications, with unfettered and varied press. Among the most active is the World
Press Freedom Committee, a co-ordination group of American and international news media organizations.
Its Director Mary Lynn Greene, Chairman James Ottaway Jr., and European representative Ron Koven,
have successfully raised the right issues, which -- indeed -- should have been raised by the United
Nations Secretariat whose lack of impact is not only puzzling but a cause for concern.
Another try expected in mid-November is likely to end up in a similar standstill. Efforts will continue
until the last minute, that is until the conference convenes on 10 - 12 December. With such lag in
preparation and lack of U.N. leadership, it is doubtful at this stage that many heads of state will
attend. The "summit" may fizzle into another gathering during the pre-Christmas season around the
Lake of Geneva. That would also apply to a "media seminar" supposedly arranged by DPI (let's hope
that does not turn into another junket for the "usual suspects").
A media caucus of journalist groups have appealed to Secretary General Kofi Annan to remind member
states of their commitments to U.N. adopted policy, including adherence to article 19 of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. A similar message was supposedly sent by UNESCO Director General Matsura
to his compatriot and former colleague in the Japanese government, Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary General
of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is organizing the event.
While the position of the technical specialized agency is rigidly pro-government and pro-control, and
the relationship between the two Japanese colleagues is understandably delicate, it is difficult to
explain the U.N. Secretariat position including that of the Department of Public Information which for
a while a few years ago was in the forefront of the struggle for free and varied press and in
launching one of the world's best ten inter-governmental websites (www.un.org). It is a pity that
Secretary General Kofi Annan, keen as he is on the role of the media, was not enabled to focus enough
on this seemingly usual but substantially important issue.