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.