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PRESS FREEDOM GROUPS CONCERNED ABOUT U.N. WORLD INFORMATION SUMMIT

5/1/2003

Two weeks of contentious talks in Geneva over a "Draft Declaration and Action Plan" for the upcoming U.N. World Summit on the Information Society made clear that old ideas for restrictions are still alive and dangerous.

The draft published on March 21, yet subject to further revision, contains an alarming number of concepts traditionally dear to would-be press controllers. These include "balancing" information flows and respect for "national sovereignty" in news, and a controversial "right to communicate" - proposals that threaten the independence of news media. There is a new stress on the need for "security" in cyberspace, taken as covering both information privacy and military concerns.

Among the 1,535 participants in Geneva were old Cold Warriors who promoted notions of a "new world information and communication order" two decades ago. They've now been joined by a new generation, forming a coalition of militant and uncompromising advocates of NWICO concepts which have now found their way into official parlance of the proposed Summit.

"Authoritarian governments and international regulatory agencies want to censor and control the Internet," said WPFC Chairman James H. Ottaway, Jr. "We must all act fast to fight these new threats to freedom of the press, freedom of information, and freedom of access."

Seventeen single-spaced pages of proposals by NGOs and other observers -- equaling in length the official governmental draft Declaration and Action Plan -- were listed by organizers for further consideration.

Remaining prior to the summit: An "intersession" meeting now set for July at UNESCO in Paris, and a final preparatory meeting in September. Most observers believe that the Summit itself will simply adopt the governmental draft documents.

The final Declaration and Plan of Action will be adopted at the Summit, which opens Dec. 10 - 12 in Geneva and resumes Nov. 16 - 18, 2005, in Tunis, Tunisia.

Apparently some of the organizers would like to condition the call for independent and free communication media with the qualifier: "in accordance with the legal system of each country." This suggests a country's government right to control what is reported. There are other more subtle points that governmental delegates and some accommodating bureaucrats are trying to inject, mainly aiming at obtaining an international cover for internal press repression. A number of active groups are mobilized to confront that trend and already won some points, although it is too early to tell the outcome.

Until now, U.N. Secretariat has left the substantive preparations to UNESCO and the International Telecommunications Union. When a crisis evolves closer to the Summit, it may be too late to handle.