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World: U.N. Racism Conference Becomes Battleground For Press Freedom

  • Don Hill

The 11 September events in the United States hurried this month's U.N. World Conference Against Racism off the global agenda. During the conference itself, issues regarding whether former slaveholding nations in the West should apologize and pay compensation for slavery and attempts by Arab states to equate Zionism with racism dominated the discussions. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill describes a previously unpublicized battle by press-freedom watchdog organizations to head off what they perceived as threats to freedom of expression.

Prague, 27 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, is simplicity itself: "Everyone has the seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers."

The trouble is -- press-freedom watchdog organizations say -- tyrants, democracies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been striving ever since to dilute the article. The latest dilution drive on a global scale was at the recent United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

The conference dominated the news early this month. The U.S. delegation's walkout, intense public debate over whether former slaveholding nations in the West should apologize and pay compensation for their past practices, and attempts by Arab states to equate Zionism with racism received particular attention.

Interestingly, most of the reporters covering the conference took no notice at all of a pitched battle over language that NGOs representing the press said posed a dangerous threat to freedom of expression.

A key warrior in the battle was Ronald Koven, European representative of the World Press Freedom Committee, a worldwide affiliation of 44 journalistic organizations. As people around the world prepared this year for the conference, Koven was fulfilling his responsibility to spot incipient threats to journalistic freedoms. Koven said:

"I took a very early look at some of the draft papers that came out of various regional meetings and went through them with a fine-tooth comb, making worst-case analyses of how some of the language could be used. And when you make worst-case analyses, you find that the worst case is exactly what happens."

What Koven found were proposed resolutions calling for government-sponsored codes of conduct for the press and the creation of national press oversight committees. The intent was couched in positive terms, intended to ensure that news outlets avoided inflammatory, racist, or hate-inciting speech and propaganda.

Koven says the proposals adopted what he called "a kind of Orwellian language shift" in which "freedom" meant suppression: "There was even a text saying that bans on hate speech are not bans on freedom of expression. That, on the face of it, is just untrue."

Because of their advanced research, Koven and his colleague, former South African editor Raymond Louw, were able to commence their lobbying in defense of free expression early. They enlisted the aid of Koichiro Matsuura, director general of UNESCO, and Johann Fritz, director of the International Press Institute. Both wrote letters to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson -- the organizer and chairperson of the racism conference -- alerting her to the dangers they perceived.

At the conference itself, Koven and Louw divided themselves among the far-flung forums at which press restrictions were to be discussed and headed out to present their arguments. Louw, in particular, pointed out how the apartheid governments of South Africa had used laws against inciting race hatred to suppress any criticism of the white-dominated regimes.

There were points at which the debate focused on the specific. A speaker for the Asian and Asian Descendants Caucus wanted rules that would make press and broadcast outlets cease stereotyping Asians. A Girl Child Caucus speaker said that the media's stereotypes of girls endanger their development.

Koven says he is convinced that many supporters of restrictions that posed a threat to the free reporting of news were seeking deliberately to suppress free expression.

"I think [the proposed restrictions were] accepted by a lot of people around various negotiating tables out of naivete. But I think that people who pushed these ideas forward are not necessarily naive. I think some of them know perfectly well what they are doing."

Eventually, Koven and others say, the majority sentiment at the conference shifted against advocates of government press controls.

The International Press Institute's David Dadge, an editor and spokesperson for the Vienna-based NGO, says the outcome produced a model for the free-expression community.

"I mean that when you think about it, the very holding of the conference in the first place is something of a triumph for freedom of expression, in the sense that it [gathered] different organizations with difference perspectives, different order to discuss the various issues."

Or as Koven put it: "The best antidote for dangerous speech is more speech."