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UN: Journalism Organizations Push Divergent Positions On World Press Freedom Day

  • Don Hill

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 3 May annual World Press Freedom Day. Since its inception, the day has been observed by various press watchdog groups around the world, who mark the date with declarations of press rights and denunciations of information suppression. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports, however, that journalists' groups this year are taking subtly divergent positions on some press freedom issues.

Prague, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The International Press Institute (IPI), based in Vienna, calls itself "the global network of editors, media executives, and leading journalists, dedicated to freedom of the press and improving the standards and practices of journalism."

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), located in Brussels, says in its literature, that it is "the world's largest organization of journalists, representing 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries."

And then there are Reporters Without Borders in Paris; the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists; The World Association of Newspapers in Paris, which calls itself "the global organization for the newspaper industry"; and a host of other press and broadcast groups.

What all these nongovernmental organizations have in common today is that they are celebrating the 12th annual World Press Freedom Day, established in 1991 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, and made official two years later by the United Nations General Assembly.

All say they agree with the terms of the UN declaration that the day is set aside "to remember and celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom." They condemn attacks on journalists and government actions to control the press. From that point, however, some groups diverge on what they recognize as essential principles.

IPI, for example, opens its statement on world press freedom with concerns over restrictions on press freedom in the name of antiterrorism since the attacks of 11 September. David Dadge, editor of IPI's World Press Review, says new laws and regulations and executive actions are being circulated and adopted without sufficient consideration of the dangers they pose to press freedom.

"IPI has noted that a number of countries -- among them Britain, France, the United States -- have actually introduced either amendments or new terrorist laws. And a belief of IPI is that these laws have been rushed in without thought or consideration and some of the elements of the actual laws may impede press freedom. But because of the events of 11 September, there has been very little dialogue with regard to these new laws or the amendments to the already standing laws."

IPI claims as its members editors and executives. IFJ, for its part, seeks to represent the working reporter.

Aidan White, IFJ's general secretary, names first among his organization's concerns the poverty in which many news workers around the world must live. On a recent tour through Russia and Central Asia, he says, he found journalists earning the monthly equivalent of $30. He says in some instances, they receive no salaries at all, but try to subsist instead on bartering for food and other necessities.

Both IPI and IFJ deplore restrictions on news coverage in the Mideast conflict. IFJ's declaration expresses what it calls "solidarity with our colleagues in Palestine and from other countries that have been victims of the conflict."

IPI says that both Israel and the Palestinians have violated press freedoms in the course of the conflict, but it singles out Israel for particular blame. IPI's Dadge said: "We've noted over the last three or four weeks that there have been violations by both sides. But our particular concern has been the actions of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), particularly with regard to the events of Jenin [where Palestinians say Israelis committed a massacre], and what has happened with Hebron [where Israeli invaders killed nine Palestinians] as well. The IDF has actively prevented the media from being able to report in these areas, and is doing its best to stop the media from going in and reporting."

A consensus of the press freedom groups joins in decrying the threats to life and limb of reporters and photographers, not only in combat situations but also from government authorities and criminal bosses whose corruption the newspeople try to expose. Both Dadge and White cite particularly what appears to be a growing phenomenon of deliberate targeting of news reporters. More than 100 journalists died violently on the job last year and press freedom groups have documented more than 30 such cases so far in 2002.

One issue on which groups participating in World Press Freedom Day differ concerns the a worldwide trend toward concentration of news organization ownership. There is agreement that the trend is discouraging and dangerous, but there is divergence on where remedies, if any, may lie.

White of IFJ cites broadcast-station monopolization in Italy: "The prime minister of the country [Silvio Berlusconi] effectively exercises control over 90 percent of the country's broadcast media, and the largest chunk of its advertising market. That's completely unacceptable. So you need national laws and, I think, international regulations to prevent that sort of concentration of power."

In Canada, the Can West company, which owns of a large chain of major dailies, announced last year that its newspapers henceforth will present a uniform editorial policy dictated from corporate headquarters. White says such a move is a step in the wrong direction: "You take Canada. It's an enormous country. It's [like] a continent. Its regions are fiercely independent. They've got their own traditions and cultures. And up until now, the major newspapers that have operated in those regions -- whether it's in Winnipeg in the center of the country or in Quebec, the French-speaking eastern part of the country, they've been able to have their own editorials, their own traditional approach, which has reflected the culture."

Can West's monolithic editorial policy, he says, undercuts press freedom and editorial independence. It's part of a globalization-driven worldwide trend, White says, that cries out for appropriate legislative intervention: "And that's really what I'm arguing for. I'm arguing for a restatement of the values of press freedom and for appropriate laws enacted in an appropriate way to protect those values."

IPI joins in expressing concern over concentration of news media ownership, but differs on possible remedies. Dadge said: "I think that is a concern of IPI, but it's the actual approach to resolving it that is probably where the IPI and IFJ are not in agreement. IPI very much believes in the marketplace of ideas where you have different people competing."

He says not laws, but the demands of an alert public, should be brought to bear: "Therefore, what really the emphasis should be on is ensuring editorial independence within these conglomerates and assuring that journalists can actually report on any issue they desire. And that's where IPI is focusing most of its energies."

In the United States, the U.S. Constitution prohibits any law limiting freedom of the press. But courts have also ruled admissible federal laws and regulations limiting concentration of ownership of broadcasting companies and of combinations of broadcast and newspaper outlets.