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UN: NGO Challenges Calls For Oversight Of Racism In Media

Controversy is surrounding the UN World Conference Against Racism long before its scheduled opening at the end of this month in Durban, South Africa. Plans for the conference have stumbled over issues like compensation for slavery and attempts by Arab states to equate Zionism with racism. As RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports, a Vienna-based organization concerned with press freedom is raising a new issue, this one about proposals for a code of conduct for news organizations.

Prague, 23 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations World Conference Against Racism -- set to open a week from tomorrow (31 August) in Durban, South Africa -- is already sparking debate.

Some Arab organizations have submitted draft documents equating Zionism -- that is, advocating a Jewish state -- with racism. Others are calling on former slave-holding nations to issue apologies or even reparations. Yesterday (22 August), a group of civil rights organizations and activists asked the conference to challenge U.S. drug laws, saying the laws' enforcement applies disproportionately to minorities.

Now comes the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), which is expressing concern that well-meaning contributors of papers to the conference -- who are seeking to discourage press and broadcast behavior that might contribute to racism -- inadvertently are calling for chains on freedom of information.

In a letter to the conference chairman, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, IPI Director Johann Fritz says language in the drafts calling for press codes of conduct and creation of national oversight agencies would seem to encourage governmental controls on press behavior.

Fritz says the IPI -- which describes itself as a "global network of editors, media executives, and leading journalists" -- contends that, as the letter puts it: "No outsider should ever propose guidelines for a code of ethics or otherwise put pressure on the media."

David Dadge, an editor and spokesman for IPI, tells RFE/RL that the organization is not seeking to stifle debate at next week's conference:

"It was our feeling in writing to Mary Robinson that we would start the debate earlier than the actual conference in order to perhaps at the time have a more rounded debate."

Susan Markham, a spokeswoman for the racism conference, said by telephone from UN headquarters in New York that working groups already have edited documents proposing news-organization oversight in the hopes of making the language more broadly acceptable.

"Well, the purpose of the working group that has been meeting during the prep cons leading up to the conference has been to try to come up with language that everyone can agree to -- consensus language. So there have been changes made to try to meet concerns that have been raised."

Markham said that delegates to the conference in Durban can be expected to do further work to balance the desires of some organizations to discourage press and broadcast behavior that might contribute to racism against the opposition of some news media advocates to any controls whatsoever on the free flow of information.

"The text as we have it now is still very much a draft, and during the conference -- the eight days of the conference -- there will be two working groups established to continue negotiating the document so that on the final day of the conference a text can be agreed to by consensus."

The IPI's Dadge says that the problem is not so much how the Conference Against Racism will word its calls for news media oversight, but about how governments might employ oversight mechanisms if they are indeed established:

"It is very much the feeling of the International Press Institute that -- if you look at the way that some repressive governments around the world actually try to control the media -- that these codes of conduct and consultation bodies will become merely another weapon [used to dictate] the way the media should actually behave."

The most ardent advocates of press and broadcast freedom would argue that even the IPI position described by Dadge is too meek. The U.S. tradition, for example, holds that any expression of ideas must be freely allowed. That tradition contends that ideas -- however ugly or unacceptable -- can best be countered by the free expression of countervailing ideas.

The U.S. tradition is embodied in the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits government from making any law "abridging freedom of the press."