Soundingn An Alarm p. 11

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By: Dorothy Giobbe

World Press Freedom Committee says United Nations declaration
could spell disaster for press freedom in developing countries sp.

THE WORLD PRESS Freedom Committee (WPFC) is sounding the alarm over a United Nations declaration that WPFC says could spell disaster for press freedom in developing countries.
The declaration ? called a Platform for Action ? will be presented at the U.N. 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, on Sept. 4 to 15. The conference, reportedly the largest of its kind, is intended to raise awareness and offer proposals to improve women’s lives around the world.
But the current draft of the declaration contains language that could severely curtail or restrict independent media operations, the WPFC believes.
While the intent of the conference document ? to discourage media portrayals of women as inferior beings ? is praiseworthy, the WPFC is troubled that some of the proposals might be misinterpreted in certain countries.
For example, the declaration calls for governments to assist in “mobilization” of the news media.
“Words should be read not as you would like, but as someone else could misuse them,” reads a WPFC memo that was sent to conference delegates.
Urging that parts of the declaration be deleted or revised, the WPFC cautioned that “The whole idea of U.N. and government involvement in ‘mobilizing the media,’ even in a good cause, is troubling.”
The WPFC contends that governmental participation in shaping the news agenda ? however well-intentioned ? is an invitation for them to put their own stamp on the news.
“Words mean different things to different people,” said WPFC executive director Dana Bullen in an interview.
Bullen said that some of the questionable phrases may be “the unintended result of the enthusiasm of trying to do something to assist the status of women.”
“The goal is a fine goal, but the document discusses codes of conduct for journalists, among other things,” he said. “It’s a prescription for big trouble.”
Bullen added that some of the language in the declaration may have been included by “organizations and individuals who know exactly what the results will be and are trying to create a precedent for governmental involvement.”
The current draft of the declaration was put together at the U.N. in New York during a series of preparatory meetings attended by governmental and non-governmental delegations.
In Beijing, it will be worked on further at a drafting session, and by two working committees as the meeting progresses.
“We are aware of the worries and I’ve undertaken that the secretary general of the conference knows about it,” said Patsy Robertson, senior advisor of media and public relations for the conference. “I’m going to write a note about it so that the people around the conference know about it, too, to advise them to approach governments about it.”
Robertson said that while the U.N. prepared the original draft of the document, and still can solicit input from various governments, it cannot interfere with the language in the final version.
“The only people who can insert new language, or remove language, have to be [part of] a government,” Robertson said.
In one section, the declaration calls for governments to “encourage” the media to refrain from presenting women as inferior to men. A laudable goal, says WPFC, but “governments should not be encouraging media to do anything. In many places, ‘encourage’ means: Do it, or go to jail.”
Another section of the declaration states that governments should encourage the participation of women in the development of professional guidelines and codes of conduct.
Again, WPFC said, “governments should not have any role in encouraging or otherwise promoting professional guidelines or codes of conduct.”
“Bending the rules for good causes is a mistake. It also creates the precedent for others to bend them for less appealing ideas,” warned the WPFC in its memorandum.
The WPFC has contacted officials at the state department and the U.N. So far, Bullen said, “they seem to understand the problem and want to do something about it. How successful they will be, I don’t know.”

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