Report From Beijing: A Mixed Bag p. 22

By: Debra Gersh Hernandez On one hand, it calls for fair treatment of women
by the media; on the other hand, it calls on governments
or media watchdog groups to police the media sp.

THE FINAL DOCUMENT from the U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing contains proposals beneficial to women's rights but not so good for media free-speech rights.
Included in the themes emerging from the Platform for Action are the notion that media images of women have been harmful and exploitative and that governments should take action.
"They're not just mobilizing the media for support of the Platform for Action," said Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press executive director Jane E. Kirtley, who traveled to the conference on behalf of the World Press Freedom Committee.
"They're also saying it's time for governments and others to make the media straighten up and stop exploiting women and stop pornography and stop this and stop that. Both of these things are bad to have in an international document," she said.
According to Kirtley's report, language in the Platform for Action that could threaten free speech includes: calls for governments and women to be involved in establishing guidelines and codes of conduct for media; adopting non-stereotypical gender perspectives on news; use of the media as an educational tool by government to raise awareness about women's issues; government promotion of women's participation in the media; and establishment of media watch groups.
"The idea of giving women a fair shake in every regard is tremendously appealing," said Dana Bullen, executive director of the World Press Freedom Committee. On the one hand, I think everyone wants women to get a fair shake in the news of the day.
"On the other hand," he continued, "it raises all kinds of potential problems to say that any group should be treated specially by the press, or that government should be involved in any way, or that journalists should be trained with government involvement in any way or support concerning their reporting on any subject."
Bullen said this "certainly sends up two flags. The first is that women and everyone else should be treated fairly by the news media. The second is that it's extremely difficult to find a way of ensuring this without creating precedents for restrictive practices in support of less appealing issues," he said.
"What you have from Beijing is a mixed bag of completely appropriate appeals for fairness and unstereotyped reporting, but on the other hand, disturbing calls for the creation of mechanisms to try to ensure this, that cut across the idea of complete media independence.
"I hope," Bullen continued, "that the good results will happen and that the bad ones won't, and that people will not see this as a precedent for carrying forward some of these ideas, which are purely advisory, into other fields."
Bullen explained that it is important to perceive these suggestions as Idi Amin or Joseph Stalin, for example, might have interpreted them.
"It's important to read the words not the way you would like to read them, but as someone would like to misuse them," he said.
"The idea of government involvement in training journalists, in some countries that might mean indoctrination and not just on this subject," Bullen noted, adding that other sections "are really somewhat ambiguous in terms of impact, because it depends on who tries to implement them."
"In a country like the United States, where there's a strong tradition of press freedom, suggestions are just that, suggestions. In a country where a free press doesn't really exist, suggestions by government take on a much more coercive meaning," Bullen said.
In addition, Bullen wondered if the word "women" were replaced by the word "government," would it be appropriate to call for government to regulate codes of conduct for covering government, or for using the media as an educational tool for government issues?
"The goals are good, but the means are potentially troubling. We have to be awfully careful that we don't start slanting the news. One person's fairness is another person's discrimination," he said.
The U.S. and European Union delegations were at the forefront of attempts to improve language regarding the media. In some cases they were successful, but in others they were not.
According to Bullen, the bulk of the document was prepared at the U.N. prior to the Beijing conference.
"By the time it got to Beijing, a lot of the damage was done," he said. "Even for a delegation with the best intentions and strong resolve to identify and defuse all of the land mines that have been planted in those documents, any time you negotiate on someone else's document, you are in a situation of damage control.
"It's certainly worthy of praise that our delegation and others accomplished what they did, but we'd be kidding ourselves if we think they can do it all," Bullen said.
The U.S. delegation was able to insert a statement pointing out that, "We understand that references to actions the media may take . . . are in the nature of suggestions and recommendations, and may not be construed to impinge on the freedom of the press, speech and expression, which are fundamental freedoms."
Kirtley pointed out that, "Our issue, as the U.S. delegation and the European Union delegation recognized, is that there is stuff in here inconsistent with freedom of expression.
"The U.S. is not going to be implementing laws requiring journalists to undertake these," she said, but warned other nations may. To their credit, they [the U.S. delegation] did put in a qualifying paragraph. They and the European Union are cognizant of the problems.
"In my view, frankly, I don't think the U.S., Canada, Europe are where the problems are," Kirtley said. "They accept the notion of a free press. That's not true in many of these other countries."
Among the nations identified by Kirtley as supporting language condemning media content were India, Iran, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
Those that seemed willing to permit government interference through regulations and obligations on the media included Chile, El Salvador, Peru, Algeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
"The impact on the U.S. is going to be minimal," she said.
"We have the First Amendment. If any crazy group tries to implement this, it will be struck down. And, with the U.S. paragraph in there, the government is on record saying you can't do this."
There could be a problem, however, for U.S.-based media who transmit or distribute material overseas, Kirtley explained."If I were in the position of [implementing] any transborder communications, I would be looking at South America," Kirtley advised. "In those countries, there will be interest in implementing this stuff. I know a lot of American media do business there. It is ripe for implementation."
Further, she commented, imposing the media measures makes it "easy for nations to look like they're doing something without making much financial or personnel commitment."
Bullen and Kirtley also pointed out that the Final Platform does not distinguish between media, particularly news and entertainment media.
"We have the U.N. unwilling to distinguish, as a consequence, whether we're talking about a quality newspaper, a sleazy tabloid or a TV movie," Kirtley said. "They're all being dealt with, with the same broad brush. It is an invitation for governments to step in and interfere with news judgments."
Bullen called lumping the media together a "mistake."
"To simply bash media generally without discriminating between entertainment and news leads to some very inappropriate results that apply to all media ? and I think this is a very, very good example where this may have happened," he commented.
Further, both Kirtley and Bullen agreed that these issues are similar to the hotly disputed New World Information Order promulgated a few years ago, which led to the U.S. pulling out of UNESCO in protest.
"A lot of this stuff is repackaged, recycled stuff from the UNESCO New World Information Order," Kirtley said, calling it "old wine in new bottles. It's the same concept, but instead of being clothed in developing nations, it is women."
Bullen said this should serve as a "wake-up call" for the news media, which need "to examine even more closely whether they actually are being fair to women, and every other group, and act accordingly."
"But it's also a wake-up call that there are people who would like to tell the media what to do. This time it's cloaked in a good issue. The next time it might not be," he said.
?("Our issue, as the U.S. delegation and the European Union delegation recognized, is that there is stuff in here inconsistent with freedom of expression.") [Caption]
?(Jane Kirtley, executive director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press) [Photo & Caption]


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