By Elaine Hargrove-Simon
Potential restrictions on Internet news services were averted at UNESCO's General Conference that took place October 15 - November 3, 2001. At the center of the conference discussion was UNESCO's proposal that was slated to be presented at the World Communication Summit on the Information Society in December 2003, "Recommendation of the Promotion and Use of Multi-lingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace." The proposal could significantly affect the use and content of news on the Internet.
The World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), an international organization that works to ensure freedom of the media, has been consulting with UNESCO throughout the process. WPFC is particularly concerned about one portion of the proposal, Article M27, which originally read: "Member States and international organizations should implement measures that encourage best information practices, ethical behaviour (sic) and respect for community standards and values regarding the activities and content of information producers, users, and service providers."
Ronald Koven, the European Representative for the WPFC, wrote in a pre-conference statement dated October 12, 2001, that the use of the word 'encouragement' by a government or intergovernmental organization would "in a number of countries be tantamount to an official order." He went on to quote the Sofia Declaration of 1997, which was endorsed by the General Conference, and reads, "Any attempts to draw up standards and guidelines should come from journalists themselves." In an effort to resolve the situation, UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura called for a return to the drawing board.
Officials in countries such as France and Iraq have made attempts to control Internet content. These officials voice fears that community standards might be violated if restrictions are not placed on web sites' content. But Koven said such concerns may lead to censorship of the Internet internationally. Again citing the Sofia Declaration, Koven said, "The access and use of these new media should be afforded the same freedom of expression protections as traditional media."
Outgoing General Conference President Jaroslava Moserova of the Czech Republic said, "UNESCO must, of course, try to do its utmost to ensure freedom of the press and of the media in general, for it is the view of many experts that hate campaigns mostly surface where the media are not independent." Director General Matsuura also addressed the General Conference, saying, "[UNESCO's founders] placed their faith in completely untrammeled freedom of expression and the free flow of information. [They] in effect, were convinced that in the long run such freedoms are the best defence (sic) against racism and prejudice ... ."
Koven advocates that Article M27 be rewritten to read: "Best practices as well as voluntary, self-regulatory professional and ethical guidelines should be encouraged, without any obstacles to freedom of expression, regarding the activities and content of information producers, users, and service providers." Adoption of the recommendation is likely take to place at UNESCO's next General Conference in December 2003.
The WPFC has also voiced concern over a proposed charter consisting of rules and an ethics code that was drafted and then adopted by the Federal Council of the Russian Union of Journalists when they met in October 2001. The charter specifically addresses how a journalist should report terrorism. Among other things, the code requires that there be no direct contact between a journalist and a terrorist; that journalists coordinate their activities with "security organs;" that journalists must refuse to interview terrorists to avoid publicizing their demands; and that acts of cruelty and violence by terrorists should not be broadcast, in order to avoid offending the audience or the family and friends of victims of terrorists' acts. The WPFC has criticized these rules as violating a basic premise of journalism: the need to present all sides of a story as fully and as impartially as possible. The WPFC has also suggested that the charter might allow government officials to play an inappropriate role in covering news. WPFC officials expressed further concern that there is no clear definition of the word "terrorist " set forth in the charter.
Because of the criticism the charter received from the WPFC and other professional media organizations, a larger consultation with the international media community has been recommended for the "Terrorism and the Media" conference in the Philippines in May, 2002. UNESCO will invite major media organizations to attend the conference, as well as the Federal Council of the Russian Union of Journalists. However, Waheed Khan, UNESCO's Assistant Director General for Communication, issued a statement dated January 14, 2002, saying that the text of the charter cannot be endorsed as it "lends itself to interpretations which could result in curtailing press freedom."