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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights


22 November 2002

Vienna, 21 November 2002


Address by

Sergio Vieira de Mello

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Mr. Chairman, Members of the IPI Board and IPI National Committees, Members of Press Freedom Organisations, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honoured to be addressing you tonight on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the International Press Institute Vienna headquarters. May I begin by congratulating the International Press Institute and all its components on this occasion. Let me also thank the Foreign Ministry of Austria for hosting this evening. I am aware that the Foreign Minister, Ms. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, will address you tomorrow. This address like today’s Welcome Reception offered by the President of Austria, Mr. Thomas Klestil, symbolize the importance attached to the freedom of opinion and of the media by the Austrian authorities and people.

When the IPI offices on the Spiegelgasse opened their doors in 1992, most of us were still flush with the hope and optimism born of the fall of the Berlin wall. A wave of freedom seemed to be washing over parts of the world that until then had known mostly repression. In May 1991, for example, African journalists gathered in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, for a regional seminar on promoting independent and pluralist media. The Windhoek Declaration became the first in a series of commitments, region by region, to uphold the freedom of people everywhere to voice their opinion and have access to a variety of independent sources of information.

And indeed in the past decade the press in many countries has become more independent and pluralistic. The airwaves have been liberalized. Journalists and others working in the media have become more professional. And, thanks to the Internet, more and more people have gained direct access to the means of mass communication. These changes have helped to establish and strengthen democracy in many countries, by enabling citizens to make informed, thus responsible choices and play their part in decisions that shape their own lives and the future of their countries.

The aspirations for a freer, more just world many of us harboured emerged just a short distance from here, at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights. The near consensus among very disparate countries on both the paramount importance of human rights and their universality and indivisibility would have been unthinkable just a few years before the Conference. Pushed along by the winds of change, the gathering, which established the post I am privileged to be holding today, called for assistance to be given to the strengthening of the rule of law, the administration of justice, and to the real and effective participation of the people in the decision-making processes affecting their destiny. The world leaders in Vienna considered the promotion of freedom of expression to be just as important.

Alas, many of our hopes collided head on with reality: vast areas of the world became engulfed in ever more complex conflicts, and muzzling and repression in many cases did not so much disappear as change face and shape. Journalists and the media, among the putative beneficiaries of the higher level of respect for human rights we were supposed to have enjoyed at the end of the Cold War, have consistently been at the top of the lists of victims of abuses in the last decade. A look at IPI’s “Death Watch” on any given week is a sobering reminder that the media workers too often pay the ultimate price for courageously doing their job, as I have witnessed in several of my assignments, including recently through the loss of a friend cameraman in Afghanistan.

At the Office of the High Commissioner, we have been keeping our own depressing statistics. We provide essential support to the Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression of the UN Commission on Human Rights, presently Ambeyi Ligabo, who reports yearly on the situation around the world. Mr. Ligabo succeeded Abid Hussain, who in his last report before leaving the post noted that the number of complaints received annually continued to increase. In 2001, for example, he received some 1,900 communications (an increase of more than 10% in comparison with the previous year). In the same year he sent 124 “urgent appeals” on behalf of persons imminently at risk of suffering abuse or who had become victims of rights breaches.

A majority of cases the Special Rapporteur and my Office receive relate to violations and actions taken against media professionals. Compounding the problem is the impunity violators often enjoy. Too often, national security as well as the “argument of necessity” are used by authorities in a number of countries to silence and/or suppress independent media. Rogue and irregular forces also target journalists, as they do UN staff, because we see and report their behaviour.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to dwell for a moment on possible consequences of the reaction to the terrorist attacks for freedom of opinion and expression. Although it has regained currency in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks in the United States last year, in Indonesia, and the Russian Federation more recently, the issue is one the UN human rights system has consistently focused on. While we all recognize and support the duty of States to protect themselves and their people, if necessary through exceptional measures, in some cases, such measures can result in a denial of the most fundamental human rights. They may lead to a negation of the very principles we work so hard for, such as open societies with access to full freedom of expression and the right to dissent. It is therefore particularly important that States consider the human rights implications of any steps they take in response to this threat; that human rights be at the centre of such a response, particularly freedom of information.

To respond to terror by rolling back hard-won human rights is to hand a victory to the terrorists. Not the least of the dangers of such an approach is that when democratic countries engage in activities that run counter to human rights, they give comfort to less open forms of government. The exemplary role, including or even especially in a negative sense, at the international level should not be underestimated. Open societies then have a double responsibility: to protect the rights of their citizens and not to provide an easy comparison or cheap pretext to those who are inclined to misuse their authority.

Another ugly consequence of the attacks was the ease with which some media treated certain beliefs, countries or communities with disrespect, through dangerous generalizations and stereotyping. That trend, coupled with reports of harassment and violence against followers of Islam, continues to cause deep concern. Happily, the cases of media channelling biased speech and fanning animosity were the exception and they were, furthermore, effectively countered by balanced and sensitive coverage from most press outlets. We need free media to help prevent a wide fracture that could have disastrous consequences and increase the potential for extreme forms of violence. We must together identify the reasons for this complex and highly emotional state of affairs and jointly tackle it. The media have a pedagogical responsibility.

This brings me to another sensitive question that remains the cause of tension and violence, namely the balancing of freedom of expression imperatives with the need to curb hate speech and incitement to hatred, particularly racial, ethnic or religious. I know that IPI expressed concern regarding proposals advanced at one stage of preparations for the World Conference against Racism last year. The draft language IPI opposed, and which did not make it to the final documents of the Conference, would have encouraged governments to set up national consultation bodies to possibly monitor, mediate and be a partner in the preparation of codes of conduct. Most Conference delegates agreed with IPI that the proposals could have lead to a curtailing of the independence of the media and might have been used in some countries to repress forms of expression that would be considered legitimate in others.

I agree with you that the right to freedom of expression should remain unabridged, and that is far from being the case. The Special Rapporteur has stated that undue emphasis on permissible restrictions relating to the right to freedom of opinion and expression continues to occur around the world. The scope of protection offered by article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is comprehensive and, in general, protection of the freedom is the rule and restriction of such freedom should be the exception.

However, as the media recall daily in their coverage of officialdom, with power comes responsibility. The Covenant also allows freedom of expression to be limited if the exercise of that right results in the breach of the rights of others. Specifically, the Covenant provides that States can interfere with freedom of expression by prohibiting propaganda for war and the advocacy of racial hatred.

There is no lack of examples of the media being misused to whip up hatred and fanaticism. Rwanda, the Former Yugoslavia or Taliban rhetoric come readily to mind in this connection. The problem is a persistent one and not limited to any part of the world. We have seen a similar phenomenon occur recently in the Ivory Coast. There are international legal obligations a majority of States have accepted that prohibit incitement to racial, religious and ethnic hatred – not least anti-semitism - and they must be adhered to. The International Criminal Court, which will – at long last – soon come into being, should also act as a deterrent and as a watch dog, as such practices will fall under its purview.

I am of the view that it is preferable to involve the media in monitoring their own activities and in providing the training and resources necessary for journalists to promote human rights and freedoms by merely and wisely doing their work; and also help citizens participate fully and productively in their societies. My Office stands ready to cooperate in any way it can in these endeavours. Indeed, in a few days’ time we will be discussing some of these issues at a seminar we are hosting on the interdependence between democracy and human rights. One of the main themes of the meeting will be “The media in democracies: role, responsibilities and human rights issues”. No a new theme, but one which we need to revisit, time and again, with lucidity, vigilance and renewed commitment.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let us wish Happy 10th Birthday to IPI in Vienna and continued success in its vital task.

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