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Testimony at the UN





Statement Delivered by Hillel C. Neuer
Geneva, 11 August 2004

Monsieur le president,

The UN can play a vital role in promoting the administration of justice, democracy and the rule of law around the globe.  Nobody is better qualified to fulfill this task than our new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Justice Louise Arbour, who brings unique wisdom and experience as a former Supreme Court Justice, international prosecutor and legal scholar.

As a fellow Canadian, indeed a fellow Montrealer, I take particular pride in her appointment.  The Canadian Charter of Rights upheld by Justice Arbour, now a model for other democracies such as the new South Africa, expressly enshrines the values of a free and democratic society, and of multiculturalism as an overarching interpretive principle.  I know that these Canadian values, of justice, democracy and tolerance, will continue to inform and inspire her work here in Geneva.

I wish to suggest one critical area where the High Commissioner can speak out for justice, democracy and the rule of law.

Monsieur le president,

The lifeblood of democracy is the free flow of information.  That means freedom of the press.

The good news is that numerous emerging democracies have seen an explosion of media freedom in recent years.

But in too many other parts of the world, the news continues to be bad:  journalists are censored, threatened, even attacked.  This constitutes a fundamental assault on the underlying norms of democracy and the rule of law.

Some violations are well known.  We know of Jean Helene, correspondent of Radio France Internationale in Cote dIvoire, who, on October 21, 2003, went to interview government opponents, and was then shot dead by a policeman.  The killing followed a campaign of state-sponsored incitement targeting journalists, and Helene in particular.

We know of Zimbabwes new draconian laws that severely restrict press freedom; of the regimes mistreatment, threats and harassment against journalists; of the bombing of The Daily News printing press in January 2001.

We know of the continuing intimidation in Cuba, where, in 2003 alone, 30 journalists were imprisoned, 5 arrested and 5 physically attacked.

We know, too, of the torture of journalists by the security forces of Nepal, Myanmar, and Pakistan.

What may be even more dangerous, however, are the threats to press freedom that we do not know about.  Here the guilty parties are not only menacing regimes, but, ironically, journalists themselves.  It is shocking but true that some of the worlds major media organizations have been complicit in censorship by broadcasting stories they knew to be misleading, misrepresentative or outright false. 

Only after Saddams downfall did we learn how common this was in Iraq.  The head of CNN news admitted that, for years, his reporters failed to disclose the severe censorship under which their stories were filed.  How this worked among other major news organizations was described in detail in the New York Times of April 20, 2003. 

Journalists were given instructions by the regime never to write about Iraqis fear and hatred of Saddam; their interviews were monitored by the secret police, and anyone who offered an opinion dissenting from the state would face arrest, torture and execution.  But reporters rarely disclosed any of this to their viewers.

Will journalists in other parts of the Middle East -- which, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres, is the region with the worst record of press freedom -- disclose the extent to which they operate under similar intimidation, be it express or tacit?  This year a New York Times journalist in Gaza reported on his own attempted kidnapping by Palestinian gunmen, where he barely managed to escape being shoved into the trunk of a car.  How many other such incidents have gone unreported?

The danger to democracy is clear.  Governments stand or fall based on votes that are founded in the citizens faith in credible sources of information.  I hope the High Commissioner will act to ensure that press freedom is respected by all.

Thank you.


Right of Reply

WILLIAMS KEBE SEKA (Cote d'Ivoire), speaking in a right of reply, said that with regards to allegations made against States that they did not respect human rights, the Government of Cte d'Ivoire had condemned the murder of a journalist, and an investigation had been carried out in this respect, leading to the imprisonment of the guilty persons, and this had not been interfered with by the Government. Freedom of the press was a concern for the Cte d'Ivoire, who had it enshrined in its Constitution and worked hard to preserve and protect it.

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