Sounding an Alarm: World Press Freedom Committee Says United Nations Declaration Could Spell Disaster for Press Freedom in Developing Countries

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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. …