Making the world safe for the right to know
Next year's morining paper or evening news broadcast could be affected in many parts of the world by what happens in Belgrave during the next five weeks. The question is whether delegates from 150 countries can agree on measures that will help the developing nations to make necessary progress in the field of communications without setting back freedom of information for all. The delegates are there for the biennial general conference of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). They are challenged to move forward from their declaration on the mass media of two years ago, which was supposed to have positive moral if not legal force -- but which was followed by setbacks for reporters in both the third world and the industrial world, according to the International Press Institute.
Belgrade, though the capital of an authoritarian land, is an auspicious site. The Helsinki declaration, including affirmation of the free flow of information, has been reviewed there. And Yugoslavia has been a pioneer in the effrt to provide third-world nations with newsagency services separate from the giant Western media corporations whose dominance of international communications has been a focus of UNESCO debate.
But a hint of an attitude that has to be confronted was given by a Yugoslav reporter at the UN who was given by a Yugoslav reporter at the UN who was queried about the problem of the news being "used" by the government where there are governmental news agencies. He suggested the news was always being used by somebody and maybe governments were not necessarily worse than corporations.
Indeed, what UNESCO has had to resist all along the line is the effort by some delegations to promote entering wedges for governmental control in the guise of such intentions as improving the "balance" of news or even protecting reporters. Among proposals that must be decisively rejected in Belgrade is one to safeguard journalists -- thus raising the specter of official screening processes.
The declaration of 1978 was an improvement over previous versions in that it eliminated, for example, a Soviet-backed provision to make governments responsible for the international activities of the media under their jurisdiction. The moves in the right direction were hailed by the International Press Institute even as it found the declaration had apparently not helped to make the world a safer place fr journalist or the right to know.
Summing up 1979 the institute cited not only the killing, injuring, and jailing of journalists in various far-flung countries but the threats to press freedom in such Western bastions of it as Britain and the United States. In Britain it found trade union action to deny sources of public information to nonstriking journalists and a checking of efforts to prevent selective governments use of the official Secrets Act. In the US it found, among other things, the aftermath of court action permitting the search of newspaper offices.
So the West cannot ask for freedom of information in the third world without recognizing the problems the West still has to solve. The point is that there are means under freedom to attack the problems. Britain, as the press institute notes, has worked to reform contempt of court laws affecting the press. And just this week in the US, the House of Representative followed the Senate in passing legislation to limit the circumstances under which searches of newspaper offices can be undertaken.
As the conference at Belgrade proceeds, the climate seems somewhat better than in the past to hold the line against censorship. The review of UNESCO's own commission's report must affirm the stands for freedom and be alert to any encroachments on it. The discussion of a program to aid the third-world press ought to hew to what can be done in practical terms rather than t ideological manipulations.
Studies may show that third-world charges of Western press distortions of third-world news are exaggerated. But much can be done to enhance coverage of the positive developments in the third world.
At the same time, great potential lies in the improvement of the third world's own communications facilities and personnel. As the profession of jounalism in any country becomes more expert, it becomes more respected and mre able to withstand official pressures. Here the Western press has taken welcome steps and made welcome investments in providing equipment and assisting in training programs. This is something to build on in Belgrade and beyond.