By Garwin Davis, Assistant News Editor
Delegates attending the international conference on freedom of expression organised by UNESCO at the Jamaica Conference Centre, downtown Kingston, yesterday. - Norman Grindley Photos/Staff Photographer.
GOVERNMENTS ACROSS the globe, including the United States, are using the worldwide war against terrorism as an excuse for controlling the press, in some cases denying access to information, Jim Ottaway Jr., Chairman of the World Press Freedom charged.
He said that since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, there was evidence that press freedom in America and in many other nations had been under attack, thus undermining the effectiveness of the news media as a watchdog of the state.
"This annual United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Press Freedom Day conference is also an appropriate place to express my alarm that one of the most damaging unintended consequences of terrorism and the worldwide war against terrorism, mobilised by the attacks on America on September 11, 2001, is the new global crackdown on press freedom, and increased censorship of public information by many governments," Mr. Ottaway said.
"The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that 'everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, and regardless of frontiers' there is evidence that this is now under threat."
The United States Government has been criticised heavily for its detention and treatment of prisoners at its Guantanamo base many being held based on suspicion that they might be affiliated to terrorist networks and were probably involved in the 2001 terrorist attacks. Reminded that the Geneva Convention called for the humane treatment of all prisoners of war, the US has been at pains to explain that the detainees at its Cuban base are "enemy combatants" and are therefore not protected under the Convention. Journalists have also been complaining that their efforts to properly investigate happenings at the Guantanamo prisoner camp have often been stymied by the Bush administration under the guise of the ongoing war against terrorism.
"I thank UNESCO and its Director-General for stating clearly, from the start of the post-September 11 debates on the need for tighter international security measures, that the legitimate need for security should never be allowed to become an excuse for limiting free speech and the free press," Mr. Ottaway continued.
"There must be a healthy balance between security and freedom, for democracy and free economies to function. Without secure public safety, it is difficult for press freedom to flourish. We are learning that lesson in post-war, post-Taliban Afghanistan. We will learn it again in post-war, post-Saddam Iraq. Democracy requires the oxygen of free speech and press freedom, guaranteed by the rule of law, enforced by national governments and independent judges."
He continued: "One of the principal lessons of the war on terrorism is that hostile ideologies and the absence of communication and understanding between peoples and nations can lead to regional violence and international war. All of our recent experience of war proves the importance of soft power, of constructive debate, democratic ideas, and human rights that are the central concerns of UNESCO's core programmes in education and science, culture and communication."
Asked whether the US's contention that the war on terrorism was such that it required huge sacrifices on the part of its citizens, including the suspension of certain basic rights, Mr. Ottaway said, press freedom was something that should never be sacrificed. "A lot of what we are seeing... invasion of people's privacy... spying on the press... have nothing to do with the war on terrorism," he said.