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DPI/NGO Briefing - 2 March 2006
The Role of the Media in Advancing Cross-Cultural Understanding


The DPI/NGO Section held its weekly NGO briefing on 2 March 2006, which looked at the Role of the Media in Advancing Cross-Cultural Understanding.

H.E. Juan Antonio Yáñez-Barnuevo, Permanent Representative of Spain to the United Nations; H.E. Baki Ilkin, Permanent Representative of Turkey to the United Nations; Prof. Tomaz Mastnak, Director, Office of the Alliance of Civilizations; Ahmed Younis, National Director, Muslim Public Affairs Council; Sr. Joan Kirby, Temple of Understanding, and Chair, NGO/DPI Executive Committee; Aberrahim Foukara, United Nations Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera; and Martin Burcharth, US Correspondent, Information (Danish newspaper), discussed the Alliance of Civilizations and how the media contributed to promoting mutual understanding between different cultures and beliefs.

Ambassador Yáñez-Barnuevo described the establishment of the Alliance of Civilizations and how the Spanish and Turkish Governments co-sponsored the initiative, which was launched by the Secretary-General in July 2005. He briefly outlined the composition of the High-level Group for Alliance of Civilizations which was expected to prepare a report that would include an analysis of the problem as well as recommendations for actions to be taken in order to solve the problem. Ambassador Yáñez-Barnuevo stressed that the High-level Group was to address deep-rooted perceptions, not immediate events.

Ambassador Ilkin started by saying that the issue was not new and that there had been efforts to try and address it before. He said that the High-level Group would look at best practices and try to complement the work that had already been done. Ambassador Ilkin stressed that the second phase of their work would be much more important, namely the implementation of the recommendations put forward in the report by the High-level Group.

Prof. Mastnak talked about the meeting of the High-level Group, which took place in Doha, Qatar last weekend. This was the second meeting of the High-level Group. The UN Secretary-General also participated in the meeting, which looked at questions of youth, immigrant populations, education and media. Also high on the agenda was the cartoon controversy, which was understood as a crisis that the Alliance needed to deal with. Prof. Mastnak also referred to the joint statement that was issued at the meeting by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, the First Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister of Qatar, the Foreign Minister of Spain and Foreign Minister of Turkey. (Hard copies of the statement and other relevant information material were available at the briefing.)

Ahmed Younis talked about how in his opinion the recent cartoon controversy was affecting the majority of moderate Muslims in the US. He said that the Muslims did not want the Danish Government to curb freedom of speech, but that they expected the Government to exercise its own freedom of speech and respond to the controversy. He said that the unfortunate reality of the controversy was that the conversation was dominated by extremists on both sides. Most Muslims were not represented by them. 

Joan Kirby stressed the need for dialogue and education and how important it was to have inter-religious understanding and cooperation between the diverse groups. She highlighted another initiative, namely the Tri-Party Forum which brings together the UN system agencies, UN Member States and the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN to create innovative partnerships across traditional boundaries to seek together new forms of effective, just and global cooperation. She also expressed interest to cooperate with the Alliance of Civilizations.

Aberrahim Foukara started by saying that the media worked in mysterious ways. Sometimes they contributed to cross-cultural understanding and other times they caused damage. He illustrated that point by giving several examples of positive and negative media coverage in terms of its cultural sensitivity. Mr. Foukara acknowledged the fact that it was difficult for the media to step back and stressed that every so often they did contribute to the positive dialogue among civilizations.

Martin Burcharth said that the media had an incredible role to play in advancing cross-cultural understanding and there was a lot to be learned from the recent cartoon controversy. He felt that the cartoons were not about freedom of speech but about one newspaper testing the reaction of the Muslim community in Denmark to being publicly ridiculed. He also said that libel and defamation were clearly against the law in Denmark. While the Danish Muslim community exercised their right to peaceful protest, the cartoons were published around the world and the controversy took its own turn.

The panel discussion was followed by a question-and-answer session.

A question was raised about whether some countries with large Muslim populations used the cartoon controversy to re-direct attention away from internal problems. In response to the question, Ambassador Yáñez-Barnuevo said that the Alliance of Civilizations preceded the cartoon controversy. He stressed that the Alliance was established to deal with a deeply-rooted misperceptions and divides. The cartoons were only a symptom of the much bigger issue at hand; in Prof. Mastnak's words there was a whole "reservoir of resentments".

In a separate ad hoc briefing Rachel Groux, Counsellor, Office of the President of the General Assembly, outlined the Human Rights Council proposal as submitted by the President of the General Assembly last week. She described the main differences between the current Commission on Human Rights and the proposed Human Rights Council, including membership (six less seats, total of 47; elected by absolute majority in the GA) and expectations arising from the membership, term limitations (2 term maximum, followed by an unspecified pause), meetings (regular throughout the year), reporting structure (GA instead of ECOSOC), universal periodic review and possibility of suspension. In response to a question about where the process of establishing the Council stood at the moment, Ms. Groux responded by saying that the President of the General Assembly was collecting feedback from the Member States. She added that hopefully more will be known by 13 March when the Commission begins its meeting. 

The briefing was well attended by about 100 representatives of non-governmental organizations, UN and Permanent Mission staff. It was webcast live and is archived at www.un.org/dpi/ngosection  and/or www.un.org/webcast

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