The General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council’ are the two bodies in the U. N. which have always voiced the cause of freedom of information Although the main objective of the U. N. is working for a lasting peace in the world, the U.N. has become a campaign center for freedom of information and truth. It believes that truth alone can make men free from the scourge of ignorance, superstition, hate and war.
The constitution of the U. N. Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) says: “Since wars begin in the minds of men it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed”.
When the world delegates met in 1945 to set up the United Nations in place of the League of Nations, the matter of including freedom of information as a human right received more concern and support. During the drafting of the United Nations Charter, some delegates suggested that it include an elaborate declaration on human rights. However, it was finally decided that the Charter include a .general obligation for member states “to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization” to promote “universal respect for, and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. The fact that human rights were mentioned seven times in the Charter prompted the United Nations action in this field.
Since the United Nations is composed of official representatives from individual governments, and governments play an important role in modern mass communications, this logically leads to a practical reason for the United Nations taking up the problem of freedom of information.
The United Nations work in the field of freedom of information has fallen into two main categories: Members try to lay down a common universal standard with respect to social and legal institutions, commonly referred to as the legal approach to the concept of information; and the United Nations selects specific problems for international action to be carried out by specialised agencies-the pragmatic approach.
The pragmatic approach has led the United Nations, along with special agencies such as United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization, International Telecommunications Union, and Universal Postal Union, to make numerous studies and reports regarding the production and distribution of newsprint, postal and transport services, telecommunications press rates and facilities, radio broadcasting tariff and trade practices, copyright, access to news sources, status of foreign correspondents, censorship on outgoing news dispatches, professional training and standards, independence of news personnel and similar problems.
In March 1948, representatives from 54 governments gathered at the United Nations Conference on Freedom of Information, in Geneva. Although the political post-war climate was not smooth, the delegates fervently hoped to find ways and means of safeguarding and promoting world-wide freedom of information.
The delegates’ aim was to promote peace and progress by laying down a policy for the United Nations in the field of information. The Conference in its Final Act presented a series of resolutions recommending constructive action and three draft conventions for further consideration by the United Nations.
In the meantime, the importance of an unhampered flow of information and opinion both within and between countries had been stressed again and again during World War II and during the period of preparation for the new world organisation. Moreover, the General Assembly at its first session had declared freedom of information “a fundamental human right, the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated”, and “an essential factor in any serious effort to promote the peace and progress of the world”
In the past about 30 years, one of the major works of the United Nations in the field of freedom of information has been to define the concept of freedom of information and to secure, by elaborating and adopting conventions, the observance of legal obligations emanating from the concept. To achieve the aim, four types of instruments were used, and these can be summarized as follows:
1. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Although it dictates only moral principles, this declaration was proclaimed on December 10, 1948 by the General Assembly as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” Article 19 of the declaration deals with freedom of information. Derived from Article 19 was an elaboration on moral principles known as the Declaration of Freedom of Information, proposed and adopted by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations in 1960.
2. The Covenant on Human Rights:
This Covenant is an international “Bill of Rights” dealing with all human rights including the rights of freedom of information. The definition of this right in the draft Covenant is broad enough to allow varying interpretations and its law must be interpreted by practice and judicial decisions.
3. The Convention on Freedom of Information:
This Convention is designed to achieve a common standard of national laws in the field of freedom of information. It allows contracting states to assume certain obligations with respect to their domestic legislation and be entitled to take action against alleged violations of the convention.
It defines the scope of limitations of freedom of information. It draws the line between rights and duties, freedom of responsibility, and has become the basic law on the subject. The drafting of this convention faced great difficulty and confusion; only four articles of the convention were adopted by the Third Committee of the General Assembly.
4. The Convention on the International Transmission of News and the Convention on the International Right of Correction:
These conventions aim at putting forth a common standard for solving practical problems in the field of freedom of information. Almost all countries have an immediate interest in facilitating the transmission of news across their frontiers, and seek to have available a remedy in cases, where, in their opinion, a misrepresentation of facts had occurred and should be corrected.
The scope of these conventions is limited, but when brought into operation they might become quite useful. The Convention on International Transmission of News has been adopted by the General Assembly but has not yet been opened for signature; the Convention on International Right of Correction was ratified by the necessary six nations and entered into force as a treaty in 1962.
The enthusiasm shown at the United Nations Conference on Freedom of Information in 1948 has changed into indifference on the part of many governments. As a consequence, the achievement of the United Nations in recent years in the field of freedom of information seems insignificant. Its efforts to define and guarantee freedom of information in a document acceptable to the majority of the nations have met very little success.
Undoubtedly one of the principal causes of the failure has been the sharpening and expanding the cold war. The high hopes generated during World War II by successful collaboration against a common enemy have declined, and areas of agreement diminished.
Although the cold war has most violently manifested itself in the consideration of political and security problems, no aspect of the United Nations activity has in fact been spared from its paralyzing influence.
Thus, the conflict has been waged not only in the Security Council and the “political” committees of the General Assembly, but in the Third Committee and in other organs dealing with social matters. Moreover, it is understandable that no aspect of this work is more sensitive to the cold war than freedom of information. While the spoken and the printed word is the basic tool of information, it is also one of the most effective weapons of the cold war.
Directly related to the cold war have been the long standing conflicting ideologies of different nations. Because of the conflict, the effort of the United Nations to define the concept of freedom of information has not been achieved. This was described by Professor Holding Eek in these words:
“In the language of the United Nations, ‘freedom of information’ means nothing definite, constant and uncontroversial. It means only an item oil the agendas of various organs of the United Nations.”
The Soviet Block Attitude :
As reflected in the long debates in the United Nations, this ideological conflict constitutes the main obstacle which keeps the international powers for a reaching a definition of a concept of freedom of information. For example, no common ground has ever been reached on the question of whether or not the information media have a primary responsibility to work positively for the cause of peace and to combat propaganda for war or false and distorted reports.
This is an issue which has come up time and again during the debates of the United Nations White the Soviet Union opposed the Draft Convention on Freedom of Information because it did not positively set forth such obligations, the United States and other Western countries opposed the Convention because it did impose obligations and restrictions on information media.
Fundamental to most of the debates on freedom of information and a main factor in retarding progress has been the marked difference of opinion regarding the rights and freedom versus the duties and responsibilities involved in the freedom of information concept.
Reservations of Under-developed Countries:
The campaign for inserting “duties and responsibilities” clause in the draft conventions was strongly supported by the underdeveloped countries and the “new” states freshly emerged from colonial status. They have a vivid sense of the meaning of exploitation and oppression, and they grasp at every opportunity to consolidate their hard-won gains. The resulting political alignment of the “new” and under-developed countries has in many instances cut directly across the interests of the more developed countries.
This has resulted, for example, in their opposition to the Convention on International Transmission of News which would give additional facilities and opportunities to correspondents of countries with highly developed information media, without a corresponding emphasis on specific obligations and responsibilities to protect themselves. They consider the activities of such correspondents frequently harmful to the prestige and dignity of their country.