Day of Debate at UNESCO: Journalism after Charlie

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UNESCO organizes a day of reflection and debate on Freedom of Expression - (left to right) Irina Bokova, Plantu, French cartoonist.
© UNESCO/Fabrice Gentile

“Every seven days, one journalist is killed for doing his or her job. Nine out of ten cases go unpunished. … Many more reporters suffer from intimidation and harassment, from threats and violence…this is simply unaccepatable,” stated Director-General Irina Bokova at the start of UNESCO’s Journalism after Charlie event in Paris on 14 January, 2015.

The one-day debate at UNESCO was organised in the wake of last week’s terrorist attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and its violent aftermath, in which 17 people were killed.  The day was dedicated to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists as well as to promoting intercultural dialogue and countering discrimination and intolerance in fragmented societies. These issues stand at the heart of the mandate and action of UNESCO, which celebrates this year its 70th anniversary.  

The Director-General highlighted the work of UNESCO to these ends across the world, through education for human rights and for the prevention of genocides, action to support freedom of expression and media literacy, and the safeguarding of humanity’s shared heritage as platforms for mutual respect and understanding. To the large audience gathered to participate in the event, Irina Bokova recalled the decision adopted by UNESCO Member States in 2006, on “Respect for freedom of expression and respect for sacred beliefs and values and religious and cultural symbols.” She also highlighted the vital importance today of the UN Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists, spearheaded by UNESCO which is leading its coordination across the UN system.

More than 60 journalists attended from around the world. They were joined by leaders from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities in France as well as representatives of UNESCO’s Member States.  Everyone shared Ms. Bokova’s alarm over last week’s savage assault on freedom of expression and they supported her call for action for deeper cooperation to enhance the safety of journalists, to build new forms of media literacy, to engage young people, and to craft new bridges of dialogue between and within societies.
The Secretary of State of France for Development and Francophonie, Ms Annick Girardin, spoke at the opening ceremony, highlighting the commitment of the French Government to upholding human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity of every woman and man, and underlining the importance of education and learning to fight ignorance and prejudice. In this regard, she mentioned the adoption last year by UN General Assembly at the initiative of France of an International Day for the Safety of Journalists, celebrated each year on November 2.

French editorial cartoonist Plantu also spoke at the opening highlighting the right of all people to express their opinions, which he defended with passion and enthusiasm.  He also paid tribute to his friends and colleagues from Charlie Hebdo who were killed last Wednesday in Paris. He emphasized the contribution of cartoonists all over the world in “speaking from their hearts” and talked about his engagement on the  NGO Cartooning for Peace, an initiative born in 2006 at the United Nations in New York bringing together some of the best-known political cartoonists in the world to fight intolerance, and to promote a better understanding and mutual respect between people of different cultures and beliefs using editorial cartoons as a universal language. Cartooning for Peace facilitates meetings of professional cartoonists of all nationalities with a wide audience, to promote exchanges on freedom of expression, recognition of journalistic work of cartoonists, as well as protection to cartoonists working in difficult environments.
“The cartoonist’s job is to continue a dialogue with all religions…but to always remain impertinent…and people should know that when we draw, we’re nurturing a conversation.”

Round tables during the day focused the debate on two key issues: journalists’ safety and strengthening intercultural dialogue.
 
The first brought together a group of well-known reporters and media commentators, including:  Magnus Falkehed, reporter for Dagens Nyheter and Sydsvenska Dagbladet, Janine Di Giovanni, Middle East Editor of Newsweek, Georges Malbrunot, journalist at Le Figaro, John Ralston Saul, President of PEN International, Omar Belhouchet, journalist with El Watan, and Ernest Sagaga, Human Rights and Safety, International Federation of Journalists
 
This panel was moderated by Loick Berrou, Director of Programmes at France 24, the all-news television channel.  He paid tribute to the cartoonists who were killed.
 
“Cabu, Charb, Wolinski, Honore, Bernard Marris, Mustafa Ourad were not war reporters nor investigative journalists,” he stated.  Their only weapon was their pen or their pencil.”
 
“We are not fighters, we are journalists,” continued Ernest Sagaga.  “That is why we request protection.  We have to end impunity (for people who kill reporters) because we don’t leave our family in the morning to fight.”
 
The second Round Table was entitled “Intercultural Dialogue and Fragmented Societies.”   It included a wide range of participants: Robert Badinter, former President of the French Conseil Constitutionnel, Haïm Korsia, Chief Rabbi of France, Djelloul Seddiki, Director of the Institut de Théologie El Ghazali, Khalil Merroun, Rector of the Grande Mosquée d’Évry, Ms Bariza Khiari, Senator, France, David Khalili, founder of the Khalili Family Trust, co-founder, Maimonides Foundation, Monsignor Francesco Follo, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to UNESCO and the Imam Tareq Oubrou, of the Grande Mosquee de Bordeaux. The panel was moderated by Renaud Girard, journalist at Le Figaro
 
During the debate, speakers emphasized the paramount role of education from the very young age for young people to be able to become responsible global citizens and to deepen mutual respect and understanding in societies that are increasingly diverse and transforming deeply. The importance of the teaching of history, and the need to dispel misconceptions of different religions were also emphasized. The foundation of human rights was presented as the basis for uniting the rich diversity of societies today, and this requires ever more dynamic exchanges, especially between young people.
 
In closing, former French Justice Minister Robert Badinter made a passionate speech in favor of human rights, as the key factor of unity of the human family in all its diversity.  “Society today is fragmented,” he stated.  “But we are at UNESCO, and here we can say that the fragments can be brought together to make a work of art like a mosaic.  The framework for achieving this objective is human rights.”

The event at UNESCO took place as Paris held ceremonies to commemorate the victims of last week’s attacks.  This day opens a period of reflection about promoting respect for all human rights and freedoms in the spirit of tolerance, respect and diversity.