Statement by Director of Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Maria Zakharova at the 43-rd session of the UNGA Committee on Information
Distinguished Mr. President,
At the outset let me congratulate you on your election for the responsible position of Chair of the Committee on Information and thank Mr. Omar Hilale for his productive work in this office during the challenging times of the pandemic.
Even though the pandemic made us mostly work remotely, we are glad to see that the Department of Global Communications (DGC) under the lead of Under-Secretary-General Melissa Fleming in general could cope with the uneasy outstanding tasks and maintained the high quality of its activities, i.a. by mastering new tracks of operation that emerged in the year 2020 due to its pandemic-related circumstances.
We commend the Secretary-General’s reports on the activity of the DGC and draft resolution of the Committee on Information (CoI) that are to be adopted during the next session of the General Assembly and need to be thoroughly worked through. We hope to make a solid contribution to these activities.
Many pressing issues relating to information have already been addressed, yet many more will need to be raised, i.a. during the work on the draft resolution. Let me start with the core issue – the problem the international community never guessed it would ever be faced with a couple of years ago.
In today’s world, the Internet is no longer a space for free and clear communication, moving towards international legal equity-based regulation to rest upon the freedom of speech and absence of censorship. Instead, it turned out monopolized by American web tycoons. In January this year the Russian side relayed to the UN Secretary-General a communication from the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation regarding numerous violations of the freedom of speech on the part of Internet monopolies.
We would like to point out again that the restrictive steps of major American social networks (account suspensions and removals, content dropping in search rankings) hit the democratic values and the international information architecture. Such limitations of the freedom of speech do not follow any legal prescription – neither the international law nor the domestic legislation – but are imposed at the behest of heads of web companies. Such measures are arbitrarily and non-transparent, void of any legal basis. Millions of web users fall victim to this situation. They lose access to information and the right to freely express their opinions, and it is not the law that causes it.
Seizure of control over the Internet is not a non-existent threat today. Unfortunately, it is the harsh reality. A group of Western media tycoons, mostly centered in one and the same state, have an opportunity to employ censorship and discrimination without regard for morals, ethics, and international legal norms. As a result, the room for free democratic expression shrinks. Any Media, civil society activists, executive and legislative power branches can at any moment be forcibly disconnected from the global network. There are many cases to illustrate that, but, sadly enough, no signs of improvement.
Such “digital dictatorship” and threat of uncontrolled dominance of global Internet companies creates an urgent need to galvanize joint efforts to elaborate general norms that should put the activity of web companies on the solid basis of the international law.
The overall situation in the information domain reflects the intensifying inter-state disputes caused by the global transition towards a polycentric governance. Given tough competition, some countries encourage (for political reasons) journalists to defy the key standards of their professional activity. It invariably leads to deterioration of journalist ethics and further discredits Media as a reliable source of information in the eyes of their audience.
Unfortunately, the international reality of today either openly uses Media as a tool to achieve narrow-specific goals or makes them victims of politically biased discriminatory treatment. We see the freedom of speech deteriorate. In some countries, Media faces persecution, financial obstacles, censorship (there might even be attempts to legally authorize it), license suspension, expulsion or denial of entry, impediments to the work of media outlets.
The problem of disinformation is already widely covered, and it will receive even more attention. Media that once ranked among the most renowned, but gave up this status and turned into 'mainstream media’, today admit or perhaps even promote knowingly false or untruthful publications. Sometimes such materials cannot be perceived as anything but deliberate spread of disinformation. Today is the era of another technological leap, the era of widespread digitalization, so the scope and the depth of this problem can hardly be overestimated.
Now let me address another sad fact of present-day reality. The infodemic – the virus that can stand up to the infamous coronavirus in terms of its harmfulness. We thank Secretary-General Guterres who timely highlighted the relevance of this problem and broadly used the corresponding term – ‘infodemic’. I think no one doubts that disinformation, like weapons of mass destruction, can inflict immense damage on the people of the Earth.
We believe that in the current circumstances, the information track must make a specific focus on the importance of vaccination against COVID-19, as well as comprehensive coverage of the efforts made by the UN and its agencies in providing relevant assistance to the least developed states, which is subject to enhanced efforts of the Organizations and its member states. The United Nations and the WHO daily speak of this issue, and do a lot to address it in practical terms. This domain must not turn into the area of political games or unscrupulous information policies, or by far – disinformation. We must do all we can to safeguard it against the so-called competitive “wrestling” between the vaccine-producing countries. This issue is no place for politicizing and dirty political games.
Taking into account the recent trends, the principle of multilingualism which has always been a fundamental pillar of the media activity of the United Nations, has become important as never before. We are glad that our interaction with the United Nations Russian-language News Service and Russian accounts of the Organization on social media is on the rise, as well as the practice of webcasts in Russian. Thanks to insistent efforts of the Committee on Information, such webcasts, which are available with interpretation, offer everyone an opportunity to follow the main UN events in any of the six official languages. A few years ago it was an initiative that the Committee endorsed and promoted. We are thankful to the DGC for closely monitoring the implementation of this decision. It was truly important, especially in light of the fact that in 2020 we all had to work remotely. Thus the Organization received an opportunity to come to every home and give the users a chance to follow its work via interpretation on the official languages.
In the past year, we jointly implemented a number of online projects, including campaigns that used materials from photo and video archives of Russian museums and the United Nations. Another critically acclaimed initiative was the joint project of Russia and UN news resources dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the 1st human spaceflight and the visit of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova to the UN Headquarters. It is inspiring that the United Nations pays tribute to the accomplishment of the Soviet cosmonaut.
As we are approaching the 9 May celebrations, we would like to highlight the online campaign “Victory75” dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War. We thank our partners from the Permanent Missions of the CIS states for joining this memorial initiative. We hope soon we all will again launch a media project on the occasion of the Victory Day. We thank the United Nations and particularly the DGC for paying increased attention to this paramount date of human history.
We welcome the growing popularity of UN Russian-language accounts and pages of the UN website. At the same time, we have to state that the inequality of the six official languages persists with English dominating in the media field. This is a sad trend, but not because we do not like English. It is because the information from the United Nations gets increasingly more demanded in the other languages as well. This is the objective reality, and we must do all we can so that the users throughout the planet could access UN materials in the officials languages. We expect that the Secretariat will continue to pay priority attention to promoting the language parity by developing UN media resources in all UN languages, including Russian. We are convinced that budgetary expenses must not impede the work at this track. Let me remind that the United Nations was founded as an international mechanism, and its main principles were articulated in the aftermath of one of the most terrible and devastating wars in history - World War 2. Back then our ancestors could find both means and opportunities to understand how important is to perform this work in six languages. It was at the time when they had every reason to cite a lack of funds. And now, many years since then, given the world we live in and the pandemic, given that people want to receive first-hand information from the United Nations, can we repel our audience by depriving it of the opportunity to have that information in all official languages? Of course we cannot. This must not happen.
We closely follow the reform of the UN development system, which provides framework for integrating the info-centers and offices of resident coordinators. Two years into this reform, we can say that the previously applied approach needs further improvement. For example, the division of roles and duties requires greater clarity and coordination in the interests of UN priorities and information campaigns, and during their integration at national levels.
The unity and solidarity of the UN country team is the key to UN’s successful work on the ground. It is vital to remember that the United Nations speaks in one voice. Therefore the algorithm of the work of nearly 20 UN agencies in Russia at the media track and the coordinating role of the UN information center deserve positive assessment.
We count on receiving further targeted and detailed data on the ongoing DGC reform. There is no doubt that the UN must remain in focus of the global attention and be the source of quick and relevant information. To ensure this, we must mainstream our efforts towards positive changes in the media domain.
What I am going to say now was not initially designed to become part of our statement. However we cannot ignore the ungrounded allegations of the Ukrainian delegation regarding some mythical problems with the freedom of expression in the Republic of Crimea that recently reunited with Russia. Unlike those 20 years that Crimea was under Ukrainian jurisdiction, today all national minorities of the peninsula have an opportunity to receive information in their native language. It was made possible thanks to the conditions for true media pluralism and multilingualism of information sources – features that are not characteristic of today’s Ukraine, where unaccounted persecution of the unwanted media (up to forceful closure of TV channels) is thriving, and murders of correspondents remain unsolved. But what is the most outrageous is the fact that Ukrainian journalists cooperate with local secret services in carrying out provocative operations. Let me underscore again that this was not meant to become the main agenda of our statement, but we could not fail to respond to the disinformational insinuations that we hear. Otherwise we would contradict ourselves regarding our commitment to counter disinformation.
Hopefully, we will soon get back to the pre-COVID normal mode of operation and international exchanges that would let us meet in-person in the UN Headquarters and resume our meaningful discussions in traditional formats. We are always ready to cooperate.
Let me thank you and wish to you and all colleagues to stay in good health which is so much needed today.