Background Release

25 April 2003

Committee on Information to Meet from 28 April to 9 May

Ongoing Reform of Information Department to Be Main Focus of Discussion

NEW YORK, 24 April (UN Headquarters) -- The twenty-fifth session of the Committee on Information, which makes recommendations to the General Assembly on the policy and activities of the Department of Public Information (DPI), will open on Monday, 28 April, against the backdrop of the Department's ongoing reform of its activities.

On the transformation of the DPI, which is entering its next phase, the Secretary-General's view is that reform is the best way to ensure that the United Nations has the most effective communications mechanisms in place to meet the challenges facing it. As he states in his report on the reorientation process, it is clear that the United Nations cannot succeed in fulfilling its goals without being able to effectively communicate its work to the world's people. Meeting that challenge would be the principal responsibility of a new Department of Public Information.

For many years -- since 1946, in fact -- the Department's overarching mandate was to promote an informed understanding of the work and purposes of the United Nations among the peoples of the world. Last year's comprehensive review of the Department found, however, that DPI suffered from fragmentation of its efforts as a result of myriad mandates and missions. To clarify its goals and purposes and enhance its overall effectiveness, the DPI has adopted a new mission statement to "help fulfil the substantive purposes of the United Nations by strategically communicating the activities and concerns of the Organization to achieve the greatest public impact".

When the Committee begins its annual two-week session, it will have before it several reports of the Secretary-General, including reports on the implementation of the pilot radio project, the modernization and integrated management of United Nations libraries, the activities of the United Nations Communications Group in 2002, and programmatic aspects of the 2004-2005 proposed programme budget. A review by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) on the structure and operations of the United Nations information centres will also be before the Committee. The Secretary-General's report on the reorientation of the Organization's public information and communications activities will be the main focus of the Committee's deliberations.

A highlight of the current session will be the observance of World Press Freedom Day on Friday morning, 2 May. This year's programme will feature addresses by Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Chairman of the Committee on Information, and will include a panel discussion on "The Media and Armed Conflict".

Report Summaries

The report on the reorientation of United Nations public information and communications activities (document A/AC.198/2003/2) details the significant progress made in repositioning DPI to meet the Organization's communications challenges with renewed focus and greater clarity of purpose. It also builds upon the previous reorientation report, which offered a preliminary outline of the findings of the comprehensive review of the Department's management and operations.

The report sets out the next phase of the Department's reform and outlines the steps being taken to implement the actions contained in the Secretary-General's report on strengthening the United Nations: an agenda for further change, as they apply to the Department. The Department's new mission statement, as well as its revised operating model and new organizational structure, is also set out in the report. The new mission statement recognizes that the Department's work is not an end in itself and that the information communicated by the Department is generated by the substantive work of the Organization and its component parts.

According to the report, the key elements of the Department's new structure are a Strategic Communications Division, which will devise and disseminate United Nations messages around priority United Nations themes; an Outreach Division, to encompass services to delegations, liaison with civil society and activities for the general public; and a News and Media Division, that has been strengthened by the creation of a new Internet Service, which will enhance the Division's ability to move rapidly to communicate with media around the world on important news development in the United Nations system. The new organizational structure was put into effect as of 1 November 2002.

The report also outlines a new operating concept for the United Nations information centres around regional hubs and the intention to redeploy freed resources to areas of higher priority, including centres in developing countries, the United Nations Web site, and the systematic evaluation of the impact of the Department's activities. The Department is preparing to implement the Secretary-General's proposal starting with a regional hub to serve the member countries of the European Union.

There are three principal reasons for the proposal to move towards regional hubs, the report continues. The first reason is that it will take advantage of a vastly altered world media landscape. It will also establish a smaller number of strategically located centres with a critical mass of staff and resources to allow for greater total impact than the existing network of smaller, poorly resourced centres. Finally, it will redistribute scarce resources away from centres in developed countries, which account for some 35 per cent of all expenditures for the centres, to higher priority information activities.

The Department is currently developing plans to close nine existing centres located in States members of the European Union and to create a regional hub, the report adds. The proposal does not include the information services in Geneva and Vienna, as they perform essential functions for the large United Nations presence in those cities.

Regarding the United Nations Web site, the report notes that the site reached yet another milestone in February 2003, recording more than 10 million accesses in a 24-hour period. (In 1996, the site had received 11.5 million accesses during the entire year.) The Web site has become a very cost-effective medium to disseminate information about the activities of the United Nations to far corners of the world at a continually decreasing cost per unit. With improved connectivity, increasing numbers of users from developing countries are gaining access to the site.

An analysis of the Web site will be carried out in the next few months, the report states, with the assistance of pro bono services. The Secretariat-wide study will formulate realistic proposals for redesigning, restructuring and refocusing the Web site, including in relation to multilingualism. The realignment of priorities will serve two purposes, namely, to increase synergies and boost the team approach and to position Internet capacity to take advantage of evolving technology. The ultimate objective is to take the Web site to the next phase, where a technologically sound, continually updated, intuitive and user-friendly site is available to users in their choice of language.

The report on the programmatic aspects of the 2004-2005 proposed programme budget for DPI (document A/AC.198/2003/3) provides an overview and covers executive direction and management, as well as the four subprogrammes: strategic communications services, news services, library services and outreach services.

Also before the Committee is the Secretary-General's report on implementation of the pilot project on the development of an international radio broadcasting capacity for the United Nations (document A/AC.198/2003/4). The report states that, given its universal reach and cost-effectiveness, radio remains the most potent means of communication for the United Nations, particularly in developing countries. A firm mandate from Member States to continue this international broadcasting capacity will ensure that radio continues to contribute, cost-effectively, to the overall goal of DPI, namely, to generate understanding about the Organization and all the priority issues and concerns that Member States have said the world must be informed about.

As requested by the General Assembly, DPI commissioned a survey on the estimated worldwide audience for United Nations Radio programmes in all six official languages, plus Portuguese, the results of which are broken down in the present report by language and region. The survey, carried out from September to November 2002 through partner stations worldwide, has revealed a number of encouraging trends.

The survey estimates, conservatively, that more than 133 million people listen to United Nations Radio at least once a week in the six official languages or Portuguese. The actual weekly audience is, in fact, higher than the survey figure, which does not cover affiliate radio stations of partner broadcasters that pass on to them United Nations Radio material, nor stations transmitting by short wave or satellite. Such extensive outreach was possible only because of the universality and cost-effectiveness of the medium of radio. The international broadcasting capacity that made this possible is achieved with the relatively small investment of the additional $2.4 million provided to DPI by Member States per biennium.

Also, responses from client stations indicate that the daily United Nations Radio feeds provide a valuable service, supplying material not available from other sources. For example, many radio stations -- including national broadcasters -- find it difficult to cover some crucial international stories with the authority and scope the stories require. United Nations Radio provides range and depth of coverage, including regional focus and regional voices.

The report also covers efforts to ensure continued expansion of United Nations Radio outreach. Among other activities, United Nations Radio is building a higher profile on the Internet through active cooperation with the United Nations News Centre, the third most visited page on the United Nations Web site, supplying interviews and linking to the News Centre's page. In turn, the News Centre links to specific audio stories on the United Nations Radio pages, as appropriate. The expansion of the News Centre into more of the official languages will increase the synergy between it and United Nations Radio.

Also noted in the report is the comprehensive geographical and linguistic spread of the daily United Nations Radio programmes. The survey confirmed, however, that this reach would be greater were it not for the digital divide, which severely hampers distribution in some regions. In this regard, continued efforts by Member States to help close the digital divide are directly relevant to the Department's efforts to improve and expand its radio services to clients in many regions of the world.

The report on modernization and integrated management of United Nations libraries (document A/AC.198/2003/5) states that the Steering Committee for the Modernization and Integrated Management of United Nations Libraries was established in January 2003 as a measure to improve the provision of library services, as called for in the Secretary-General's report on United Nations reform (documents A/57/387 and Corr.1).

Chaired by the Department of Public Information, and working through coordinated management and collaborative policy-making, the Committee will aim to facilitate interdependency and foster initiative to create a dynamic, synergistic and fully functional network of library services throughout the Organization. Furthermore, in order to expand existing cooperative strategies for collection development and resource sharing, and to develop new strategies, the Committee will encourage a shift from a culture of "ownership" to one of access, says the report.

The work of the Committee will concentrate on several areas, among them, inter-library management initiatives promoting collaborative and coordinated activities, products and services; optimization of financial resources; sharing best practices and lessons learned; expanded technical assistance programmes for the small, field and depository libraries; production of multilingual Web pages and portals; database management and maintenance; staff training and development; and staff mobility. The Steering Committee will also play a leading role in ensuring that all libraries of the Organization bring their specialized expertise in information management to bear in the development of all knowledge-sharing initiatives of the Organization.

The report states that the Steering Committee will work to leverage existing investments in human, financial, technological and information resources in the system of library services in the United Nations and to blend traditional library functions with advanced technologies. Through coordinated management, it is expected that economies and efficiencies will be achieved and services optimized to strengthen the outreach of the Organization. It concludes that a primary aim of the Committee will be to promote and expedite projects that will provide instantaneous, electronic access to a seamlessly integrated, coordinated and interdependent global repository of intellectual resources for users, widely distributed around the world.

According to the report on activities of the United Nations Communications Group in 2002 (document A/AC.198/2003/6), the Group, which replaced the Joint United Nations Information Committee, was formed in January 2002 at the initiative of the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information as a flexible and substance-driven mechanism for inter-agency coordination in the field of public information and communications.

In addition to holding an annual session, the Group has set up several issue-specific task forces to coordinate the planning and implementation of joint communications strategies on priority issues. It is also responsible for coordinating the joint participation of the United Nations system in the 2005 World Exposition (Expo 2005) in Japan. The Group holds weekly meetings at Headquarters to discuss issues of current interest.

At its first annual session in Rome, on 27 and 28 June 2002, the Group identified two major communications challenges: developing a flexible and task-oriented approach to coordinating their information work; and finding new, more effective tools to tell their story in an increasingly competitive media environment. It also identified several key elements to formulating an information strategy for the United Nations system. In addition, the Group decided that it was necessary for the organizations of the United Nations system to ensure their common response without losing their separate voices.

By evolving into a flexible but task-oriented common information and communications platform of the United Nations system, the United Nations Communications Group has been able to put more focus on substance and to achieve greater effectiveness in policy harmonization and programme cooperation in areas of system-wide concern. This format has allowed the communications experts within the system to coordinate messages, share ideas, exchange experiences and assess their performance. It has also contributed to the achievement of a much-needed goal, which is for the United Nations system to speak with one voice.

The Committee also has before it a note by the Secretary-General, transmitting the report of the Office of Internal Oversight Services on the review of the structure and operations of United Nations information centres (document A/57/747). The Secretary-General takes note of the findings and concurs with the thrust of the recommendations made, which will serve to streamline and revitalize the operation of information centres by the DPI and optimize the benefit of the Organization's financial and human resource investment in that activity. He is pleased to note that DPI is already taking steps to address the issues highlighted in the report, submitted by the Oversight Office on 14 October 2002, through implementation of its recommendations.

In 2002, there were 65 United Nations information centres (UNICs), 62 of which were operational. In addition, there were five Information Services and eight United Nations Offices. The allocation for 2002-2003 for the Department's work at the field level amounted to $46.5 million, or approximately 30 per cent of DPI's total budget.

The OIOS review highlighted the need for an urgent rethinking of the concept of UNICs -- the principal local sources of public information about the United Nations system -- in terms of usefulness and continued relevance and for closer assessment of various operational and resource issues. It said that DPI needs to update the goals, strategies and objectives of the UNIC operation at the global and regional levels as part of a comprehensive review.

The centres in developing countries require a different managerial approach from those located in developed countries, which have easy public access to the Internet and library facilities. The Department should assess the need for centres in developed countries and review their current number, particularly because those centres are absorbing the bulk of available staff and funding resources, the OIOS recommended.

To address the foregoing issues, DPI should immediately undertake an in-depth evaluation of the options available, such as: restructuring centres on a region-by-region basis with a view to consolidation, merger or liquidation; proposing to integrate more centres with local United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) offices; studying the feasibility of integrating centres with the lead United Nations agency in the host country or region; and transferring certain responsibilities currently assigned to centres in developed countries to civil society partners, such as United Nations Associations, on a case-by-case basis.

The Department also needs to review the rationale for resource allocations to centres and evaluate options for cost savings by seeking to obtain: funding from Member States in the region through the provision of rent-free premises or a subsidy for rent and maintenance costs, with the establishment of new centres being conditional on such funding; and savings through cost sharing with other United Nations entities in the host country or region.

Any restructuring exercise arising from the Department's comprehensive review should also focus on rationalizing the number of posts and the levels of heads and staff of the centres. The Office believes that the successful implementation of those measures will facilitate the reallocation of funds to UNICs in locations where they can play a more important role in the Organization's information outreach programmes.

Committee Membership

The Committee on Information consists of 99 Member States: Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chile, China, Colombia, Congo, Costa Rica, Côte d'Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Guinea, Guyana, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, and Kazakhstan.

Also, Kenya, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Nepal, Netherlands, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Senegal, Singapore, Slovakia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United Republic of Tanzania, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

The election of the officers of the Committee will take place at its first meeting, on 28 April.

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