Unesco defends freedom of information on net

Bridging digital divide should not be at cost of 'lesser' languages and cultures, says director-general

The director-general of the United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organisation has called for the “lesser-used languages” of the world to be given more visibility on the internet.

While the internet offers channels of worldwide communication and potentially bridges information and knowledge gaps between populations, this should not be allowed to bring about a uniformity where everything available is expressed in a few dominant languages, Unesco director-general Koïchiro Matsuura said in an address this month to delegates at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

Preparatory meetings are now being held for the second round of WSIS meetings in Tunis later this year.

Matsuura outlined Unesco’s moves in following up the proposals in the plan of action that came out of the Summit’s first round in Geneva in 2003.

In February, Unesco organised a two-day international Conference in Paris on “freedom of expression in cyberspace”. This “experts’ meeting” was attended by media professionals, academics, activists from civil society and non-governmental organisations, and a large number of official representatives of member states of Unesco.

“While adopting no official declaration, the meeting agreed that internet media should have the same freedoms as print and broadcast media,” Matsuura said. “The conference concluded that it is dangerous to establish regulations for the flow of information in cyberspace — the internet should be based upon full human rights and it is the responsibility of all states to respect and defend these rights when it comes to their application in cyberspace.”

But this does not mean a single international uniformity to the medium. In acknowledgement of the diverse cultures represented by users of the internet, the second thematic meeting was an international conference on “multilingualism for cultural diversity and participation for all in cyberspace”, held on May 6 and 7 in Bamako, Mali.

“There is a real risk that, in efforts to bridge the digital divide, hundreds of local languages may be sacrificed,” Matsuura said. “In fact, the presence of lesser used languages in cyberspace should be part of the process through which they survive and flourish.”

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