Women and media at the UN : analysis of document , 2003

April 2003
Ammu Joseph

The world's media, which besieged the New York headquarters of the United Nations in March 2003, hungry for news from the beleaguered Security Council on the proposed war on Iraq, paid little attention to the fact that a document meant to provide a boost to the participation and access of women to the media, as well as information and communications technologies (ICTs), was being discussed elsewhere in the building during that period.

The "agreed conclusions" on the subject were ultimately adopted by the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) on 14 March 2003, the last day of its 47th session, after two weeks of deliberations and negotiations. The document is expected to provide direction for policy and action at the national and international levels to promote the use of media and ICTs for the advancement and empowerment of women.

Interestingly, the session was unusually and dramatically suspended later that evening because no consensus could be reached on the final document relating to the second theme under consideration by the CSW this year: violence against women. But that, too, went largely unnoticed by the war-obsessed media.

Given the fact that this was the first time the Commission was focusing attention on ICTs and that there is currently considerable international interest in the World Summit on the Information Society (Geneva 2003 and Tunis 2005), it was perhaps inevitable that ICTs should have overtaken, even taken over, the media in various CSW-related documents, including the agreed conclusions. However, it is still regrettable. Fifteen of the 24 actions recommended by the Commission do mention the media, but the document is weaker than it would have been if the media had not been arbitrarily clubbed with ICTs in most instances.

Thanks to the neglect of "traditional" media in all the excitement about the "new" media during the CSW session, the final document does not reflect the fresh thinking on issues of gender and the media across the world, which was evident in the process leading up to the meeting.

The media and ICT-related process included an online discussion over a four-week period in August-September 2002 and two expert group meetings (EGMs) convened by the UN Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) in collaboration with other UN entities in November 2002. While one EGM, held in Beirut, focused on the "participation and access of women to the media, and the impact of media on and its use as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women," the other, which took place in Seoul, concentrated on "information and communication technologies and their impact on and use as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women." The reports of the two EGMs are supposed to have formed the basis of the UN Secretary General's report to the Commission on the theme of women and the media and ICTs. The first day of the CSW session, which began on 3 March, featured a panel discussion during which speakers highlighted key issues relating to the theme, including those contained in the EGM reports.

Many of the points made in the report of the EGM on women and the media are missing in the final document. For instance, it does not adequately address the increasingly complex environment in which the media now operate, in the wake of the recent and ongoing transformation of global media systems, especially in terms of ownership, financing and control, not to mention the impact of globalization. The Beirut EGM had pointed out that issues relating to gender and the media had to be viewed and understood in this context if they were to be effectively tackled.

Similarly, the CSW document does not sufficiently reflect EGM recommendations on policies as enabling frameworks. One result of this is that it does not adequately address issues such as women's right to information and communication, the relevance and role of public service media, the need for both independence and accountability in the media, and so on. Nor does the document deal with a number of EGM recommendations on women's access to employment and decision-making, including the importance of ensuring the access and participation of women who are variously disadvantaged (by race/ethnicity/caste, religion, health/ability, etc.). In addition, the document fails to reflect the new thinking and strategies outlined in the EGM report that could be used to improve the situation with regard to representation, portrayal and other content-related issues.

The report of the Beirut EGM clearly highlighted the need for action is to tackle the continuing under-representation of women in both media professions and content, and their misrepresentation in the latter. The fact that content remains a problem even in the new millennium was underscored by the results of new research presented at a side-event that took place during the CSW session.

One of the many interesting findings of the Southern African Gender and Media Baseline Study, the regional report of which was launched at the event, was that women's views and voices continue to be grossly under-represented in the media. For instance, the multi-country study found that women constitute 17 per cent of known news sources (which is close to the global figure of 18 per cent revealed by the Global Media Monitoring Project in 2000), even though they constitute 52 per cent of the population in the region. The study, spearheaded by Gender Links and the Media Institute of Southern Africa, examined news coverage in a range of media across 12 countries of the region over a one-month period (September 2002). The survey included both print and electronic media in the private, public and community sectors, covered 36 per cent of the media in southern Africa, and involved both quantitative and qualitative analysis.

The neglect of some of these media-specific matters is clearly due to the fact that the media seem to have been tagged on to ICTs, without much thought, throughout the discussions leading up to the final document. While the media and ICTs are clearly related, there are obviously some issues that are more relevant and critical to one or the other. Those that relate specifically to the media in the new millennium could perhaps have been more seriously and constructively addressed by the CSW.

Nevertheless, a number of actions contained in the agreed conclusions of the 47th session of the CSW may well help address the remaining hurdles in the way of women's access to and participation in the media and ICTs. They also highlight the need to ensure that the media, information and communication promote women's equality and human rights, including their right to freedom of expression and to information. 

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