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J. Nkolo: Address to World Summit 2020

Address to World Summit 2020, Seoul, Korea, February 3-8, 2020


Honorable Park Won Soon, mayor of Seoul,
Honorable Park Yang Woo, minister of culture and sports of the Republic of Korea,
Mr. Lee Pyog Kyu, president, Korea Newspapers Association,
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Esteemed leaders of the Universal Peace Federation,
Dr. Thomas Walsh, Dr. Thomas McDevitt, Dr. Taj Hamad, Dr. Michael Jenkins,

Dear co-panelists,

I am happy to be here today and I am grateful.

It truly is a privilege to be with such a distinguished group.

Please allow me to address you today, not as a United Nations official, but in my personal capacity.

Also, allow me to lace my presentation with my own relevant experiences.

Before discussing the urgency to create a new global association of journalists who would use their talents to influence peace, taking a step back into the past could be useful. Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan was a true visionary who predicted what we are experiencing in the media world today. His expression, "the medium is the message;" the term he coined, global village; and  his prediction of the World Wide Web nearly three decades before its invention, are remarkable. Indeed, it is the advent of social media and online, web-based communications that have changed the established order. Nothing will ever be the same.

After McLuhan, who dwelled more on the technical aspects—notably, all that we owe to Johannes Gutenberg, who introduced the printing press—and communication technology’s impact on cognition and on his theory of the global village, others such as Mustapha Masmoudi, a former secretary of state for information from Tunisia, and a former permanent  representative of his country to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization) in Paris, brought the debate for a “New International Information Order” to the global geopolitical level. As a student at university, my heroes were McLuhan, Humberto Eco, Roland Barthes and Noam Chomsky. Thereafter, I entered the communications industry, in the early 1980s, at which time the debate on the new information order was in full spring.

I am very humbled to be here today with Prof. Ralph Afolabi Akinfeleye, chair and former head of the Department of Mass Communication at the University of Lagos in Nigeria. This is because another eminent Nigerian, the late Prof. Alfred Esimatemi Opubor, one of the brains behind the PanAfrican News Agency (PanaPress) was my mentor, my big brother.

Prof. Opubor was not only the first African to get a Ph.D. in media and communications, he also was a remarkable scholar and a great visionary who spearheaded the campaign to use communications for education and development in Africa.

In 1983, when I was the chairperson of an association of journalists in Quebec, the head of PanaPress, Cheikh Ousmane Diallo from Niger, had the bright idea to dispatch Prof. Opubor to Montreal to be the keynote speaker at a conference I was organizing on the new information order. Other journalists and correspondents from all over the world participated in the event, including Pius Njawe, a courageous journalist and pioneer of a free and independent press in Cameroon. At the time, freedom of the press and of journalists did not exist.

I was elected president of the association in Quebec because at the time I had fought, together with my comrades, for the rights and the freedom of Salvadoran journalist Victor Manuel Regalado. In the early 1980s, Ottawa imprisoned him, considering him a threat to the security and national interests of Canada. What was his crime? Regalado had been covering the civil war in El Salvador, which was a sensitive issue at the time. For my comrades and me, Regalado had become a symbol.

In 1985, I left Radio Canada International and Radio Quebec television to join the BBC World Service at Bush House, because the BBC would give me the opportunity to quench my passion: covering conflicts, and in particular, regional conflicts in Africa. I always dreamed of being a war correspondent.

At the BBC, I launched and produced the Africa at War radio documentary series, l'Afrique en Guerre.

These fond memories remind me of the road we have traveled so far. During the almost four decades I have passionately engaged in the field of communication, I have lived it all— in studios; as an activist; in the field; on the front lines; in the trenches, with the soldiers of regular armies, but also with many rebel forces, and the concepts and theories of McLuhan, Masmoud and Opubor were never too far.

I humbly believe that I am well placed today to measure the magnitude of the vast field of work the world of communications presents with its content and semantics, which is moving at a breathtaking speed.

In 1984, in Montreal, Ousseynou Diop, the head of the Africa and Caribbean section at Radio Canada International assigned me to comment live on Ahmed Sekou Toure. The man who led Guinea to independence had just died in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States. My comment lasted two minutes, and as all journalists did at the time, I had to type my text onto Roneo paper. That was prehistory.

Later for the French BBC, while covering the paramilitary riots in Cairo, I had to resort to climbing telephone poles and connecting crocodile clips to my Nagra tape recorder to transmit my sound, after I had edited my tape using razor blades. Once in Angola, I repeated the use of crocodile clips on telephone poles to send my dispatch to London from the city of Lubango where I was covering the war between the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). That is still prehistory.

In 1986, after weeks of waiting in Port Sudan in eastern Sudan, through contact with the rebels in Suakin, the old Ottoman port on the Red Sea, I finally met Isaias Afwerki in the Eritrean-held territory and interviewed him, just before, later that same day, he became the secretary general of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), replacing Mohammed Ramodan Nur as the head of the group. Today, Mr. Afwerki is the president of Eritrea.

To let the BBC know that I had successfully interviewed Isaias Afwerki, been on the Nacfa front, spent nights in the trenches of Denden with young EPLF soldiers entailed my crossing the desert again, traveling at night to avoid surveillance and aerial bombardment, crossing the borders clandestinely, and going to the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, which was the only place with a Telex machine. Finally, my colleagues could translate my news report into various languages of the World Service and read it on the air. At the time, there were no cell phones, no androids. It was still prehistory.

This type of work took time, and meticulous and multifaceted collaboration within the media organizations. 

Today, things have changed a lot, and we must agree with, go along with and embrace change.

Facebook statistics; the uncertain status of social media workers; issues of security, ethics and

technological challenges and the editorial responsibility of new media; the advent of fake news; and even the birth of a new profession, fact checker, give us food for thought.

Entire regions have succumbed to these waves of innovation and new media. The recent situation with print media in the French overseas territories of Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guyana is sad. Their only daily newspaper, France Antilles, was shut down last week. These are the only territories of France that no longer have a daily newspaper. Hundreds of workers no longer have jobs.

There was a time when one could count on one hand all the Western media correspondents in all of Africa. They were overworked and overstretched, and were based in Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Dakar or Nairobi. If a regional conflict becomes global, how can it be covered? And how do you avoid potentially disastrous coverage by fast-moving social media?

The source of information is often agencies, organizations, governments, civil society or stakeholders. The way communications is being managed, by United Nations agencies, funds and programs; field operations; department and secretariat offices, is rapidly changing, and some methods could well become obsolete. The present situation requires a different approach. The future calls for appropriate guidance and good governance for communication professionals. 

While a spokesperson for a president of the UN General Assembly, I also served for a short time as a spokesperson for the Ebola virus outbreak, which mainly affected West and Central Africa. These regions had experienced civil conflicts and were now confronted with a deadly virus. From my experience, I would take note of how the current epidemic of the coronavirus is covered by the press and how the governments and institutions on the front line manage to reach the hearts and minds of people in local and far away villages, cities, capitals, countries, regions and continents. 

A leading global agency, WHO, despite its remarkable leadership or the talent of its communicators, may have been at times overtaken by the fast grammar and superhighways that are now the trademark of social media in our global village.

Indeed, social media posts appear and are read at greater speed and sometimes become an authority of information or misinformation. They sometimes save lives, sometimes complicate a situation, sometimes are messages intertwined with creative writing. The audio clip of a French lady who claimed to be talking from China went viral. In it she predicted that Paris, would soon be facing food shortages and said that a voice of an angel was speaking from a cloud spreading catastrophic predictions that would clearly shake or at least attract the mindset of social media consumers. 

Let me quote H.E. Ban Ki-moon, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, whom I warmly salute as he graces this summit. In his speech at the 2020 Doomsday Clock Announcement event, on January 23, in Washington D.C., Mr. Ban said: “We can overcome the existential threats we face, but we must act, together, now. No country, no individual, no matter how powerful or how many resources [it has], can do this on their own. We need to hold hands and work together.”

Let’s not wait for a global conflagration of such gravity to happen. Regional conflicts alone are serious arguments that militate in favor of global governance and ethical guidance benefiting communications professionals. In a world that is now infatuated with digital footprints, the existence of such associations has become necessary. Villages would go crazy if the griots—historians, storytellers, poets, musicians—who pass on knowledge and memory from one generation to the next through orality end up losing their authority as they are replaced by new drummers, new speakers, or pernicious social media—which can be effective, helpful, harmful or harmless. 

From time immemorial, the content of mass communications has sometimes been informative, entertaining, educational, neurotic, or sometimes the opposite. 

The advent of social media has made the combination of these functions more lethal, or more potent. It is a double-edged sword; there needs to be better understanding and fine coverage of regional conflicts—and the need to provide useful guidelines to deal with these new realities would indeed support the creation of a new global association of journalists whose role would begin by exerting its influence on what is most precious to all of us: peace. 

Social media gurus, whistleblowers of all kinds, social critics, bathroom or kitchen experts, civil society groups who expertly use the power of social media, and what my 13-year-old son calls “influencers,” are here to stay. The quantitative or qualitative output from social media is complex and not always challenged by consumers. 

Journalistic coverage tomorrow of a regional conflict that turns out to be more complex than today’s coronavirus epidemic will require new ethics and clear directions. Peace itself would be at stake if communications professionals, social media freelancers or addictive influencers end up making peace the target of their output. 

In this beautiful and remarkable capital of Seoul, which shines through its hard work, its innovations and its creativity, I am honored, privileged and humbled to support the launch of the International Media Association for Peace. 

This association would include and embrace all those who communicate from legitimate and identified traditional platforms, provided that they wish to enlist as members and abide by the rules and ethics that the association would adopt, eventually. The association's mandate and influence would make our world a better place and give peace a chance. 

I sincerely thank those who took the initiative for this conference. Thanks again for inviting me.

Today's vision will give birth to a rewarding future. Thank you all.



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