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From bounce-icftu-online-7984@forum.icftu.org Wed Apr 2 06:00:21 2003
Subject: ICFTU online: Spotlight Interview - IFJ General Secretary Aidan White
Date: Wed, 2 Apr 2003 12:35:58 +0200
Thread-Topic: ICFTU online: Spotlight Interview - IFJ General Secretary Aidan White
Thread-Index: AcL5A6YUKTmrYXEcRcaUwowZg5Va/g==
From: ICFTU Press <press@icftu.org>
To: ICFTU Online <icftu-online@forum.icftu.org>

Spotlight Interview’IFJ General Secretary Aidan White

ICFTU OnLine, 068/010403, 2 April 2003

Brussels, April 2, 2003 (ICFTU online): The deaths of journalists and media workers during the Iraq (1) conflict has highlighted the issue of safety for workers in this sector during conflicts. Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, sets out his organisation’s policies and activities on this question, along with concerns about restrictions on the media in countries where serious violations of trade union and human rights are commonplace.

What is the most recent information you have concerning journalists and other media workers who have been killed, injured or disappeared covering the Iraq conflict?

We are monitoring the situation daily. So far we have three journalists who have died, three more are missing, presumed dead, and each day we have reports of journalists, up to seven at a time, unaccounted for (2).

The IFJ has expressed grave concerns about a dramatic escalation of the Iraq conflict resulting in a bloodbath of journalists and media workers. What are the main elements of these concerns?

The attack on Iraqi television by the United States military goes beyond ’military objectives’ as defined by international law and opens up terrible possibilities for violence against media.

Once one side or another in a conflict shouts ’propaganda’ and targets media there is a threat to journalists everywhere. Any journalist or media worker carrying a camera or a microphone or driving in a vehicle marked press can come under fire from soldiers who don’t like the message media are giving out.

We are not talking about small numbers here. Around 3,500 journalists and media staff, most of them freelance, are roaming the war zone. Only around 550 are so-called embedded journalists with the protection of military cover. We have already had reports of journalists beaten up, harassed and hassled by Iraqi forces or by coalition forces.

What sort of concrete assistance can the IFJ provide to journalists who are working in the Gulf at the moment?

We have opened up a 24-hour hotline on our web site, providing information and help to journalists and media staff in need. We have dealt with a number of serious and worrying cases and we have been working with unions and colleagues in Russia, the United Kingdom, Italy, Portugal, Spain and a number of Arab countries over media people who have found themselves in trouble.

Aside from the battlefields in Iraq itself, how do you evaluate the global impact of this conflict on journalists?

This is unlike any war before. Of course, journalists have always covered war, but this time we have global media providing two clear and distinct lines of reporting—one directed at Arab audiences through the network of Arab satellite channels and the other through the prism of western media. In the last gulf war CNN famously dominated the coverage, today it is Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV, the BBC and a host of other 24-hour channels providing unlimited reporting.

Is it good or objective? Hardly. If anything we run the risk of creating battle fatigue among viewers because even the best networks cannot give a full picture of what is really happening. In the end it is the military—either through the spin-doctors at headquarters, or commanders in the field—who are manipulating the output. There is also a problem of so-called patriotic journalism, which has begun to undermine the traditional quality of some media coverage. The dismissal of Gulf War veteran Peter Arnett by the US network NBC for his frank disclosures about the conduct of the war to Iraqi Television is an example of this intolerance.

In general, what are the principles of the fundamental rights intended to protect the security and the rights of journalists and other media workers which you believe should be applied during armed conflicts?

The Geneva Conventions provide that journalists should be treated as civilians because they have a neutral, independent observer status in wartime. Journalists surrender this protection when they become embedded with troops.

We have to revisit some of these rules to see whether or not the rights of journalists and media staff should be strengthened. The Geneva Conventions were fashioned in an era before global media and 24-hour news programmes and they need to be brought up to date. Above all, we have to make sure that media are not targeted.

The war in Iraq is clearly the subject of enormous media attention. This is not the case for other armed conflicts, far from the cameras of the major international media outlets. From Chechnya through the Congo to Colombia, which of the conflicts in the shadows are the most dangerous for journalists? And how can the IFJ help these journalists?

The IFJ is a founder of the International News Safety Institute, a new NGO being created by more than 100 media organisations, journalists’ union (3), press freedom groups. The INSI, which will be launched on World Press Freedom Day 2003, will set standards for safety in journalism and introduce, for the first time, the possibility for journalists in the regions of the world to have access to safety training, equipment and resources that will reduce the risks they face.

Every year we monitor killings of journalists and media staff. In the past ten years more than 1,000 have died. But few of them are high-profile foreign correspondents according to the exotic and romantic image of journalism. More than 95 percent of the victims die in their own country.

The dangers to journalists are local and that’s why our top priority is to take safety work to the regions. We are demanding that all media development projects should include risk awareness issues. Every journalist and media worker in the world is entitled to work in safety.

What lessons have you drawn from recent conflicts such as for example in ex-Yugoslavia? How can these lessons help improve the security situation of journalists covering armed conflicts today in various parts of the world?

We have learned much from the terrible conflicts in the Balkans and central Africa and Colombia. But it has taken ten years to create the conditions for unity within media to take practical action. At last that is being done. The new Institute is our initiative, but it has the support of almost every leading media organisation in the world—CNN, the BBC, and major newspaper groups—as well as journalists’ unions and press freedom campaigners. There is already a regional network in place and local media are signing up. It brings together veterans from regional conflicts and people committed to change.

At the UN Human Rights Commission the ICFTU recently denounced, once again, grave violations of trade union and human rights in several countries, including Colombia, Burma, Belarus, China, Congo, Guatemala, Haiti, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. How would you characterise freedom of the media in these countries and the conditions under which journalists work?

In all of these countries you find that press freedom exists in twilight and there is routine harassment and violations of the rights of journalists. Sometimes the government is to blame—as in China, Burma and Zimbabwe—and sometimes it is terrorists or rebel groups or mafia.

The struggle for media freedom and democratic rights for all, including the struggle for trade union rights, takes place simultaneously, which is why journalists and other trade unionists must work together to confront abuse of human rights and to strive for democratic change.

The international trade union movement called once again at the recent world social and economic forums in Porto Alegre and Davos for globalisation to be democratised. How do your calls for press freedom, transparency in politics and editorial independence relate to the overall global trade union struggle for action against poverty and for sustainable development?

As I say, the struggle for social justice and democracy is inextricably linked to the fight for freedom of expression and a world communication and information order that includes everyone. That is also why the World Summit on the Information Society in December in Geneva is a vital date on the trade union calendar—it gives us an important opportunity to put our demands for a new and just information system before the United Nations (4).

Electronic communications are expanding rapidly. What is the impact of these new media on the work of journalists?

You can see the impact every day on your television screens. There is a culture of breaking news and a 24-hour news agenda that is undermining the quality of journalism. Previously, journalists had time to reflect on the impact and quality of content of information before going to air, now news is an instant commodity. Standards are inevitably falling.

We also have the Internet with its varied range of sources of information—many of them trivial and unreliable. Journalists are under tremendous pressure in the competitive environment of modern media to cut corners and to come up with stories that will beat the competition. Again, quality suffers.

What is your opinion of the blocking of the Internet site of the Arabic media outlet Al Jazeera?

The Internet is an unregulated, unforgiving and unprofessional forum. There is plenty of intolerance as we see with attempts to hack into and take down the Al Jazeera site.

Many people think that the Internet is a liberating force and to an extent they are right. But every day we see that people rely mainly on traditional forms of media—radio and television—for their information and it is vital that these filters of information are reliable and professional.

All opinions—whether it is from Fox News, the BBC or Al Jazeera—have a right to be heard. When bullets start flying very often we see that the humanitarian values of pluralism and rights of free expression are victims. We have to challenge this intolerance at all times.