IMPORTANCE OF FREE, INDEPENDENT PRESS, ROLE OF JOURNALISTS IN IRAQ WAR
HIGHLIGHTED IN WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY OBSERVANCE
Programme’s Theme: ‘The Media and Armed Conflict’ Addressed
By Deputy Secretary-General, Panel of International Journalists
A free and independent press was the lifeblood of strong, functioning societies, and a lifeline to progress itself, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette said this morning to commemorate World Press Freedom Day.
Addressing the observance, organized by the Department of Public Information (DPI) around the theme, “The Media and Armed Conflict”, she said that, unless ideas and information could travel freely, both within frontiers and across them, peace would remain that much more elusive. Where censorship was imposed, both democracy and development were the losers.
“Uppermost in many of our minds just now must be the 14 journalists killed -– and two still missing -– in the war in Iraq”, she said. Most journalists who died in the line of duty around the world were murdered for exposing corruption or abuses of power, for opposing entrenched interests, and, in short, for doing their jobs. The commemoration came at a moment when the press was reckoning with the complexities of its role in armed conflict, she said.
World Press Freedom Day was established by the General Assembly in 1993. Its decision to set aside a date each year for the event stemmed from the 1991 UNESCO General Conference resolution on promotion of press freedom in the world, which recognized that a free, pluralistic and independent press was an essential component of any democratic society.
Chairman of the Committee on Information Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury (Bangladesh) said that, whether in Iraq or in the occupied Palestinian territories, South Asia or West Africa, journalists served as “our eyes and ears”. Freedom of expression was neither a gift nor a political concession; it was a fundamental human right. The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights five decades ago had been acutely aware that no society could be totally free without a free press, he said.
Speaking for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Assistant Director-General Abdul Waheed Khan said the media, in both wartime and peace, could positively contribute to providing accurate and relevant information vital for people to make well-informed choices. War, a time when the risks facing journalists were greater than usual, was the
time when accurate and professional reporting was most at a premium. Whenever one journalist was exposed to violence and lost his or her voice, all citizens were deprived.
The President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), Tony Jenkins, drew attention to the case of a United Nations correspondent, who had been expelled by the host country before the Iraq war. He had never had a chance to speak in his own defence, however. Journalists often saw themselves as a pillar of democracy by bringing transparency to the affairs of States. That was why he was so disappointed in the United States media in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Either they had been looking for ratings, or they had allowed themselves to be manipulated. If the freedom of the press was not truly free, then it would wither.
Brief introductory remarks were also made by the Vice-President of the Museum of Television and Radio, Esther Stoneburn, who also presented a screening of a video prepared by the Museum, entitled “Media and War Coverage”.
During the panel discussion that followed the opening remarks, distinguished print and broadcast journalists from media around the world examined freedom of the press in the context of the recent coverage of the war in Iraq, with particular emphasis on the practice of “embedding” journalists with troops. The panellists were: Joy DiBenedetto, Cable News Network (CNN); Bernard Estrade, Agence France-Presse; Abderrahim Foukara, Al-Jazeera; Khalid Hasan, Daily Times, Lahore; and Tony Jenkins, Expresso, Portugal, who spoke earlier as President of UNCA.
Moderating that discussion was Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor. He asked participants to observe a moment of silence in tribute to the journalists who had paid dearly in Iraq and elsewhere, sometimes with their lives, in their efforts to uphold the right of people everywhere to know what was happening in their communities and around the world. The Day was also a cause for celebration, as press freedom had been increasingly recognized as an inalienable right in more countries than ever before, he said.
SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, opening the event, paid tribute to the journalists who had paid dearly in efforts to uphold the rights of people to be informed of what was happening in their communities or in crisis situations around the world. In that respect, he asked the gathering to observe a moment of silence in honour of the journalists killed during the recent Iraq conflict.
One of the journalists killed in the recent conflict was an accredited United Nations correspondent, he said. While it was a solemn moment, the Day was also a cause for celebration. Press freedom was more often recognized as an inalienable right. The Day also provided an occasion to reflect on the responsibility of the media. For that reason, the theme chosen for today’s commemoration was the media and armed conflict.
LOUISE FRÉCHETTE, Deputy Secretary-General, said that on World Press Freedom Day, the right of the press to do its job was reaffirmed. Unless ideas and information could travel freely, both within frontiers and across them, peace would remain that much more elusive. Where censorship was imposed, both democracy and development were the losers. A free and independent press was the lifeblood of strong, functioning societies, and a lifeline to progress itself.
She said the United Nations was particularly appreciative of the work done by correspondents here at Headquarters, and it would continue to do what it could to protect their freedom to continue that work.
World Press Freedom Day was also an occasion to remember the many journalists who lost their lives while pursing their mission, she said. Uppermost in our minds just now must be the 14 killed –- and two still missing -– in the war in Iraq. The exact circumstances of those deaths were not yet known, and perhaps they never would. What was known, thanks to the Committee to Protect Journalists, was that most of the journalists who died in the line of duty around the world were murdered -– for exposing corruption or abuses of power, for opposing entrenched interests, legal or illegal -- in short, for doing their jobs.
It should also be remembered, she went on, that journalists were also imprisoned for the same reasons -– 136 at the end of 2002, according to the Committee. Many hundreds more faced harassment, intimidation and physical assault. Quite apart from the individual tragedies involved, such acts could have a chilling effect on society at large, stifling dissent and debate. Such attacks must not be tolerated. Their perpetrators must be brought to justice.
She said that today’s commemoration came at a moment when the press was reckoning with the complexities of its role in armed conflict. The panel, “Media and Armed Conflict”, would give media professionals an opportunity to address the professional practices, as well as ethical norms, which should guide media coverage of war, and their continuing responsibilities during the aftermath of conflict.
Journalism always involved difficult choices, she said, but wartime raised the level of intensity, leading journalists into a veritable minefield of issues: objectivity versus propaganda; scepticism versus chauvinism; big-picture context versus single-dramatic images; the struggle by reporters to balance the need for objectivity with the benefits of access from being “embedded” with troops; the need to convey the impact of conflict, particularly on civilians, without displaying images of death and suffering, which were an affront to human dignity; and whether saturation coverage actually ended up diminishing our capacity to feel, to care, and to act.
She highlighted one issue as particularly troubling to those at the United Nations, namely, that of selectivity. Why, it was asked, did some issues and situations attract coverage, while others of seemingly equal importance fail to achieve critical mass?
She said she wished to use the Day to call for action on at least one major issue on which everyone agreed -- hate media. In Rwanda, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the world saw genocide and crimes against humanity, triggered, in part, by nationalistic and ethnocentric hate campaign, propagated through the mass media.
More recently, in Côte d’Ivoire, many media outlets began to use what were widely regarded as xenophobic messages, political manipulation, unsubstantiated claims, and incitement to violence against individuals and groups, especially of specific foreign origin, she said. That situation had eased somewhat, but, once again, the world saw that the misuse of information could have deadly consequences.
Whether the contours of the times were called “Information Society” or the digital area, she said that the societies that were built must be open and pluralistic. The media could do more than anyone to help reach that goal, and bridge the digital divide. The press could also benefit from the forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society, if it elicited a strong commitment from world leaders to defend media freedom. (For full text, please see Press Release DSG/SM/195, OBV/339 of 2 May.
IFTEKHAR AHMED CHOWDHURY (Bangladesh), Chairman of the Committee on Information, said the Day had come to symbolize the Committee’s firm commitment, not only to the promotion of freedom of press, but also to the freedom of peoples everywhere to voice their opinion without fear or duress. Freedom of expression –- the foundation of press freedom –- was neither a gift nor a political concession; it was a fundamental human right, enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The drafters of that Declaration five decades ago were acutely aware of the incontrovertible axiom that no society could be totally free without a free press, he said. It was only through a free press that it was possible to hear the voice of the weak and the small. A free press and hunger were incompatible. Indeed, it was accepted wisdom now that a free press was a fundamental prerequisite for development. Thus, the observance of the Day was not only a way of saying “yes” to a free press, but also “yes” to democracy, “yes” to human rights, and “yes” to development.
He said that this year’s theme, “the media and armed conflict”, had assumed great importance in the wake of the recent war in Iraq, which had claimed the lives of several international journalists, and several more had sustained injuries. All were there, under those harrowing circumstances, to carry out their duties. Today, “we honour them, and pay tribute to their dauntless courage”. As the High Commissioner for Human Rights had recently noted, the right to freedom of information was dealt a fatal blow when a journalist was killed or wounded in the performance of his or her vital role.
Journalists had come under attack from a variety of sources, he continued. They often became victims of either those in power, or those who sought to “grab” it, or those who had chosen the path of terrorist tactics, he said. In each case, the perpetrators were those who feared the dissemination of correct information. For some, it was easier to silence the truth than to confront it. That was a sad reality of the current times, and it was that reality which he sought to change.
Whether in Iraq, or in the occupied Palestinian territories, or South Asia, or West Africa, journalists served as “our eyes and ears”, he said. Through them, the world learned not only how a war was conducted, but also how it affected peoples. Journalists could give voice to those who would otherwise remain unheard, tell stories that otherwise would remain untold. They could construct conduits between those trapped in a conflict zone and those outside. In conflicts and war, the presence of journalists could prevent atrocities. They could sense a conflict ahead and alert the world to the need for preventive measures to avoid tragedy.
According to one estimate, he noted, 70 per cent of all casualties in recent conflicts had been civilians, and two thirds of them were women and children. It was essential that the voices of women from a conflict zone be heard, and reported. There was much that governments could do to help women gain access to information and enjoy the freedom to report their findings. There was also much that assignment editors, mostly men, could do to ensure that the capacities of women reporters, many most capable, were better tapped.
He said he was pleased to note that, in a growing number of countries, the press today was largely free and independent. That was a “happily” burgeoning phenomenon, which had been made possible largely through the spread of democratic values and pluralistic principles. Liberalization of the media had also meant the liberalization of society, leading to a strengthening of democracy. When democracy was strengthened, the participation of people in national and international affairs expanded. The ramifications for society, the nation and the world were positive.
The advancement of communications technology, especially the Internet, had further contributed to the demolition of the old walls of media control. As everyone knew, however, that information and communication technology revolution had not benefited all equally. As with globalization, the rich and powerful had reaped greater benefits. The poor and weak had often been left behind. That sometimes created a new chasm, which must be addressed and eliminated. The revolution must be pressed into the greater service of humanity and converted into an instrument to enable the developing world to leapfrog stages of development.
A just and more effective communications environment was possible, but only when information was not only free, but also accessible. In a world where the gulf between developed and developing countries was still widening, that goal, sadly, remained elusive. Endemic poverty, high rates of illiteracy, growing unemployment, and the HIV/AIDS menace remained the biggest roadblocks towards a better and more equitable world. The Millennium Development Goals had mapped out a clear path for the world community. If the world was as unwavering in implementing them as it was at formulating them, then the common dream of a better world would no longer be just a dream.
ABDUL WAHEED KHAN, Assistant Director-General for Information and Communication of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said today was the time to commemorate article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The world had just witnessed yet another conflict in which the media and journalists had been affected in a number of ways. Journalists had been limited in their access had been and attacked in military operations. Some had been killed and injured, and the number of those killed had been high.
Armed conflict was always devastating, affecting peoples’ perceptions of threat and fear in a way that could cause a spiral effect, fanning the flames of conflict, he said. The media could positively contribute by providing accurate and relevant information vital for people to make well-informed choices, both in times of peace and war. Credible media was essential in all cases, but during war accurate and professional reporting was most at a premium. The UNESCO was firm in its commitment to the free exchange of ideas as a basic human right to be enjoyed by all people, and its constitution stressed the need for unhindered communication that linked the free flow of ideas to the broader ideas of preventing war.
Reading from a statement by the UNESCO Director-General, he saluted all the journalists whose pursuit of truth and information had taken them into harm’s way. He applauded their bravery in the face of danger, admired their tenacity in pursuing the facts and paid tribute to their professionalism in confronting the fog of war. Translating the principles of press freedom into practice was no easy matter, and it was sometimes constrained by unlawful confinement, threats and intimidation. Journalists often found themselves in the line of fire -- indeed, the price they paid could be very high.
The global situation of press freedom had deteriorated in the last year, he continued. When journalists were subjected to attack, imprisonment and even murder, there was a grave curtailment of press freedom. Whenever one journalist was exposed to violence because of his or her commitment to the truth, all citizens were deprived of the right to express themselves.
He appealed to all governments to ensure that crimes against journalists did not go unpunished. Putting an end to impunity fulfilled a need for justice and would do much to prevent the abuse occurring the in first place. He also appealed to the international community and decision makers to do what they could to ensure that journalists could pursue their work unhindered. The UNESCO would promote the independence and pluralism of media and condemned all forms of violence to prevent the truth.
TONY JENKINS, President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), said he wanted to discuss the case of an accredited United Nations correspondent, Mohammad Hassan Allawi, a man who had struck all as a “sweet teddy bear kind of man”, who had been asked to leave the country before the Iraq war. He was the sole correspondent of the Iraqi News Agency in the United States and had come to daily United Nations briefings and filed notes. It had come as a shock when the host nation had decided to expel him because he was considered a danger to security. That had never happened before.
For UNCA, it was heard to know how to respond, he said. Perhaps the sole Iraqi correspondent might have been sent with a more sinister agenda. Maybe he was a secret agent. After all, they did not all look like James Bond. Could his teddy bar appearance have masked a grizzly bear underneath? Under the Headquarters Agreement, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell had to certify that the correspondent had violated the law. Most of his colleagues believed that Mr. Powell was an honourable man, but what if he had been given unreliable information by other less scrupulous agents?
The correspondent, he said, had suggested that he was being expelled because he had rejected United States advances to recruit him. In the end, UNCA had decided to ask to see the proof of allegations against him. He had never had a chance to speak in his own defence, however. He could have appealed, but he feared being detained. So he went back to Baghdad, just before the missiles arrived. Why make such a big deal over a guy who might not have been a journalist? he asked. It was because he believed in the sanctity of the freedom of the press, which did not exist in isolation but in a panoply of human rights. He had deserved the right to see the evidence against him and to contest it.
He said it was the job of journalists to be sceptical and ferret out the truth. Journalists often saw themselves as a pillar of democracy by bringing transparency to the affairs of States. That was why he was so disappointed in the United States media in the lead up to the Iraq war. There was no credible evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. How could one explain that 50 per cent of the American people believed that Saddam Hussein was behind the
11 September attacks? The outcome of the war demonstrated that the White House had embarked on its advantage on the wings of a lie. No other nation on earth believed that Iraq had posed an imminent threat. How did the White House build that perception without the help of the United States media? The media had uncritically reported White House speeches and assertions, which managed to work their way into the American psyche.
For the most part, the United States media had been pretty disgusting, he said. Either they had been looking for ratings or they had allowed themselves to be manipulated. If the freedom of the press was not used to the fullest, it would wither. That was happening, to some extent, in this country. The American media had come to worship power, which was not a recipe for protecting true freedom of the press. On journalists embedded with United States troops, while one had to admire their courage, they had been played like a musical instrument by the Pentagon. You could not have hired actors to do as good a job from the Pentagon’s point of view. History might prove that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq was a good idea, but he doubted the same could be said for the media.
MICHELE STONEBURN, Vice-President of the Museum of Television and Radio, said the Museum was a unique institution, whose mission was to collect and preserve for the public the best of radio and television programmes. With more than 1,000 clips, its archives represented an extraordinary collection of history. Three years ago, the Museum had led a seminar on learning from war. Most of the clips about to be shown chronicled the role of the free press during wartime.
She said that, in the Second World War, the first war of the electronic era, radio brought instant coverage to the home front, and built and maintained morale. Media’s increasing scepticism of American involvement in Viet Nam, the first television war, had led to antagonism between the public and the Administration, leading President Richard Nixon to declare the press America’s worst enemy.
The last war, in Iraq, through carefully managed press pools, and advances in satellite technology, conveyed to the public the events of war in real time, she said. The clips to be shown now chronicled that progress in technology and in media’s relationships with Government and the military.
JOY DIBENEDETTO, Cable News Network (CNN), said the main difficulty in covering the Iraq conflict accurately was access. The practice of “embedding” journalists would be studied for years to come, in journalism classes and in society. Embedding was another way in which the media had been controlled in that conflict. It really only provided certain glimpses into what certain divisions of the military were undertaking; it never gave a full picture. No journalistic outlet had yet tried to collate all the embedded experiences to create a full picture of the war.
She said that the question of whether it was incumbent upon a journalist to fight for more access was another important question. She was not sure that everything possible had been done in that regard. CNN had most of its journalists embedded; other news organizations had more unilateral, or individual, journalists out there.
ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA, Al-Jazeera, said that the Bush Administration had been “hammering” the point that it was basically going into Iraq for various reasons, including to establish a democratic government -– for which a free press was a pillar. If one looked at the way the American media had behaved, and the way the Arab media had behaved, even before the war, there was an interesting paradox. Although the United States was supposed to be a leading democracy, and the Arab part of the world was supposedly deficient in that regard, the Arab and American media had mirrored each other.
He said that the image depicted for the American public by the American media had been totally distorted, in the sense that embedded journalists, especially in the opening stage of the war, made the war look like a game with a lot of graphics, dazzling technology, and “dusted up” journalists on the ground talking to viewers through the movements of troops and tanks. On the other hand, especially in the opening stages of the war, the image of the war was seen as difficult and possibly long-lasting. Nobody expected that it would last six months or a year, but many expected it to last more than 26 days, and the media had enhanced that view.
When that did not happen, the sense of shock and humiliation in the Arab and Muslim world, including at the moment, reflected that skewed view, he said. The war seen in Europe and in France was not the war seen in the Arab world or the United States. To get a true picture, one probably needed to look at 12 different media outlets. At the same time, there were many competent professional journalists, who were reporting their consciences around the world.
BERNARD ESTRADE, Agence France-Presse (AFP), said it seemed that, for the American press, American journalists needed to be patriotic, and that was not expected from a journalist in the field. Given that, and if one was living with troops on one side of the conflict, it was not possible to see the consequences of the actions of those troops. In this last war, the Pentagon had used journalists very efficiently, in an almost mechanical way.
KHALID HASAN, Daily Times, Lahore, said far be it for him to use today’s occasion to castigate the American media, but its reach was so massive that any assessment of the kind being attempted here this morning had to subject it to a critical look. He was afraid that, while it was the duty of the media not to take sides, but to report events fairly and accurately, in covering the Iraq war, mainstream American media, with exception of some newspapers, had failed to do that. The networks, especially cable news networks, had been the worst offenders. Those had been partisan and even employed the first person plural, grammatically speaking, in conjunction with the armed forces. No one saw the colour of red – of blood -- on those TV channels.
At a recent press briefing in Washington, United States Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had said he was not in a position to say how many Iraqi civilians and soldiers had died. Many had found that hard to believe. The media had acted as “cheerleaders” of an invading force, which was “disgusting”. Journalists had a larger duty, which had not been evident in the recent war coverage. Agreeing to embed themselves, which was an illicit relationship, had been a grave mistake. If they embedded themselves, then they agreed to reporting the news only through an internal vision and what they were meant to see, according to those waging war.
Ms. DIBENEDETTO, asked if she had felt like a cheerleader, said the media had become very lazy. The media should have pushed harder to have more access to the country. Many had been swept up in what they were covering. Many had become part of their own cavalry. The point to which the United States media had gotten itself was negligent. Unilateral journalists had been much braver than the embedded ones.
Mr. JENKINS, asked if journalists could be expected to transcend their own nationality, said it depended who they were working for. Was CNN solely American today? Their obligation was to their viewers around the world. Some of the problem was at the level of the journalist. He thought there was laziness in journalists accepting terminology such as “coalition”, which was why he had specifically referred to the Anglo-American invasion. Journalists had lazily accepted such terms. Journalists could only show what they could see. His problem was with the executives -- the editors -- who chose not to show the broader picture. If more of blood had been shown, people might have felt less triumphant.
Mr. FOUKARA said that during the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher, who had preached about the freedom of press, went to the BBC and told them to say, “our” not “British” troops. Transposed to a United States context, who set the agenda for whom? Was it the Administration or the media? The day after 11 September, it was the media that had referred to the “war” in Afghanistan, well before President Bush had.
Mr. ESTRADE, when asked who was responsible for setting the agenda, said the control of information had become part of military operations. Last month, the world had seen an incredible control of the political agenda.
Regarding the question of coverage during the war, Mr. HASAN said journalists had been able to get very little from briefings. It was often difficult to get a satisfactory explanation. He had been frustrated in his work.
Ms. DIBENEDETTO said CNN’s coverage in the United States as opposed to CCN International was different. CNN had a responsibility to the global audience. The media should be devoid of any government influence. It had become lazy in that regard. Journalists had a responsibility to global audiences. CNN’s responsibility meant being devoid of any government control. While it had not done that fully, it strove to do so every day.
In response to a question about the media’s intrigue with its technological advances, Ms. DiBenedetto said journalists should have been using that technology before. It had been the first time the media had been able to use such technology. The media had become enamoured by its ability to transmit live pictures from the battlefield. She hoped it would be used for a greater good in the future.
Mr. FOUKARA said it depended on the context. He was hard pressed to imagine a British journalist, who asked a government minister the same question 14 times, working in the United States. In the United States, to grab audiences, which was what it was all about, the media had to resort to technological tricks on the screen. In the Arab world, the media had only just started to wake up to how to use technology. With the inroads that globalization was making, technology would play an increasing role in the media.
Mr. JENKINS said the media was enamoured of power. Power and war was seductive, and the war had done wonders for the CNN’s ratings. The Administration controlled the news by giving access to their top people, and the White House decided what went into the papers. The current Administration was not the first to do that. It had actually started with President John K. Kennedy.
Regarding a comment that journalists should work together to prevent further abuse in their coverage of conflict, Mr. ESTRADE said that while it was a clear suggestion, it was not the way it worked. The news had become very competitive. The emergence of new technology during the last war had put journalists at the centre of the story. The public had not seen the war, but the journalists. The story should be what was happening on the ground.
Several other questions were then posed from the floor, including the role of the media in preventing the destruction of cultural property, the role of
responsible journalism leading up to wars, and the question of consolidation of the media and its cooperation with governments.
Mr. HASSAN said that after the cheering had died down and the flags put away, the United States media would have to take an honest look at what they had been projecting and make a serious effort for truthful journalism.
Ms. DIBENEDETTO agreed that the war had been a lesson for the media to look at itself. She had long been concerned about the glamorization of the media business. It was a dangerous business -- journalists in conflict faced danger, and they needed to know that. Journalists had to be prepared to tell the story in a dangerous place.
Mr. ESTRADE said they had spoken much of the Iraq war. Many other wars were going on in the world unreported. The war in the Congo, for example, had claimed thousands of lives, but that war never made it to the news.
Mr. JENKINS said consolidation of the media was something to be concerned about. The Federal Communications Commission was due to meet in July on relaxing rules to permit a further round of consolidation. The FOX effect had been to drag CNN and MSNBC to the right. Mr. Murdoch had benefited from the relaxing of the rules in the past. As a journalist, one had to believe he was one of the truly evil people on the planet.
Mr. FOUKARA said that, over 70 years ago, the British had been the mapmakers in the region. That disconnect must be connected. In the first world, taking about colonialism seemed nonsensical. In the third world, colonialism struck a raw nerve.
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