Friday 26 October 2007

Interview with Aidan White, Secretary-General of International Federation of Journalists


05:58 Aidan White in IFJ office in Brussels (3 shots)

At the moment there exists under the Geneva Convention protection for civilians in a war zone. There is a special mention of the need to take account of the fact that the journalists and media workers in a war zone under special protocol. But many people think that this is not enough, that it doesn’t provide enough protection. There is a discussion taking place right now about the need to clarify the references to journalists working in war zones and see if they can be given special protection. I think that’s no bad discussion because we have seen in last few years an increase of journalists who have been killed in war zones. Although last year United Nations passed special resolution on the protection of journalists, clearly more needs to be done. This is an important debate and something we will support but we are of the view that there needs to be a new convention, we don’t need new specific law which says that journalists are special group of people, we don’t want to create an idea that there is elitist protection for journalists. But there is no doubt at all that special conditions of journalists and media stuff in area of conflicts do need better recognition in the international humanitarian law.


We are active in that debate and we are discussing it with our own Unions etc and also through the International Safety Institute which is a coalition of media organization and journalists which we helped to found few years ago, which is pressing for international action to provide more protection for journalists. In 2005, 2006 and 2007 the numbers of journalists have continuously increased. This year already we have got more than 165 journalists killed – that’s already more than last year, and last year was already a record. This is a crisis that’s is intensifying, it is very clear that because of the power that media have today anyone like yourself carrying a microphone and camera into a war zone is absolutely likely to be targeted almost immediately. We need to see what sort of protection there is and how that protection can be improved.


The most important role that a journalist needs to respect is not to become engaged in a conflict itself. There is a lot of pressure on journalists these days to carry arms, to travel with combatants in the conflict and that creates real difficulties in the protection of journalists. They should make sure that there is real independence, that they are not participants in the conflict. They should be clearly there to try to do a job which is humanitarian and political, that is to report on what’s going on. That means they shouldn’t be carrying guns and uniforms, they shouldn’t do anything which would suggest to one side or another that they are actually engaged in the conflict. There are guidelines, there are rules, together with ISI we have developed these advice guidelines which should be followed. But the problem about it is that despite these guidelines journalists are still being targeted.


We know this very much from the terrible experience during the 90ies in the Balkans. We saw this tremendous political pressure which was put on journalists by all sides to taw the line according to a certain nationalistic perspective. That’s very dangerous because the moment the journalists becomes a propagandist rather than honest reporters, they are taking sides in a way that will put them in risk. But even worse, it damages the quality of information that they are providing for the viewers and it is very important that as far as possible journalists should try to be impartial. If you are an Arab journalist and you are working for Arab audience, clearly the perspective you are going to have is from Arab perspective. The same is true if you are North American reporter, you are going to have Western perspective. That’s always the case; but that perspective should not compromise the quality of your information. I always take the view that a good journalist is always a good citizen and good patriot because the person who tells the truth, who is responsible and has a moral sense of respect for human rights is always going to be a good citizen. A journalist who is propagandist, a journalist who censors himself in order to serve political interest is not a good citizen and is not a good patriot. That seems to be very often the case because patriotism is very often determined by political and strategic interests rather than interests of the community at large.


Responsible journalistic behaviour will be at all times to encourage debate and dialogue, to make sure that there is pluralism in the discussion and not to join the stridden voices of confrontation and actually underlining them. In many countries of Europethere are big debates about the future administration. You have devolution in the UK, here in Belgiumthere is big discussion about separation of the North and South. Clearly, in many countries this is an age where fragmentation is taking place. What is important is that that takes place in accordance with what people want and that can only be worked out by having dialogue and good discussion. Journalists should shy away from anything which is going to encourage violence and inappropriate hostility between communities but above all to try to encourage more useful dialogue. It may well be that the solution will be that Kosovo will divide from Serbia. OK, if that happens its good that it happens with proper dialogue, and proper debate about the future. It may well be that Kosovo will stay within Serbia perhaps under a new form of administration which will satisfy the political needs and requests for that community to have more autonomy. Maybe that’s the right thing to do – I don’t know. What is important is that everybody who is taking part in that debate is able to have information which is good, reliable, and helps them to make the decision, and not information which is just encouraging fear and uncertainty and intimidation. Because, if that happens, media are contributing to conflict rather than reducing it and I think that that’s the role that media should have: promote dialogue between the politicians and communities above all.

13:47 End of transmission