Mediterranean Meeting of Journalists 2005 : Intervention of Aidan White

<CENTER>Mediterranean Meeting of Journalists
Almeria, 14-17th April 2005

Intervention by Aidan White
General Secretary
International Federation of Journalists

First of all, can I thank the colleagues of FAPE and particularly the Almeria Press Association for their generous hosting of this meeting.

It is an exciting and challenging event. And it continues the process of building solidarity that IFJ unions in the Mediterranean have been working on for almost ten years.

This meeting is reaching out to all journalists in the region, and it does so at a critical time for journalists and for media.

Journalists today play a crucial role reporting on wars and intolerance, much of it centered in the countries of this region.

But journalists and media staff are often victims of conflict.

Last year more than 130 journalists and media staff were killed. It was the worst year ever. Up to today some 73 journalists and media staff have been killed in the Iraq conflict alone.

The IFJ recognises that most targeted journalists are the victims of cruel extremists with whom it is impossible to make a moral compact.

We condemn unreservedly those attacks and the people behind the current wave of hostage taking which has seen the kidnapping of our colleagues Florence Aubenas, of Liberation, her interpreter Hussein Hanoun, and Romanian reporters Sorin Miscoci, of Romania Libera, and TV journalist Eduard Ohanesian.

We must be unequivocal about our condemnation of terrorism. I say this because sometimes there is confusion caused by those who justify extreme violence on the basis of ideas of “legitimate resistance” to occupation.

Of course, we can all recognise the historical importance of national struggles for liberation and of the need for civil resistance against injustice, and of the right of people to self-determination, but that is different from acts of indiscriminate violence against the population at large. The targeting, torture and kidnapping of journalists and the cruelty such as we saw in the killing of colleagues such as Enzo Baldoni can never be justified.

But it is not just terrorists and their twisted notions of “resistance” who we have to confront when it comes to the safety and security of journalists.

On April 8th, just a few days ago, we held a world-wide protest over the failure of the United States to end speculation over targeted killings of journalists and media staff in Iraq.

April 8th was the second anniversary of the United States attack on Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, which at the time contained scores of reporters and media people reporting on the US invasion.

Two journalists – Jose Cuoso of Telecinco and Taras Protsyuk of Reuters – were killed and others wounded. On the same morning, Tareq Ayyoub was killed when the Baghdad offices of the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera was attacked by US fighter planes. There are another 11 unexplained killings in which US soldiers were involved.

When a country acts in the name of democracy and claims a higher moral justification for its actions, beyond even international law, it should be held accountable for its actions. That is why we demand justice for Jose Cuoso and justice for all the innocent victims of violence against media in Iraq and elsewhere.

Two years after the invasion of Iraq the pain of the war is deeply felt by journalists and media staff and particularly by Iraqi journalists. World journalists and those in the Mediterranean are showing solidarity with our colleagues.

Iraqi journalists joined the IFJ’s world wide protests over impunity on April 8th, and on that day the IFJ opened a solidarity office in Baghdad to support our colleagues in Iraq who, with our support, are working together in an unprecedented way to create a unified, journalists’ movement in the country.

Today’s meeting will spend some time looking at the role of media and journalists in reporting on conflict. I join with those who criticise much of the media coverage. We do need to do better. We do need to avoid the language of intolerance and we do need to avoid being manipulated by political and military spin doctors.

But I am not sure if the answer to war-mongering and intolerance in media is so-called peace journalism.

The answer to bad journalism is always good journalism.

When journalists provide accurate, reliable, quality information in context and in an ethical and independent manner people are properly informed about the causes of tension.

Good journalism helps people better understand the issues that lead to conflict. They can then decide for themselves how to achieve peace and intolerance.

Of course, we need to set standards. Journalists must be aware of their responsibilities, they must be properly trained and they must be able to work freely and ethically.

We must avoid intolerant language. We must not feed a culture of violence by a linguistic process which suggests, particularly to young people, that the only solution to their deep sense of injustice is to sacrifice their own lives and to carry out yet more killing.

But calls to ethical journalism and higher standards are not so easy in an age when media are in ferocious competition for readers and viewers.

Nor is it helped by governments who to manipulate media for their known political ends – as we saw in Spain a few days before the last election and in Britain when the BBC was attacked by the government for its independent reporting of the Iraq war.

Today we must condemn those governments around the Mediterranean – such as Turkey, Slovenia, Italy, Algeria, Tunisia and Israel – when their approach threatens media independence and pluralism.
We must unite to send a strong message to all governments that they must keep their hands off the controls of media and information.

And our message to employers must be equally strong.

Too many of them have forgotten about the mission of journalism, have no respect for workers’ rights or professional standards and are obsessed with financial and commercial objectives.

We need to remind them of their responsibilities and we need to nurture alternative voices.

Yesterday was the first anniversary of Birgun, an independent daily newspaper in Turkey, which survives in a ferocious and cut-throat media market by expressing independent opinions and without the backing of big business and powerful political friends. It’s a remarkable story that inspires hope for the defence of pluralism, even in a harsh political and commercial climate.

Everywhere we need more independent journalism to confront those unscrupulous groups of politicians and commercial interests who want to use media to promote populism, intolerance and division within society.
In Europe media stereotypes of the Arab world seem to be greater and more dangerous than they have been for decades. Media fail to distinguish between fundamentalism and mainstream Islam and appear to regard engagement with religious communities as compromising progressive values rather than an opportunity for dialogue in order to win people over.
The emphasis on terrorism and fanaticism in the Arab world has been made worse by the war on terrorism launched by the United States after the September 11 attack on New York and Washington.
It is an obsession, fed by sensationalist and superficial reporting of conflict in the Middle East and nurtured by unscrupulous and racist politicians. It contributes to an increasingly fearful climate within previously stable metropolitan communities in Europe.
Today in countries with a history of tolerance like Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands, a toxic cocktail of prejudice and ignorance about Arab culture is leading to a resurgence of extremist politics not seen for 50 years.
Journalists from the Mediterranean region have a crucial role to play in combating this dangerous development.

We must demand from employers more investment in journalism with more money to be spent on training and secure editorial jobs.

We need more social dialogue from employers and less confrontation with journalists and their unions.

Today the employment rights and the professional status of journalists are under attack more than ever before. In this region journalists struggle to earn a decent wage. They are increasingly forced to work as freelance or unprotected workers. As a result the quality of journalism suffers and public confidence in media falls.

Above all, we need to demand the restoration of respect for journalism and the people who practice it.

Just two weeks ago the European Federation of Journalists meeting in Bilbao agreed an agenda for change, which is a campaign call for

• A new commitment to professionalism and quality journalism;
• The defence of public broadcasting
• Union rights and social justice for all journalists, whether fully employed or freelance.

These are the issues which face us all. Journalists of the Mediterranean are not on the sidelines in the struggles facing media workers around Europe and North Africa.

We need to be fully engaged in the debates and actions being taken in Europe and the Middle East to support editorial independence and the campaign for justice in journalism.

After 18 years as General Secretary of the IFJ I have few illusions about the difficulties we face. I know, too, that journalists in southern Europe and North Africa sometimes find themselves on the margins of discussion about building solidarity among journalists at international level.

Within the European Federation of Journalists there is an anxiety that a few key unions from northern countries play too dominant role in our work and policy-making.

We have to challenge the perception that southern Europe is on the margins of international solidarity. It is not.

The IFJ and EFJ have good cause to thank our unions in this region – Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Italy, in particular – for their solid contribution to international solidarity.

And we see a new enthusiasm – in Turkey, Tunisia, and Morocco, for instance – to play a greater role in international affairs and to confront hard choices at home.

All of that is welcome. But we need to do more.

I hope this meeting will signal a fresh start for professional solidarity between Europe and the Arab world. I hope, too, that you will inspire new efforts to bring southern European unions increasingly into the wider European campaign for rights and editorial independence.

I cannot think of a more difficult time for journalists. We are under pressure on all sides, but even so, we have a great future.

But to succeed we need to stick together, to keep in touch, to express our solidarity with colleagues in need, and above all to make sure that the voice of Mediterranean journalism, in all its diverse and colourful forms, is heard loud and clear by governments, by employers and by our brothers and sisters in the rest of Europe and the Arab world.

Thank You