IFJ Letter Calling on Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister, Palestine National Authority to "Set Journalists Free" On Road to Middle East Peace

The International Federation of Journalists today called for the rights and security of journalists to be made a priority in the forthcoming dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. "It is time to set journalists free and to build democracy through dialogue, tolerance and press freedom," says the IFJ in a letter to both sides.

Mahmoud Abbas
Prime Minister
Palestine National Authority
May 29th 2003

Dear Mr Abbas,

On behalf of the International Federation of Journalists, the world's largest organisation of journalists' groups, I express the sincere hope that the efforts being made to end the violence that has destroyed the lives of so many Israelis and Palestinians over the years will succeed in creating conditions for a lasting solution to the conflict in the region.

The IFJ represents journalists on both sides of the conflict and we have witnessed the tragic consequences of the violence, both in personal terms and also in its impact on press freedom, which is essential to peace, security and the future of democratic pluralism in the region.

Today I am writing to you and to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to ask that you both give urgent consideration to the question of the rights and security of journalists in the forthcoming dialogue. It is time, we believe, to set journalists free and to build democracy through dialogue, tolerance and press freedom.

We are convinced that new peace talks will falter unless urgent and credible action is taken to build a new democratic process that supports press freedom and independent journalism.

In particular, we ask you to seek a joint commitment with Israel to respect the safety and security of journalists and media staff working in the region. You may know that 100 news media and journalists' groups from around the world have launched an initiative, the International News Safety Institute, to campaign for a culture of safety in media.

Recent tragedies in both Iraq and Palestine give this Institute a new sense of urgency and we hope that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders will support making the region safe for all, including media staff who, as you well know, act as the eyes, ears and conscience of millions around the world seeking to understand and be properly informed about events in the region.

We have asked Israel to take immediate steps to restore professional recognition to all Palestinian journalists and to consider the establishment of joint accreditation procedures for Palestinian journalists and others working in Israel and the Palestinian areas.

We believe that a joint approach to media - regulatory structures, media policy, recognition and accreditation rights, education and development strategies - will strengthen institution building and reinforce the commitment to democracy within the region. There is, above all, the great need to create confidence among journalists that they can move freely, meet and discuss issues of shared concern and work to build editorial and professional independence throughout the media landscape of Israel and Palestine.

As a first step, the recognition of Palestinian journalists and their professional rights will build confidence that professional independence in media is a shared objective of the peace process. The plight of Palestinian journalists in particular can be ignored no longer.

In this regard we have also called upon the Israeli authorities to remove all restrictions on the free movement of media staff, particular as it affects currently journalists seeking to work in the Gaza Strip. We note the declaration that visiting foreigners are being asked to sign by the authorities and we seriously doubt that this will have the desired effect of dissuading people from moving around insecure areas.

Our strong belief is that the authorities should promote greater understanding of the need for safety and an understanding of risks that people face, rather than seeking to absolve themselves of responsibilities, which, in any event, cannot be signed away under international law.

We are grateful to the Israeli Press Office for distributing information to foreign and local correspondents on the IFJ Code of Practice for the Safe Conduct of Journalism and we are pleased that a limited amount of training on risk awareness has been carried out in the Palestinian territories. However, this is only a fraction of what needs to be done to improve personal and industry-wide levels of awareness. We hope that the peace talks will open the way to a new and more urgent programme aimed at reducing risks for journalists and media staff.

Finally, we regret that tragic incidents have occurred that raise serious questions about the responsibility of the authorities to provide protection for civilians and media staff in particular. For this reason we believe that it swill be necessary to establish an acceptable and independent process for investigation of all incidents of violence in which the victims are journalists or media staff. This is a serious challenge to all sides, but it gets to the heart of the matter - to build public confidence in the peace process requires openness and transparency at all levels.

New peace talks give an opportunity for both sides to work together to end all violence against media and killing of journalists. We need a fresh start and a new commitment to build media professionalism and respect for independent journalism. We ask you to do what you can to use this new dialogue to create a new landscape for media built upon a shared vision of democracy, tolerance and professionalism.

With Kind Regards

General Secretary