Journalists Alert Over Media War Crisis

IFJ Demands Release of Reporters - Alert Over "Reckless News Gathering" - Call for End to Government Pressure On Media

The world's largest journalists' group, the International Federation of Journalists, today called for governments to lift pressure on journalists reporting events surrounding the military action in Afghanistan. "Once again, journalists are being bullied and harassed by all sides in a conflict that calls for professionalism and independence from media - not propaganda and censorship," said Aidan White, General Secretary of the IFJ.

The IFJ called for the release of French reporter Michel Peyrard, on assignment for the magazine Paris Match, who was arrested by Taliban security forces after slipping in disguise over the border into Afghanistan. He is accused of spying. The Taliban arrested Peyrard and two guides on October 9 in Goshta. All three are being held in Jalalabad.

"This is a case of enthusiastic reporting, not espionage," said the IFJ. "We are disturbed at reports that Peyrard has been paraded in the streets and stoned. If true, this is outrageous. He should be freed immediately." The IFJ said the case highlights the need for media and journalists to avoid any activity that can be interpreted as "reckless news gathering". Peyrard is the second journalist to be arrested and accused of espionage by the Taliban. The militia detained Yvonne Ridley, a British reporter for the Sunday Express newspaper, on September 28 but released her on October 8. In addition, the IFJ has called for the release of three Pakistani journalists who have been in custody in Peshawar since October 5th. Muhammad Iqbal, Syed Karim and Rifatullah Orakzai, have been jailed and interrogated by the local authorities. The three journalists were arrested with Olivier Ravanello and Marcan Tetti, two reporters from the French news channel LCI, who were later released. All five journalists were accused of "illegally" entering Tirah Valley, an area that is off limits to foreign journalists. They were accused of being "American spies."

At the same time the IFJ has expressed concern over demands by the US administration of President Bush that media should exercise care over using material from the Arab media satellite channel al-Jazeera, which has been putting across the views of Osama Bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. This channel carried a pre-recorded video of Bin Laden and associates giving a response to the opening of the military action against Afghanistan.

Press freedom groups report that Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thaniof, confirmed that he was asked by the US State Department, during a recent visit to Washington, to use his government's influence to soften the reporting stance of al-Jazeera. According to the US State Department, the television station has provided airtime for experts hostile to the US. The IFJ has noted that al-Jazeera is recognised throughout the Arab world "and has contributed to creating new levels of professionalism in Arab media." It has given both the US and Afghanistan positions equal airtime.

Although the station has become Bin Laden's favourite way of getting his point of view across to the Arab and Muslim people, over the heads of the sheikhs and presidents whose rule he detests, al-Jazeera is also being used by western leaders, notably by the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to put their point of view in the propaganda battle.

"All governments should give media the professional space to work without interference," said the IFJ, "Journalists in the United States or the Arab world don't need the guidance of their governments to do their job. The antidote to propaganda is editorial freedom, not thinly-veiled warnings that hint of censorship."

Additionally, the IFJ is exceedingly concerned about the general safety for journalists in Pakistan and the Middle East.

On 8 October, a mob attacked members of the foreign press corps from different countries during anti-United States demonstrations held in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. There were reports that stones were thrown, causing minor injuries to a few journalists.

Reports that Patrick Aventurier and Vincent Laforêt, photographers for the Gamma agency and the US daily the New York Times, were beaten by police on 9 October in Quetta, are "evidence that once again journalists are becoming the targets in a highly-charged confrontation," said Aidan White. The journalists were following an ambulance transporting the body of a boy killed in riots against US and British attacks on Afghanistan, when they were assaulted by police with batons and rifle butts.

The IFJ has also condemned the arbitrary exclusion of journalists from the Gaza Strip in Palestine to prevent coverage of anti-American and anti-war protests and has called for the Pakistani authorities to lift a ban on foreign journalists leaving their hotel in Quetta near the Afghan border. After violent demonstrations, police and soldiers are blockading more than two hundred foreign reporters who have come to cover the conflict. In one recent incident, Taliban supporters threw stones at the hotel and tried to set it on fire.

"What is developing is a profound crisis for journalists both in terms of attempts to manipulate the media message and incidents of violence in which reporters and media staff find themselves under attack," said the IFJ.

The IFJ has established, with foreign correspondents in Brussels and the Belgium Journalists' Association, a special help and advice centre for journalists that will provide journalists with information on working in dangerous regions. Further information: Journalists @ Your Service, email: [email protected], Tel: + 32 2 235 22 01