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Kamala Sarup: Press Freedom & Armed Conflict

Attack on Press Freedom and Armed Conflict

By Kamala Sarup

We should not forget how media coverage during the Vietnam war, and the media coverage in Bosnia and Kosovo, and how media in India and Pakistan have prevented all the conflicts. So, we have questions. Can the media really prevent present conflicts in the World?

What kind of responsibilities does the media have and what limits are there on the media in fulfilling this role? Media can definitely play an effective role in conflict prevention, peace building, and war against violence. Media have the potential to achieve a positive impact towards peace, democracy and tolerance. Media should condemn the killing of innocent people children and women and should report how in the villages where the majority of the people live, there is genuine fear?.

Even it is known that media are a vital factor for peace, democracy and a dignified human development. Media reporting on the possibilities for conflict resolution, could become a useful support for non-violent problem solving. Media could have played the role of a watchdog and could have underlined the problems so that the government would be forced to correct mistakes.

Whether in Iraq or in the occupied Palestinian territories, South Asia or West Africa, journalists served as eyes. Freedom of press 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.

But we have a question why freedom of the press remains poor amongst the countries?. An independent media either did not exist or journalists continued to be persecuted on a daily basis, with no guarantee of freedom of information or the safety of journalists. Even there are very few countries in the world today that had no private press at all, the Paris-based activist maintained recently. Why still the government is completely intolerant of any type of criticism?.

A magazine published by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (or RSF) lists 36 Third World leaders and ranking officials and that includes Russia's Vladimir Putin, as "predators of press freedom." Among those in the honor roll are, surprise, Goh Chok Tong, the former prime minister of Singapore, Fidel Castro of Cuba, Khamtay Siphandone of Laos, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine, Nong Duc Manh, the party secretary of Vietnam, Hu Jintao of China, Than Shwe of Burma, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. RSF says Cuba is the world's largest prison for journalists.

In 2003 alone, more than 120 journalists were imprisoned and 42 killed, mainly in Asia and the Middle East (because of the Iraq War). In 2002, the tally was only 25. Last year at least, it was nearly six times more dangerous to work as a journalist than in 2002. Eighteen journalists have been killed, according to press reports.

Each year RSF compiles its index by asking its partner organisations (14 freedom of expression organisations in five countries), its 130 correspondents around the world, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists, to answer 52 questions to indicate the state of press freedom in 167 countries.

Tony Lopez stated "In this small resort city of 125,000, journalists recently assessed the state of press freedom in the Third World. The conclusion: Bad. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, Cuba to China, Bangladesh to Belarus, Nepal to North Korea, journalists are being harassed, censored, imprisoned, kidnapped, tortured and killed. The Philippines itself is second only to Iraq in the number of journalists killed.

He further stated "Under Castro's Cuba, 30 journalists were slapped prison terms during a crackdown last year. In Laos, there is no private media. In Vietnam, you cannot criticize the military. In Pakistan, a journalist was condemned to death for criticizing the activities of an antinarcotics government agency controlled by President Musharraf".

RSF says "The fight against terrorism launched by the United States and its allies after the 11 September attacks damaged freedom of the press. Many governments stepped up and justified their repression of opposition or independent voices using anti-terrorism as an excuse."

In particular, the US military is under fire for its treatment of journalists in Iraq. An RSF report entitled "Two Murders and a Lie" details the April 8, 2003, attack by US forces on Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, which left two journalists dead and three injured.

What we need is a media policy that takes stock of the current situation as it stands and what we should be aiming at in the development of our media in order for it to play the role deserving it in a democracy. This would mean that a media policy should emanate from government that takes both the print and electronic sector in their totality.

While the Geneva Conventions clearly state that "journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians.

Even Amnesty International stated that Sudan has a lively and growing independent press, but journalists face harassment, suspension and arrest, if they cover stories that the authorities do not want aired. Newspapers critical of the government have been impounded and suspended, their staff arrested, ill-treated and fined.

One newspaper was suspended in December 2002 for seven months, another on May for two months, its Editor in Chief detained, ill-treated.and fined.

The government uses a variety of means to restrict the press despite the fact that the 1998 Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the press.

It should mean that investment potentials in the country should receive priority and due attention. It should mean that the market situation should merit deeper study for protection.

Maoists and Press Freedom

The Maoists reportedly have imposed a ban on news reporting by journalists in some VDCs of the mid western district of Rukkum. Rukkum is regarded one of the strongholds of the Maoists. The ban follows the Maoist decision to declare the VDCs a 'special area' of the underground party. The ban is imposed on Chunbang, Mahat, Rammamaikot, Pwang and Purtimdanda VDCs.

Among the 167 countries surveyed, Nepal had the dubious distinction of having the highest number of scribes arrested last year, the watchdog said in its third Annual Worldwide Index of Press Freedom report released in Paris. At least 51 journalists were imprisoned and five journalists were kidnapped during the year.

It said security forces arrested, detained, tortured or threatened about 100 Nepalese journalists last year while Maoist insurgents murdered one journalist and threatened dozens for allegedly spying for the army.

It said the northern European countries of Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway were a "haven of peace for journalists".

"As for the press in Nepal, I don't know how much opportunity they have to make political analyses? As for the West, I am sure that very few North Americans know anything about that problem. The trouble is, the regular press doesn't give it any attention and people don't read the alternative press.

I think there is probably more opportunity to get onto radio and television programs than most other media but of course, you can't be sure how many people will watch those discussions either. It is a conundrum. Foreign policy is at the bottom of the list of topics that interest people or that they base their votes on," editor of the Peace magazine Dr. Metta Spencer said while speaking with me.

It is true, Media, in both wartime and peace, could positively contribute to providing accurate and relevant information vital for people to make well-informed choices.

Louise Frechette, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN said:

"Journalism always involved difficult choices, 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".

Journalists in conflict faced danger, and they needed to know that. Journalists had to be prepared to tell the story in a dangerous place. The global situation of press freedom had deteriorated in the last year. When journalists were subjected to attack, imprisonment and even murder, there was a grave curtailment of press freedom.


( Kamala Sarup is a Co-Ordinator of The Peace Media e-magazine

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