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Terrorism and the Media

29-04-2002 ()
Media professionals and the media in general have paid a heavy toll to terrorism in recent years. Dozens of journalists in Algeria, the Balkans, Colombia, Spain, the Philippines and elsewhere have been intimidated, kidnapped and assassinated so that they could be silenced. But another issue linking media and terrorism has of late received increasing attention: Do measures adopted to combat terrorism since September 11, 2001, represent a new threat to freedom of the press?
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Terrorism and Media is the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, celebrated around the world on May 3.

Marking this occasion in Manila, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura will present a plaque honouring the memory of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, whose murder in February this year shocked the world and drew attention to the dangers faced by investigative reporters workingon international terrorism.

The number of media professionals killed in conflict zones or individually targeted for assassination remains all too high. Some fall victim to crossfire or mine explosions. Most, however, are deliberately gunned down afteridentifying themselves as journalists, according to French non-governmental organization Reporters sans Frontières (RSF).

While many are killed by the military or police, a growing proportion in all regions of the world today fall victim to violence from other quarters: the Basque separatists of the ETA, armed fundamentalists in Algeria, guerrilla and paramilitary groups in Colombia, rebel gangs in Sierra Leone and others.

According to RSF, 176 out of 243 journalists killed in conflict zones between 1992 and 20011 were murdered. Yet 95% of attacks against journalists worldwide go unpunished, according to Abdul Waheed Khan, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information.

The events of September 11 and the war against terrorism have given rise to new concerns regarding press freedom. Various legal and legislative measures announced, proposed or adopted in Australia, Canada, Cyprus, France, India, Jordan, Uganda, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zimbabwe, and the EuropeanUnion, among others, have been assailed by critics for their negative impact on the work of the media.

In some cases also, the climate of insecurity generated by September 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism, have provided governments with an opportunity to take restrictive measures which had long been in the pipelines.

Some measures, taken or contemplated, restrict the “right to know”, with government agencies withdrawing information that had previously been available to the public. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the rules of war reporting set up by the Pentagon have “never been as tough” as during the campaign in Afghanistan.

Steps have also been taken to restrict privacy on the Internet, including restrictions on the use by private citizens – but also by human rights groups and the media - of encryption software to protect their email traffic, and to facilitate wiretapping by the authorities.

But obstacles to freedom of the press are not limited to legal and legislative measures. According to the UK-based press freedom watchdog organization Article 19, “official actors have taken steps which both directly limit freedom of expression and information, and which indirectly have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”

Appeals to patriotism can be used to muzzle independent media, deterring journalists from questioning government decisions or policies. Some in the United States, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), “found themselves expected to become patriots first and journalists second.”

Propaganda and the deliberate propagation of disinformation, a common practice in times of war, further reduce the media’s ability to report fairly and accurately.

Self-censorship is particularly damaging to reporters’ ability to research and publish information. In some cases, it is fed by fear of offending public opinion (and publishers), in others by fear of violent reprisals.

In a paper to be presented at a UNESCO conference (May 1 and 2 in Manila) on Media and Terrorism, Jean-Paul Marthoz, European Information Director at the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch says that the war on terrorism is a test for the press:

“Contrary to the authoritative statements of the revisionist historians of war journalism, press freedom and freedom of expression are an advantage, not a handicap, in emergencies. Lies and self-censorship - as the history of the wars of Vietnam or Algeria demonstrate, are in most cases of poor counsel and contribute to the very national disasters we tried to avert. Just as a seafaring captain cannot test his vessel when the sea is calm, so freedom of the press needs to be tested in the heart of a storm, when our bearings are lost and anguish prevails.”

These issues, as well as the need to improve the safety of war-zone reporters, will be the subject of the two-day conference UNESCO at the Westin Philippine Plaza in Manila on May 1 and 2, ahead of the World Press Freedom Day celebration. It will focus on the impact of terrorism on the media around the world. Themes to be debated include: the events of September 11 and their effect on freedom of information; problems in reporting on terrorism; and safety of journalists working in conflict situations.

Journalists from around the world whose daily work exposes them to the dangers of terrorism and violence will take part in the conference, as will representatives of leading international professional organizations and non-governmental civil rights bodies including Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Journalists, World Press Freedom Committee, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters sans Frontières and the World Association of Newspapers.

The conference and World Press Freedom Day celebration on May 3 bring to the fore the importance of media independence. The struggle for press freedom will be celebrated on May 3 around the world while special recognition will be given to Geoffrey Nyarota, editor of Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper, The Daily News, in Manila where he will receive this year’s UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.
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1 A presentation paper by RSF, along with the other presentations prepared for theManila conference, is available on the Web: http://www.unesco.org/press-freedom-day/
They include case studies from Colombia, the Philippines, the Spanish Basque Country, and Chechnya, as well as a paper about the safety of journalists working in war zones.
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      · Press Freedom: News Archives 2002
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  • UNESCO Press Release No.2002-24

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