Consensus at SAFMA moot
LAHORE – Freedom of expression is definitely one of the victims of 9/11 and journalists can only defend press freedom by holding to fundamental principles of their craft, one of them being the recognition to work together.
This was a consensus among speakers at the second session of the South Asian Free Media Association’s (SAFMA) fourth conference held in Lahore on November 20. The topic of the session was independence of media after 9/11 and it concluded with questions and remarks by participants.
The speakers included World Editors’ Forum Director Bertrand Pecquerie, International Federation of Journalists President Christopher Warren, International Federation of Human Rights’ Dr Anne-Christine Habbard and Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain. The session was chaired by Mr Ahmad Rashid and Indian journalist Mr Dileep Padgaonkar.
Mr Pecquerie said till 1990’s the American journalistic landscape was offering a tradition of fact-checking, the rise of opinion pages in major newspapers to present a huge range of points of view, lack of corruption, the genuine “we-report-you-decide” concept and the best journalism schools.
But it changed during the first Gulf War as the army controlled all images and prohibited in-depth and independent coverage of military operations. As a result, the American press appeared as a victim of the government and the Pentagon.
At the same time, Mr Pecquerie said, the world discovered CNN and a lot of questions were linked to professional practices like the relationship between journalism and patriotism, criticism regarding official military sources, dictatorship of real time and virtual reality and knowledge of non-American cultures.
And today, he said, patriotism was interfering with journalism as it was impossible to minimize trauma of the World Trade Centre 3,000 victims. What had happened to the American press in 2002 and 2003 would remain in the journalism history as a severe blow to the profession.
Mr Pecquerie said the problem was not that the American journalists didn’t have enough means or ideas to investigate the pre-war claims concerning Iraq’s strategic arsenal. The real issue was that American newspapers became the best agents of the Bush administration.
“How American journalism, well-known for its investigative and fact-checking tradition, became a caricature of journalism is the main issue. Instead of weapons of mass destruction, American newspapers were confronted with weapons of mass disinformation but very few had a good understanding of this new phenomenon,” he said.
He said the American newspapers were right to accept the principle of embedded journalism but they were wrong to rely almost exclusively on it. It gave a strong distortion on what was perceived by American audiences,” he said.
Mr Pecquerie said the Patriot Act and the Guantanamo Jail status were not discussed in 800 important regional American daily newspapers. A sort of self-censorship had ruled the American press, including some major press institutes or organizations, who usually used to discuss everything about media matters.
He said low credibility of the American press had become a major issue and the newspapers had to react quickly to their readers’ questions if they didn’t want t ruin their asset — the truth.
He said what had happened to the American press related to the entire world and “we need to stop such a drift and set up new set of fact-checking and Op-Ed page.”
Mr Warren said in the past 18 months, Iraq had been synonymous with four significant ways in which the media and the lives of journalists had changed since Sept 11.
“The world is more dangerous for journalists, governments are restricting what we can report, military and governmental spin is keeping our communities uninformed, and the media is self-censoring through fear or through a perceived patriotic duty,” he said.
Quoting that 62 journalists and other media workers had been killed in Iraq, and many others in different other countries, Mr Warren said they had been targeted by terrorists, military and militants.
He said foreign correspondents did face danger but those covering local events for local audience were particularly at risk. There was growing contempt for journalists among those who held guns.
Mr Warren said journalists not only in America but also in Pakistan and India were taking intelligence sources as true which was dangerous.
He suggested there was need to re-define the word news with regard to the role of journalists towards reconciliation. Conflict is not the only news value and it has to be defined what is the role of media in reconciliation, he said.
Mr Warren said journalists could only defend press freedom by holding to the fundamental principles of their craft. They needed to work together, by coming together at a national level and linking up internationally through the International Federation of Journalists.
“The commitment that journalists have shown around the world to come together in that way gives us all hope that press freedom will continue to illuminate our democratic societies,” he said.
Dr Habbard said the post-Sept 11 had reinforced authoritarian regimes all over the world depending mainly on the US geo-political interests. “The French proverb says “never mimic your enemy” but unfortunately it seems that the US and a host of other nations have fallen exactly into that trap,” she said.
She said after Sept 11 the US had come to blindly support authoritarian regimes. There was also a blatantly expedient decision to remain silent in the face of massive human rights violations when committed by a strategic ally.
Dr Habbard said another problem was that many countries had jumped on the war against terror as a golden opportunity to suppress dissident voices at home through the enactment or the reinforcement of anti-terrorist legislation with terrorists usually loosely defined.
In Muslim countries, she said, there was a tendency of rulers to position themselves as the ultimate ramparts against fundamentalist Islam, in order to gain credit with the US, she said while quoting the example of Pakistan’s Musharraf regime.
Dr Habbard said a serious problem with the strengthening of national security laws was how they had been constantly exercized to control and limit press freedom. The restrictions on freedom of expression had also affected NGOs, bar councils, academics and artists, she said.
She said Pakistan had a very defined or may be undefined notion of national interest, which in turn allowed for a surprisingly broad definition of national security, a very powerful army, a moderate Muslim leader who presented himself as the indispensable power to hold back the fundamentalist groups, a compliant judiciary, few democratic and human rights safeguards and a key strategic position in the US-led war against terror.
She said the Musharraf government had developed a wide array of methods to stifle freedom of expression, including adoption of stringent legislation, selective application of the law, carrot and stick approach, systematic use of force, economic insecurity of journalists, multiplication of administrative obstacles and massive self-censorship.
“The authorities have over the years created an atmosphere both within the political arena, the media and within civil society, in which fundamental freedoms are considered as privileges and not rights. Freedom of expression is definitely one of the victims of 9/11,” she remarked.