close this bookThe Courier - N°158 - July - August 1996 Dossier Communication and the media - Country report Cape Verde
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View the documentAidan White of the IFJ
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Aidan White of the IFJ

Confronting the age-old problem

Given the chance, 'governments would like to run and manipulate the media'. This is the view of Aidan White, General Secretary of the Brusselsbased International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), who says it is an 'ageold problem'. And the Federation, which has member organizations in 93 countries, works to prevent it from happening. It also provides a range of services to journalists throughout the world. We recently spoke to Mr White, who used to write for the British daily, The Guardian.

He began by outlining to us the Federation's key areas of activity which include, in particular, the professional conditions in which journalists work and the defence of human rights. On the first of these, Mr White focused on the problem of economic pressures and difficult social conditions. 'We take a strong view that you can't have press freedom if journalists work in conditions of poverty or technical deprivation. It is a nonsense,' he stressed, 'to talk about a free press in a situation where journalists aren't paid, or if they are unable to function properly.' In seeking to tackle this, he spoke, in particular, of the 'need for independent organisations of journalists defending professional and social interests.'

As regards human rights, the IFJ is active in the international community, working with bodies such as UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Commission. 'We are very interested in issues such as the legal environment in which journalists and the media operate, and are extremely active in the defence of physical safety.'

Mr White went on to give more detailed information about the IFJ's work in Algeria, where many journalists have been killed in recent years. This country clearly has a bad international reputation and the General Secretary was anxious to offer a more balanced picture of the situation. 'In my view, there is a real malformation of Alaeria's image in Europe and elsewhere. The view we get is of a paralysed society where nothing can function properly - a kind of international basket case. It is not like that. In Algeria, life continues. There is a form of democracy. There are a dozen newspapers which appear every day. The streets are full of traffic and people walking about. The reality is that there is a particularly horrifying and barbaric form of terrorism which is targeted against intellectuals including journalists. This means that the media has a terrible problem.'

Aidan White explained the strategy of the IFJ in seeking to confront this. 'We began by going to Algeria to investigate what was going on. Then we established an international office on the spot. This is a direct contact point of solidarity for local journalists and the local media. So we don't report Algeria through Paris. We don't see the need to go through some sort of middleman in order to find out what's going on in the country or have contact with Algerian journalists.'

'And then we have two specific programmes which are very important', he continued. One involves providing humanitarian assistance to journalists and their families. The other is a series of practical activities in Algeria. Thus, for example, we are organising a round table on terrorism and information.' He pointed out that the Algerian government had resorted to the traditional method of press censorship in the face of ,the terrorist threat and stressed the 'need to counter this. 'We are also organising a practical seminar on personal safety, as well as one on professional social rights, the need for ethical standards and better social conditions.'

The point, he emphasised was that events were being organised on the spot. Algeria may pose terrible difficulties 'but it doesn't mean we walk away from it.' The IFJ's emphasis was firmly on being a 'functional organisation working directly with the people who need help.'

Funding and the EU link

Tuming to the issue of the IFJ's funding, Mr White explained how the core activities - his own salary and administrative costs - are paid for by the subscriptions of member organisations, which amount to roughly $1 million. On top of that, the Federation carries out projects with the EU and other donors. They also distribute funds, offering their expertise as a representative body to help other organisations that want to undertake work.

Asked in what way the EU could do more, the General Secretary stressed the political dimension. 'It should intervene,' he argued, 'to establish certain standards in international relations. We say, for instance, that political, economic and military cooperation with any state outside the Union should be based on a commitment to and respect for freedom of expression and opinion.' He underlined the 'responsibility' of the EU to take a stand against countries that locked up journalists, implicitly criticising those who argued that freedom of expression was very important but who then shelved the issue when economic relations were involved.

He also urged a more proactive approach 'moving away from the strategy of counting bodies, complaining, and making reports about how bad the situation is' towards one based on comprehensive programmes of assistance. He described the IFJ's Media for Democracy programme in Africa as a 'first attempt' in that direction. Mr

White highlighted what he saw as a difficulty with existing projects. 'The problem is that the EU is confronted by all sorts of different NGOs who come and say: 'we have got this good project - give us support for it'. This is fine but it inevitably means that resources are spread very diffusely and often to no effect.' A lot of activities, he suggested, such as one-off seminars and conferences, were 'like fireworks in the night sky: they glow bright for a brief period and then they disappear.'

He went on to plead for an integrated, comprehensive strategy. 'Until that exists, you will not be able to solve the fundamental problems facing journalists.'

Training and status

The discussion moved on to the subject of training. Perhaps surprisingly, Aidan White did not see this as an important priority in itself. As he explained: 'It's no use training journalists to be very high quality if they go off to work in a country where the legal environment does not allow them to function properly. And it's no use training them to be ethical if they go somewhere that is steeped in political or financial corruption, and where there is no culture which appreciates the media's role in democratic society.'

With this in mind, he believes that training should be directly related to the strategic approach he referred to earlier. 'Yes, we need professional, well trained journalists, but it should be part of a range of programmes. And professional training is not just important for journalists. It should also be provided for managers, editors, advertisers... and perhaps even for politicians!'

The General Secretary noted that the status of journalists in most countries was quite high. They are seen as a filter for information 'coming from the government to the governed'. This was important, he thought, but 'tine real question is how the filter functions. On the one hand journalists have a relatively high status, and what they do is extremely important, but they work close to the political elites, which means they are subject to pressure. They must retain their independent role, scrutinising and investigating what governments are doing.'

On the subject of access to information in developing countries, Aidan White observed that the situation is now better than it was ten years ago but pointed to the 'age-old problem of people in power wanting to control the media.' He gave the example of journalists in Indonesia, 'who really want to speak independently of the government, but who are being killed because they represent independent strands of opinion.' Overall, however, he believes the situation has been improving. 'This is partly due to changes in information technology. A government can no longer simply take a journalist out and beat him up. There are half a dozen press freedom organisations around the world watching for and reporting on such events.'

There is a tendency in Europe to assume that 'everything in the garden is rosy' in terms of press freedom, and we were interested to hear what the Secretary General thought of this proposition. He was quick to offer a less complacent view. 'We have just issued a very strong statement against the EU about their secrecy policy,' he pointed out. 'You cannot claim the moral high ground for democracy in Africa or elsewhere if you have a system of secrecy in Europe which operates at the highest political level and which denies citizens access to information.'

He was also concerned about the concentration of the media in enormous congLomérates. This trend, he argued, 'is actually profoundly damaging to the culture of information.' He cited, in this context, the action of the Murdoch organisation 'in banning all news from his cable channels going into China.' Mr White continued: 'They banned the BBC and they banned news coverage in the Chinese language in order to make a business arrangement with the Beijing government. That sort of activity, in our view, is direct censorship from the heart of western democracy.'

In conclusion, Aidan White gave some more detailed information about the Media for Democracy programme in Africa which he described as 'ground-breaking.' The Federation has used it to develop key themes, including the coverage of elections. 'The real test of press freedom,' he continued, 'is at an election, because that is when the political pressure is toughest and the professional quality of journalism is exposed. For Africa, we developed a manual on election reporting and, interestingly, it has become the source document worldwide for election reporting.' He explained how it formed the basis for developing a text which is universal. This has been translated into various European languages, and Arabic, and has been employed in Poland, Romania, Albania and Latin America.

In the first phase of the Media for Democracy programme, the Federation held a serf. of seminars and conferences on how the media covered elections. As Mr White stressed, this was a crucial time in Africa. Political change was taking place, multi-party democracy was being introduced and there was a need to clarify how elections operated and how they should be reported. 'People didn't have the experience. They wanted the information, and to discuss how things should be done.' The seminars covered aspects such as financial corruption, the organisation of journalists and the role of ethics. And what the IFJ found was that the same kind of things happen in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa - and indeed across the world. In the words of the Secretary General, 'they have an echo everywhere because, at its root, the problem is the same - those in power want to manipulate the media and use whatever pressures they can.' The lesson learnt from the IFJ's experience in Africa is that common solutions are also valid. Or as Aidan White put it, 'there is no part of the world that can't teach the rest of the world something.

D.M. & S.H.

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