Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dying to Tell a Story - Journalists Under Attack

I went to a meeting organised by Article 19 and POLIS at Free Word Centre in Farringdon last night. The organisers had gathered an impressive panel of journalists and others who had personal experiences of violence against journalists around the world. In the panel were Sorious Samura, Heather Blake, Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, Rodney Pinder, Christopher Cobb-Smith, Maziar Bahari, Nathalie Losekoot, Milica Pesic and the meeting was chaired by Charlie Beckett. I let you google these panelists yourself or click on the links to see who they are.

My first thoughts as I sat down were if these panelists were all Iranians and the meeting was for an Iranian audience, there is no way the chairman could manage to wrap up the meeting in its allocated two hours. In fact one more addition to the panel was via a Skype connection with a journalist in Mexico, but embarrassingly I have forgotten his name. Credit to Charlie Beckett though, he chaired the meeting really well and the whole thing despite the variety of its panelists went very seamless and remained focused on the issues and finished in time.

Sorious Samura suggested the Western governments should link aid to press freedom and treatment of the journalists. Heather Blake talked about the work of Reporters Without Borders and their drive to extend the Geneva Convention for reporters. Uvindu Kurukulasuriya talked about the situation in Sri Lanka, Rodney Pinder talked about training journalists who go to dangerous situations, our own Maziar Bahari did an excellent job in explaining the insecurity the regime felt in Iran from peaceful protesters and information dissemination. Milica Pesic talked about the situation in Azerbaijan and her experience in Serbia and the hypocrisy of the governments in the West, Nathalie Losekoot concentrated on some cases of assassinated journalists in Ukraine and Christopher Cobb-Smith who was not a journalist himself talked about how his experience in the military was being deployed in training journalists in war zones.

All made some valid points but I was dying to ask my question. It was all very well blaming government hypocrisy and asking to link Western aid to press freedom and the need for safety training etc. but what about criticising journalists themselves?

We have just had Mahmood Ahmadinejad visit  New York and he was treated like a cuddly media celebrity by US anchormen who interviewed him. Ahmadinejad and his administration is responsible for the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world in proportion to the population. Yet none of the five(?) American journalists who interviewed Ahmadinejad, to my knowledge, ever mentioned a single imprisoned Iranian journalist to him and instead conducted the interviews by asking soft questions all within Ahmadienjad's comfort zones and were not able to challenge him because they had not updated themselves with the facts on Iran.

I also mentioned as another example, the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution last February, when the Iranian government gave visas to foreign journalists based on strict restrictions. The journalists who went knew they would be contained and not even have their own cameras and ultimately only report what the regime wanted. So why did they go? What was the point? Would it not have helped press freedom and imprisoned journalists in Iran if they all refused to go in protest? And finally I could not forget to mention, Channel 4 allowing uninterrupted air time to Ahmadienjad to give his alternative Christmas message.

Such behaviours by the media and the journalists themselves serve only to demoralise the people and the imprisoned journalists in Iran. They certainly do not help press freedom or ensure the safety of journalists any where. Giving so much air time and in this format is precisely what makes people ill informed and breeds more 'useful idiots' in the West.

I didn't know how my question would go down with the journalists in the panel and in the audience. I have come across many condescending journalists like the John Simpsons, the Tisdales, the Fisks and the Anne Penkeths who consider themselves above any criticism. Lo and behold I was lucky this time, the panelists all agreed with me and I had an opportunity to air my frustration with the media circus that went on in New York during Ahmadienjad's visit.


Dariush said...

Good work Potkin, i completely agree with you here. Press freedom is of the utmost importance, but they are no different to any other profession and it is therefore incumbent that their practice is regulated effectively.
We've seen the regime on countless occassions exploit those journalists who value personal gain over objective critique. The whole concept of press freedom is designed to speak up for those without a voice, yet ironically the regime has shrewdly highjacked this very fibre.

In particular the conduct of Amanpour has disgusted me. As an Iranian privy to the governments crimes, she has on countless occassions ignored them to further her professional exposure. She is in a unique position, with a great platform to expose the crimes of the regime, yet instead she has turned a blind eye.

William King said...

'Lo and behold', not 'low and behold', my learned rough neck.

Otherwise a very agreeable read.

Mehrtash said...

Dariush, you are quite right. However, be reassured that the sorry excuse for a journalist, Amanpour, does not say or omit to argue what her bosses in her organization do not approve.

Yes, Amanpour is a problem just like the many journalists, such as the ones Potkin names; however they are merely the symptoms, not the actual cause.

Good post, very compelling. Thank you.

Azarmehr said...

Thanks William. I have made the correction

Amir Bayani said...

The gentleman Skyped is Darío Ramírez, ARTICLE 19's Director in Mexico.

Steph Shillinglaw said...

I agree with your point Azarmehr, but would be wary of implying that the media circus surrounding Ahmadinejad's visit to New York, as ridiculous as it was, detracted from journalists' plight in Iran completely. As with the Channel 4 alternative Christmas message, it's important not to underestimate an audience - in the Channel 4 case it was very much understood by the British public as being broadcast in irony, a way that Iran's leader could be held up for ridicule (based on our existing knowledge, however un-detailed, of the atrocoties he and the regime commits). Satire is often, after all, a great form of criticism.

Nadir said...

@steph - Your point is valid up to a point but perhaps we see the effect on different audiences. The audience I see is the non-Iranian Muslims outside Iran who mostly think ANejad is the best thing since halal meat and is running rings around the media and Western leaders.