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Stop press

It?s been called the propaganda war ? a war where what people think is happening is more important than what is actually going on.

india Updated: Apr 19, 2003 14:42 IST

It’s been called the propaganda war — a war where what people think is happening is more important than what is actually going on. And despite the wall-to-wall coverage, it’s been a war where the major participants have treated the media with contempt.

Journalists have paid a terrible price for this contempt: 13 journalists and other media workers killed. Others seriously wounded. Television and radio stations targeted with Cruise missiles. Journalists arrested and held in terrible conditions. There is now compelling eyewitness and other evidence to justify us asking the question: Are journalists being deliberately targeted? The bland assurances from the Pentagon and other coalition spokespeople are no longer enough to dismiss these suspicions.

A precision Cruise missile destroys the offices of the Al-Jazeera network killing Tareeq Ayoub and wounding another. The Pentagon claims sniper fire, yet the coalition forces knew the premises were occupied by the media.

Journalist eyewitnesses see a US tank pause and deliberately target the Palestine Hotel, known to be the residence of foreign journalists. As a result Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian cameraman working for Reuters, and Spanish Telecinco cameraman Jose Couso, died. The Pentagon claims it was responding to enemy fire. Journalist eyewitnesses say they saw no such fire.

We already know that supporters of the Iraqi regime are deliberately targeting journalists with the murder of ABC cameraman Paul Moran in the early days of the war. There is some other evidence that suggests that both sides have bombarded media, even though they knew they were civilians.

The coalition spokespeople has effectively dismissed concerns saying that only embedded journalists can be considered safe. Yet, if we could only rely on the reports from embedded journalists and from official briefings from either side, we would only have a limited view of what is actually happening.

In war, combatant forces have a responsibility for the safety of all civilians — not just those travelling with them. And being embedded has been no guarantee of safety with Spanish journalist Julio Anguita Parrado of the newspaper El Mundo and German journalist, Christian Liebig with the magazine Focus, killed when an Iraqi missile hit south of Baghdad. Both journalists were embedded with US 3rd infantry forces.

That’s why the International Federation of Journalists believes that only an independent war crimes investigation can determine the truth.

Targeting the media is a war crime. It is a clear breach of the principles of international humanitarian law embodied in the Geneva Conventions. The 1949 conventions and the 1977 protocols outlaw attack on civilians and civilian objects. Journalists and media workers — even those from combatant nations — have the right to be treated as civilians.

To be a legitimate military target under the protocols, the target must make ‘an effective contribution to military action’ and their destruction offer ‘a definite military advantage’. If there is any doubt, they must be treated as civilian objects. Neither the Palestine Hotel, nor the Al-Jazeera office, nor Paul Moran meets this test.

This contempt for the media not only killed journalists, but also distorted the role of an independent media in a free society. Voltaire’s immortal catch cry is everywhere inverted. No longer: “I disagree with what you say, but will fight to the death for your right to say it.” Instead, “I disagree with what you say, so I will go out of my way to frustrate your work.”

From the New York Stock Exchange to the Iraqi information ministry, bars on individual journalists are being raised against the messengers, because someone doesn’t like the message.

And overnight, everyone — from Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — has become a would-be news director: encouraging, cajoling and threatening journalists and media organisations about what they should or should not report. Every argument from national security to good taste is raised as a barrier against reporting what is going on. The integrity of official briefings — from all sides — are everywhere treated with automatic suspicion.

In the midst of all this, we should be proud of the ability of most of the world’s media to cut through the fog to keep people informed. Inevitably, mistakes have been made. Briefings accepted in good faith, have turned out to be false. At its best, there has been much in the journalism of the past few weeks to make us all proud. But the deaths of our colleagues demand an answer: Why?

The writer is the president of the International Federation of Journalists