Deflecting bullets should be our priority
WHY THE IFJ AND EFJ SHOULD REMAIN UNITED
Last summer I participated in a Zoom call with several Ukrainian journalists who had been helped by an emergency fund established by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its regional group, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ). I had been moved to contribute money myself at the outset of the conflict, so I was keen understand the impact achieved by the €635,000 made available to journalists in Ukraine.
Gleb Golovchenko’s story struck me particularly. He is a television journalist in the Black Sea city of Mykolaiv. Ten kilometres from his office, Kherson was, at that time, in the hands of Russian invaders. His own city was under attack – Golovchenko was on the front line. He and his work mates wore protective vests paid for from the IFJ/EFJ fund. As he walked to his office with colleagues one morning, a Russian bomb struck.
“The bulletproof vest I was given has saved my life,” he said. “We see missiles and shooting every day, so all our reporters need extra protection. I have seen first hand artillery fire landing right next to fellow journalists. If they had no means of protection, it could have ended tragically”.
That I, and hundreds of other journalists had contributed some of the cost of this safety equipment felt miraculous, intimate and humbling all at once. It is this experience that motivates me to do everything in my power to resist the tragic split that is underway among those who represent journalists’ on the international stage.
The first formal shot in this dispute has been fired by the journalists’ unions of Finland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark (I will refer to them as the FINDs, henceforth). Each simultaneously announced their intention leave the IFJ – the oldest global journalsits’ organisation, whose centenary falls in 2026.
The FINDs plan to concentrate their extra-territorial work through their membership of the EFJ, despite this technically being the regional subsidiary of the international body. All cited concerns about the IFJ’s governance and the continuing membership of the Russian Union of Journalists as the reason for their quitting. The resignations will become effective in the summer.
It should also be noted that the FIND unions form the core of one of the two informal groupings that have, in recent years, vied to take the leading positions in the IFJ. They have generally, although not exclusively, been on the losing side in many recent contests. They provide leadership, however, to the largest grouping in the EFJ.
The FINDs are densely-organised, effective organisations whose financial contributions are significant to the IFJ. Money is not why I fear their leaving, however. It is what will happen next that worries me. The danger is that their departure heralds the emergence of a bipolar world of journalists’ unions, with all being forced to choose a camp.
First, some other European journalists unions might be tempted to follow the FINDs out of the IFJ. Various names have been whispered. I hope that these rumours are without foundation.
Just as likely, of course, is that European unions on the other side of this argument will leave the EFJ. Why prop up an organisation that has, in the perception of some, enabled this split? They would, in all probability, form a new, regional structure for Europe within the IFJ. The two organisations would then battle for credibility and traction, largely at the expense of each other.
To understand why this matters, let us return to Ukraine.
INSTINCTIVE CO-OPERATIVE ACTION
When Russia invaded Ukraine, it was clear that journalists in that country needed help. The IFJ and EFJ share an office in Brussels. Their staff are colleagues. Swift, co-operative action was instinctive and, as it turned out, effective and greatly appreciated by journalists in Ukraine.
There are in Ukraine two journalists unions that are affiliated to the IFJ and EFJ, however. The National Union of Journalists in Ukraine, and the smaller Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine. Help was provided to them even-handedly, with both running solidarity centres funded by the IFJ/EFJ. So far as I know, nether union has ever complained about the other receiving preferential treatment.
Working together, co-operation has been automatic. Would that be the case, in a bi-polar world, where rival camps of unions are trying to stake their claims to be the legitimate voice of journalists trades unions in Europe? I doubt it. And both sides would waste resources promoting positions critical of each other.
The consequences of this meta-squabble could be the difference between life and death in a situation such as Ukraine. The draining, debilitating consequences of a split would seep into everything either side touched. Two European groupings of journalists would end up competing against each other for political influence and project funding. The EFJ sheltering the breakaways will, no doubt, in time, feel obliged to issue its own international press cards – thereby devaluing the one that exists. All work will be seen through the prism of this dispute.
UNPAID ACTIVISM REPAID WITH GRIEF AND VILIFICATION
Such conflict might be grist to the mill for a handful. A greater number will be repulsed. Why pour yourself into largely unpaid activism if your reward is grief and vilification?
We know all of this because it has happened before. After the second world war, the ‘western block’ IFJ vied for leadership of journalists’ unions with a Soviet-block rival, the International Organisation of Journalists. It took sixty-five years, and the fall of communism in eastern Europe to close that fissure.
But at this moment, we still have a chance to prevent a similarly seismic split today. Doing so might require challenging compromises for all concerned, but I plead with them to work to this end.
Happily the most egregious complaint of the FIND unions has been dealt with. At an emergency meeting of its executive, the IFJ decided to suspend from membership the Russian Union for its decision to organise branches in areas of Ukraine that have been occupied by the Russian military. The IFJ has acted as quickly and decisively as is possible on this issue.
The governance issues are more complex, not least because they are more contested and, in some cases, relate to claims regarding events that took place years, even decades, ago.
I am sure that all can be addressed satisfactorily. Doing that, however, will require both sides to focus on the future. Hurts, slights, accusations, and embarrassments in the past should be laid to one side, if solutions and reassurances for the IFJ’s next congress are to be put in place.
I am certain that this is possible, with a little good will and imagination. It will also be important to keep everyone’s minds on why this is really important.
SWIFT, EFFECTIVE RESPONSES SAVE LIVES
It matters because quick, effective responses to crises such as Ukraine make a difference to journalists’ lives.
It matters because threats to free speech and media freedom are constant. A clearly expressed, democratically-rooted response from those whose life blood is free speech is critical to hold at bay repressive governments, overbearing corporations and criminal gangs.
And, it matters because, at heart, trades unions work by bringing people together to cooperatively respond to threats that would overwhelm us individually. A split in our own ranks, at the highest level, calls collectivism itself into question.
There are far more significant and influential players in this dispute than me. But I pledge to do all in my power to try and bring this situation back from the brink. If a few more, from both sides of the battle lines, lend themselves to this, then I am sure that an enduring rift can be avoided. In the interests of the common good, I hope against hope that this is possible.