‘Nordic’ walkout sparks identity crisis
Bright winter sun lit the forest track I was following. In the distance, through the trees, I could see Tirana, miles below. I had the mountainside to myself – or so I thought. Then close behind me an angry shout broke the stillness. I jumped in shock, and turned to face a young Albanian infantryman. His Heckler and Koch assault rifle pointed at my chest.
Whether fearful or angry, I am not sure, but he demanded something of me in shouted Albanian. I don’t speak a word. Holding up my hands, I tried to explain myself in English. He seemed as uncomprehending of me as I was of him. A few hundred paces earlier, I had passed a sentry post that seemed too ramshackle to still be in use. As the main object of my walk had been to examine the mushroom-shaped gun emplacements that festoon the Albanian countryside, I had grown blasé about decaying concrete defences.
As he shouted again, I slowly opened my jacket and reached for an inside pocket. My passport was with my hotel’s reception, but I found my IJF International Press Card (IPC) in its red wallet. I held it up to him. He was impassive for a second, then his face relaxed and with a wave of his rifle indicated that he wanted me to retrace my steps. I happily complied. He followed me as far as his post, and then watched my back as I returned whence I came.
This was simply a stroll between interviews in search of illustrative material for an article, but I have never felt so glad to carry an IPC. It was a reminder that credible, well-recognised identification of this kind can be a life saver, as well as a crucial enabler for much important journalism.
It is also why I am now fearful of the damage that is about to befall the IPC in ways that have received scant consideration. What follows is my plea to those with the card’s fate in their hands.
The IPC was launched in 1927, and has become a well-recognised surety that its bearer is a professional journalist, committed to high ethical standards, who is a member of a reputable union. It is issued to members of the 187 unions from 140 countries that are IFJ affiliates.
In January, however, four of the best organised and resourced unions in membership, those of Finland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark announced that they plan to leave the IFJ (I will refer to them as the FIND unions, for brevity). I will come to the reasons behind their announcement in a moment. What concerns me most is the impact their actions will have on the IPC.
For members of those four unions, of course, it will mean that their IPCs will be no longer valid and replacements will not be forthcoming. Norwegian journalist Ragnar Skre recently wrote: “I have used the IFJ card many times. It has been of great help when I have tried to convince the authorities in a country that I am not an agent or combatant in the conflict that they were in the middle of. I learned how important it is that I can say with my hand on my heart that I am not a party to the conflict and not sent on any political errand.”*
Skre also notes that the FIND unions have plans to issue their own international press card. He is not happy at this prospect because, he says: “The Nordic countries are perceived by Russia as biased in the Ukraine war. I therefore fear that such a Nordic press card will only strengthen the impression that the holder has been sent by the home country’s authorities, and therefore be useless.”
If Skre is right – and I suspect that he is – then members of the FIND unions will be placed in greater jeopardy when they work abroad. I wish that this were not the case.
But what if Skre is wrong? What if a new, FIND international press card gains traction and acceptance? Alas, that would create problems for everyone else. Proliferating ‘international press cards’ reduces the credibility and therefore usefulness of them all.
And which group of journalists will suffer most? Those employed by major news platforms tend to travel in teams, and are easily identified by their equipment and branded baggage. Lone freelances, working from commission to commission, are far more vulnerable. It is this group has the most to lose if the the IPC becomes less useful.
The FIND unions explained their actions in press releases released at the end of January. Clearly all have their own reasons, but there are consistent themes.
First, is the attitude taken by the IFJ to its largest affiliate in Russia. It organised new branches in areas of Ukraine occupied by Putin’s troops.
Since then, the IFJ’s executive has completed a thorough process that it had initiated towards the end of 2022 and suspended the Russian union, with a view to its expulsion. It is the most robust action against an affiliate that the IFJ’s constitution allows (until its Congress next meets). This would appear to deal decisively with this issue. My understanding is that many in the FIND unions’ leaderships accept this.
The second concern is an amorphous set of worries relating to the IFJ’s ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’ and ‘political direction’.
These are serious matters, and I respect the FIND unions’ leaders sincerity in making public their issues.
But I also think that there is time to turn back this tide. I wrote last week about the other issues this potential split creates. Surely there is a better way to dealing with this situation?
If the split goes ahead, the consequences for journalists’ unions in the international sphere will be damaging. The results for individual journalists, particularly freelances, could be deadly. Lives and livelihoods at risk is a truly awful prospect. My hope is that this possibility is sufficient to bring back around the table a group of officials whose daily work is negotiating challenging compromises. Do that, and I am hopeful they can find an agreement that benefits us all.
- I translated Ragnar Skre’s words using an online translator.