Journalists should not be ‘at war’
The European Federation of Journalists annual meeting, Den Haag, Netherlands 11/12 May 2023
“Media self-censorship undermines press freedom”, Dutch Al-Jazeera correspondent Step Vaessen told delegates to the European Federation of Journalists annual meeting. She was addressing the gathering in The Hague, Netherlands, about the response of reporters to the war in Ukraine. “It as a social psychological phenomenon – politicians and civilians close ranks in times of war and conflict, and journalists do the same,” she said.
Her argument – delivered in a lecture on 11 May – was that when armed conflicts flare up, the responsibility of journalists is to report a variety of outlooks, even if some are unpalatable. She complained, for example, about France 24 being pressured recently to take down interviews with Russian soldiers in training who told reporters that they were unafraid to die ‘defending the motherland’.
“(Journalists’) role is not to guard unity but to show different perspectives. It is crucial that the public can rely on professionals when it comes to independent, factual and balanced information. The fourth estate should never stop asking uncomfortable questions… WE are not at war with anyone. We have only one weapon and that is our impartiality in our search for facts.”
Her message did not make comfortable listening for everyone in the audience. As she spoke of interviewing Russian soldiers I imagined how my friends from the Ukrainian journalists unions might react – some of whom were in the audience. Elsewhere on the agenda, the the Independent Media Workers Union of Ukraine had a motion calling for Russian journalists to be dragged before the International Criminal Court as the willing propagandists of illegal war. I have several times witnessed my Ukrainian colleagues’ understandable anger at any suggestion of moral equivalence between their country is its larger aggressor.
Happily the session passed without incident. Perhaps the inner steel that Vaessen exudes dissuaded anyone from locking horns. She reported from Indonesia during some of its most turbulent periods and has confronted soldiers accused of committing atrocities. Most remarkably, she continued reporting after suffering personal tragedies that many might have caused others to seek less fraught occupations.
Responding to Vaessen’s lecture, Russian emigre journalist Mikhail Fishman said that the detachment for which Vaessen called is not always possible. “As a Russian citizen, I might not be at war, but I am a part of the story of this war, whether I like it or not. So too are Ukrainian journalists.” Impartiality from such reporters was not possible in the way that might be achieved by a correspondent from another state, he suggested.
It was not a position on which the meeting would take a vote, but it provided significant food for thought. Vaessen’s whole speech can be read here, it is well worth ten minutes of your time.
Another debate that had the capacity to be highly contentious, ended up as an expression of our shared values to which no one voiced opposition.
In recent months a few unions have announced their intention to leave the International Federation of Journalists – the organisation of which the EJF is the regional wing. It easy to imagine that some see the European body as nursemaid to those seeking fracture from its international parent.
NUJ UK&I put a motion that tried to draw a line beneath ill-will and accusations. It concluded as follows: “(The EFJ) believes that among the leadership of the IFJ and the unions concerned there are many highly-skilled negotiators, all of whom it implores to work without rest to find a means to heal this rift. (And) calls on the EFJ Steering Committee to work with renewed intensity to resolve all outstanding issues and allow our movement to continue as one.”
For such an unequivocal statement supporting a united movement of journalists’ trades unions to pass without a speech of opposition or vote against sends a clear message (there were a handful of abstentions). All energies should now be devoted to restoring unity, and not fostering a fresh cold war. Those tempted by the latter course will be acting counter to the unequivocal will of the EFJ’s general meeting.
As is so often the way at such gatherings, the fiercest clash came where it was least expected. Krzysztof Bobinski, from the Polish Society of Journalists moved a motion about the European Media Freedom Act. He praised the benefits it promises particularly, one sensed, in countries where the rule of law and respect for institutions falls short of the ideal.
The voluble Hubert Bekrycht from rival Polish Journalists Association (SPD) shot up to the rostrum. He denounced the motion as rubbish and told the meeting that his union had 3,000 members to Bobinski’s 100. Worse than that, he said, with a quivering finger pointing in his rival’s direction: “he used to be a senior official in the Polish Communist Party”.
This did not provoke quite the reaction that Bekrycht anticipated. Delegates from the west European Communist-affiliated unions appeared ready to take the stand, but Borka Rudić from Bosnia-Herzegovina beat them to the rostrum. “I am a former member of the Yugoslav Communist Party”, she said. “That, however, is in the past. Our task is to work with the world of today, not to continue as though history has stood still”.
The motion passed with ease; Bekrycht’s appeared furious, but remained at the meeting.
If this Polish spat shows anything it is this. Long-running conflicts deflect attention from our real goals long after the original injustices, perceived or real, are consigned to history. If the leaders of Europe’s journalists unions take away just one lesson from their sojourn in the Netherlands, let us hope it is this. Swiftly resolving differences in our own ranks is the best way to retain focus on our real enemies.
Note: after this meeting, and after I wrote this piece, I was appointed Deputy General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists. My participation in the meeting at Den Haag, however, was as a representative of my own union, the NUJ UK+I, and as a member of the EFJ’s Steering Committee.