On 26 September 2002, British freelance TV journalist Roddy Scott was killed after being shot in the head while filming in Ingueshetia. He was murdered while covering the ongoing war between Chechen separatist fighters and Russian state forces.
In a statement released by his family shortly after his untimely death they said: “Whether it was Kurds, Chechens, Afghans or Palestinians, he was committed to ensuring that issues were not sidelined and received the international attention they deserved.” And as his boss at Frontline TV commented “Unlike most of us he was prepared to take the risks needed to put Chechnya back in the news.”
War and press freedom: are they mutually incompatible? That depends on which “freedoms” and which “press”. The mainstream mass media engages in all the freedoms it desires and this primarily manifests itself as freedom to generate profit: from constructing celebrity to the stirring of nationalism and racism and, perhaps most starkly, from omitting to report uncomfortable or “unhelpful” stories.
In Britain the National Union of Journalists recently published a statement warning that “journalists should be careful about being used to crank up the pressure to attack Iraq”. The union had been “contacted by members who said they were under pressure not to report anti-war activity”.
News journalists in the US, who would like that all important “access” during the likely forthcoming military assault on Iraq, are being offered special training courtesy of the Penatgon. Ostensibly as a practical course in how to survive “in theatre”, no doubt it will also help them keep their stories straight.
Military service as punishment
Those in the west may live with the comfortable illusion of a free press, but the consequences of publishing dissenting views in some countries can be severe.
In early November this year Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF, or Reporters Without Borders - an international organisation engaged in the struggle for press freedom) reported that three young Tajik TV journalists had been forcibly conscripted into the state army. This was apparently a punishment following the broadcast of a TV documentary four days earlier in which the army was shown to use squads engaged in tracking down young people and using force to conscript them into the military (and to ignore exemption papers). The head of the TV station is also reported to have received death threats from Tajik army officials.
Currently RSF have eight petitions on their website, all calling for the release of imprisoned media workers. Not surprising given that nearly 200 journalists and “cyber-dissidents” have been imprisoned or killed since 1994 (with the majority of these incarcerations and killings taking place recently).
The good news?
For as long as there is a mass media controlled by the capitalist (or indeed any) elite there will always be a long list of specific tensions between supposedly “democratic press freedoms”, kindly provided to their citizens by western states, and the interests of those states themselves. And in more controlled political environments, such as former Soviet states, or many parts of south-east Asia, it will continue to be routine for dissenting voices to be quickly extinguished, one way or another.
However, there will also always be the occasional positive story: in November the BBC reported that two Indonesian army officers have been indicted by investigators in East Timor for their role in the murder of Financial Times reporter Sander Thoenes - who was killed while covering 1999's elections on independence for the island. And in Nepal, seven media workers - some of whom worked on a pro-Maoist weekly - were released from Kathmandu prison where they had been held for six months without trial for allegedly supporting pro-Maoist guerrillas.
Filling in the blanks
Genuinely independent media workers, whether they work in the alternative and activist-based media, or as freelancers, or even working inside the “straight” press, often take risks to get us the stories that act as a counterpoint to, and that fill in those gaps deliberately left by, the mainstream media.
Whether it is the Roddy Scotts of this world, continuing to remind us of a long and bloody conflict that most of the world had pretty much given up caring about, or the Indymedia volunteer reporters being gassed and truncheoned by violent cops on the streets, the value of truly independent media - such as your very own PN! - organised and controlled, where possible, by independent media workers themselves, cannot be underestimated. It remains critical that we do indeed perform that now somewhat clichéd role and “be the media”.