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Journalists an endangered species correspondent tells UN

Engel UN rant blog
 Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, at the UN Security Council last week in New York.  Kathleen Carroll (R), executive editor of the Associated Press. AFP Photo/Stan Hondastan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

More than 600 journalists have been killed in the past decade – some in spectacular terrorist bombings, others covertly assassinated by people they have named and shamed.

So last week the UN Security Council – the most powerful organ of the world body – held its first meeting on protecting the media in conflict, an increasingly difficult task in a world that has long since thrown rules of war out of the window.

One reason for that, said NBC correspondent Richard Engel – famously kidnapped by a pro-Syrian militia in 2012 – is that we’ve reached a time when, in combat zones, “we’re all bloggers and punks and rebels with cameras. There is absolutely no respect for career journalists any more.”

While that may bring a sneer to the lips of the aforementioned bloggers and punks, it was not just an elitist mainstream media rant.

In an Internet-dominated age when websites, print media and TV are inundated with 24-hour reports from known and unknown sources, it’s often difficult to tell reliable reports from partisan rhetoric from regime members or rebels with a cause.

“Now, there are bloggers,” said Engel. “There are tweeters. There are freelancers who see themselves as activists. There are freelancers who join rebel groups and carry guns.

“So if the discussion today is about protecting journalists, you have to decide who gets protection. Who deserves it? And who forfeits it?”

In Syria, says Engel, who has spent a decade in the world’s worst war zones, rebels have taken up cameras as well as guns, and state media are, unsurprisingly, propagandists for the regime. Engel has a simple rule to tell them apart.

“If you cannot or will not write an article that goes against your cause you’re not a journalist and don’t deserve to be treated like one,” he told the Security Council.
“I’m not saying either one – the rebels with the camera or the state broadcaster – should be mistreated, but they are fundamentally different from journalists.”

The lines are blurred, and getting hazier – and not just in the eyes of rebels and dictators.

 During the 1999 Kosovo war, NATO bombed state-run Radio Television of Serbia, killing 16 of its staff. During the Iraq war an American rocket struck the al Jazeera office in Baghdad, killing correspondent Tareq Ayoub. The U.S. earlier attacked al Jazeera’s office in Kabul. Emmy-winning British cameraman James Miller was shot by Israeli forces in Gaza in 2003. 

In these and other cases, countries waging war deny they are targeting journalists. But they are also anxious to win their propaganda wars, whether or not journalists are collateral damage.

Today it is even more difficult to draw the line. Jihadists and autocrats are as attuned to the social and “informal” media as to the mainstream, and lump them together conveniently, to the peril of those who are trying to do comprehensive reporting. 

Engel pleaded for governments to make distinctions that would protect professional journalists from attack as partisans. “We’re arrested. We’re detained. We’re harassed. We’re kidnapped and we’re killed,” he said. “Like you in the diplomatic community, we need protection to be objective.”

And objectivity, clearly, is no longer a fig leaf of protection.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia. She is a founder of the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, now Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.



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