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close this bookThe Courier N° 158 - July - August 1996 - Dossier: Communication and the Media - Country Report: Cape Verde (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the documentRobert Ménard, Director of 'Reporters sans frontières'

Robert Ménard, Director of 'Reporters sans frontières'

'Combating attacks on press freedom

'Reporters sans frontis' was founded in June 1985 in Montpellier where Robert Mrd was working as a journalist with Radio France. Now based in Paris, RSF has two main policy areas. In the first place it alerts international public opinion and the media to situations involving violations of press freedom (via publications such as 'RSF News letter' the Annual Report and specific books and reports). Secondly, RSF actively intervenes by sending letters of protest to official bodies and assisting victims. Last year RSF dealt with more than 350 cases involving the press throughout the world. The organisation's ambition, according to Mr Mrd, is to be a kind of Amnesty International in the press field. The interview began with Mr Mrd giving a detailed description of RSF's work.

- We do two things - we report violations of press freedom and help journalists who are the victims of such violations. Take the former Yugoslavia, for example. It would have been unthinkable to monitor what was going on in that war-torn country without, at the same time, helping the media who were victims of the repression. So we sent over lawyers to help in trials involving the press, helped the families of imprisoned journalists and gave general assistance to the media. In the case of Oslabodenje, the Sarajevo daily, this went on for four years. We did similar work in Rwanda where RSF helped the media to get back on its feet after the genocide. In Algeria at the moment we are involved in aiding journalists who are obstructed when doing their work. We also give help in Europe - currently to refugee journalists in Belgium, France, Spain, Switzarland and Germany. That's basically what we do; reporting violations of press freedom and helping those who are the victims of it.

· Do you work with other organisations, for example the United Nations?

- We work with various types of organisations. We have daily contact with other NGOs specialising in press freedom, such as Article 19 in London and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists in New York, to give just two examples. We also have contacts with NGOs involved in human rights issues in general and, above all, with Amnesty International.

Then there are our links with international organisations and, first and foremost, with the UN system. RSF has submitted reports in response to requests from various organisations, ranging from the UN Committee for Human Rights to UNESCO. We also work with the Council of Europe and the Organisation of African Unity. But our closest relationship is with the European Union, or two reasons; firstly because it is RSF's main financial backer and secondly Because the EU enables us to do three things. It has helped us set up and has Financed a vast network of correspondents in 130 different countries and, to my mind, this is the most important thing in terms of defending human rights and press freedom. We also publish reports, which we write in response to EU requests, on press freedom in one country or another and which are made available to the EU and European Parliament. Our third ink comes in the form of assistance. We manage an aid fund to help where the press is in difficulties, and the money is provided by the Union.

-You have mentioned a network of correspondents which has been set up. How does it operate?

- It is a network of people who are in daily contact with RSF and who tip us off when a situation requiring our attention arises. Whenever there is a violation of press freedom in a country where the network operates, our correspondent lets us know - that's the first priority. Then, they make enquiries at our request. The third stage is to set up events. For example May 3 was World Press Freedom Day and, on that day, in about 20 countries in Africa, our correspondents organised events on the theme of press freedom. A fourth aspect of our correspondents' work is that they are often responsible on the ground for helping journalists in difficulty. They also help the media in general because we give them documents and supply them with information which they distribute in their particular country. Their task, therefore, is to alert us to a situation, meet our requirements for information and, on our behalf, physically to assist people on the ground, set up events and disseminate information.

-Are the correspondents all nationals of the countries in which they work?

- Yes. Also, about 90% of them are joumalists and they are all paid for what they do. Their relationship with us is clear-cut. It is very important for them to be paid because this means that we can ask certain things of them. If you work as a volunteer no-one can give you a deadline to produce such and such a document. In our case, we pay them to do this work for RSF.

· Do you choose countries where the situation is already problematic?

- Unfortunately, problems exist in many countries. Less than half the countries in the world show any degree of respect for press freedom and that means we have a great deal of work. In addition, information arriving at RSF from the correspondents is distributed to other organisations. We have set up a system called Infex which is an electronic mailbox.

All RSF's information is put on a computerised system and immediately disseminated to all the organisations involved in the defence of human rights, and press freedom in particular.

· So the technological revolution is a positive thing as far as you are concerned?

- Absolutely. Both the Imais and Internet systems are unbelievably useful tools which have completely revolutionised our work. For example, RSF might protest about the situation in some country or other. Take China, for example - we regularly lodge protests against the lack of press freedom there. There are 17 journalists in jail, no freedom for the press and a great many problems. However, people in China are not aware of what we do and in order to get information they have to listen to international radio stations. On the Internet, RSF's services are available in French, English and Spanish and it is consulted by people the world over. It is thus one of their sources of information. Another example would be a case where we set up an operation and inundate a number of people in a particular country with faxes, in order to pass on the information. Modern technology enables us to break down the fortresses which totalitarian or dictatorial regimes attempt to construct around themselves.

- RSF has just published its 1996 Report. What do you have to say regarding the current position of press freedom? Has progress been made?

- I would say two things. In the long term, the situation is improving. If you remember, 25 years ago, the regimes in half the countries in Latin America were dictatorships, communism dominated half of Europe and nearly all of Africa had single-party systems. Even in Europe, there were dictatorships - in Spain, Portugal and Greece. So we cannot deny that there has been progress. The problem is that, for three or four years now, there has been a noticeable rise in new threats to press freedom, and this is a great source of concern to us. Here I am thinking of the rise in power of fundamentalist movements, particularly religious fundamentalism. In a number of countries nowadays - the best example, or perhaps I should say the worst example, is Algeria - journalists are not only threatened by the state but are being killed by armed Islamic groups. The rise in religious fundamentalism is indeed a real danger.

The second type of threat confronting the press is the increased influence of mafia-type criminals. You will, of course, have heard about drug trafficking in places like Colombia or Peru. Nowadays, in some countries where communism has been overthrown, the big threat comes from these criminal gangs. Not so long ago in Russia, the star presenter on the main TV channel was killed because he got in the way of 'Mafia' interests.

The third threat comes from uncontrolled actions by groups fighting for autonomy or independence, like the Kurdish movement in Turkey (the PKK), and a number of separatist groups in India. The EU is no stranger to this either

- ETA poses a continual threat to the press, as do members of the FLNC in Corsica. It is only a few months since members of the latter group machine gunned a journalist's house. A fourth and new kind of threat, particularly in countries with a democratic system, comes from the rise of the extreme right.

Lastly, a point I draw particular attention to in our recent report is, in fact, a dual phenomenon. On the one hand there are states which pass laws under which any criticism is a crime and may lead to prosecution. An example of this is Egypt where the government has enacted a law which has led to charges being brought against some 60 journalists since summer 1995. On the other hand, there are states where justice simply does not operate and there is no will to make it function.

Last year, 51 journalists were killed and a number of others were attacked, but there has not been a single trial or conviction. It is a real culture of impunity. In some countries, the justice system either does not operate, or it is not independent. In such places, the authorities are reluctant to identify and prosecute those responsible for attacks on journalists.

· RSFcurrently has project running in Rwanda, in collaboration with the EU. Could you tell us something about this?

- The EU is helping us to meet a wide range of needs in Rwanda, as well as in Burundi, where sadly, the situation is rather similar. In Rwanda, there are those who governed the country before the genocide and those in power at the moment. There was a specific problem there in that nearly half of Rwanda's journalists were killed during the genocide - 49 out of about 100. We had virtually to reconstruct the press system and the EU gave us the means to do this.The press currently has difficulties vis-is the authorities but it is attempting to do its job. in Burundi, where our work is of a more conventional type, we see continuing attacks on press freedom. There, RSF is trying to resist the pressure, again supported by the EU. In fact, thanks to the EU, we are helping a number of countries' media to survive despite difficult conditions.

Another quite new problem is that before and during the genocide in Rwanda, the media were used as vehicles for disseminating hatred. They issued calls for people to kill their compatriots, in this instance the Tutsis, and the language they used was unbelievably violent. On Radio Mille Collines, presenters would say - and I quote; 'The graves are not full yet'. They would give out the addresses of people who had to be killed and when the murders had been carried out they would actually say, 'You killed them too quickly - you should have killed them more slowly to make them suffer more', or, 'You didn't kill the children, go back and kill the childreni. We actually have recordings of statements like this.

In such a situation, journalists must be made to answer for what they have done and be brought to justice.

The EU has helped us conduct a number of surveys which will enable the international criminal court in The Hague to charge Rwandan journalists with complicity or incitement to genocide. We expect this to take place in the very near future.

Of course in Rwanda, all that is in the past but the same thing is happening today in Burundi where there is a radio station called 'Radio Democracy' - what a joke! A number of journalists there are issuing calls for people to be killed and we have a copy of one of their newspapers whose front page offers a cash reward to anyone who kills such and such a person. This is not journalism. RSF has lodged complaints against these people and one of these 'journalists' has just been charged.

We are doing three things in Rwanda and Burundi: denouncing violations of press freedom by the authorities, helping media victims and - something new - reporting what has come to be known as 'the media of hatred'. Unfortunately, this type of media is not restricted to Rwanda and Burundi. it is a phenomenon that we see in a number of African countries, in the former Yugoslavia, the Caucasus and the

Middle East. Perhaps you are aware that the 50th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials has just passed? But did you know that there were two journalists among the accused? The press has forgotten that journalists played a part in the rise of Nazism. RSF is pointing out that the same thing is happening today in many countries and we have to fight it.

'The EU is a perfect partner

· Given what you have just said, should restrictions be placed on press freedom?

- This is a very complex subject. You have to remember that international texts, particularly the convention on civil and political rights, place restrictions on press freedom. Article 19, which defines press freedom, stipulates that there are certain limits to this and Article 20 forbids any dissemination of racist or antisemitic ideas and any incitements to violence.

RSF has two things to say. First, governments which have signed the agreements must ensure they are observed. These set limits. Journalists are not above the law and they must be punished when they say certain things. So states must face up to their responsibilities and apply the treaties they have signed. Second, I feel that the international community, and Europe in particular - when it signs agreements or gives aid to third countries - should demand that they respect press freedom but clamp down on the media of hatred.

· RSF has just published a draft model legislation governing the press. In preparing this, were you influenced by your experience of the extremist media?

- Perhaps we were influenced too much. I am my own worst critic. We sent a mission to Rwanda before the genocide but did not appreciate the full effects of the evil disseminated by the media of hatred, particularly Radio Mille

Collines. We underestimated the situation and are concerned at what is happening. We believe there must be express limits on press freedom and this draft framework law is one way of formulating such restrictions. It is not necessarily the best way of going about things, but our profession has to ask itself questions regarding the definition of press freedom and the limits we must not exceed.

· Are you satisfied with what the EU is doing in this area?

- The EU is a perfect partner and has never exerted any pressure. With the Union, we are able to do things that would not be possible with individual Member-State government because the latter conduct foreign policy in defence of certain interests. Each country has its own cultural history linguistic links or links arising out of former colonial times which prevent it financing RSF's studies unconditionally. As far as our missions are concerned, RSF decides what it wants to do and we send our reports to the EU. They have also granted us a budget enabling us to give immediate aid to people in difficulty. This is the most positive action possible If the EU were not there, there would unfortunately be no-one else to finance an organisation like ours. 60% of our budget comes from the Union, 20%from various companies. We generate the remaining 20% ourselves through sales of books and contributions. Because the EU is a grouping of governments, the Commission has some room for manoeuvre. This is the only possible kind of support for organisations like RSF and, if it were not there, it would be the end for the people whom RSF supports. interview by Dorothy Morrissey