Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tensions faced media, aid workers in Sri Lanka

The news media had had little access to civilians in the dying stages of Sri Lanka's civil war which ended this month. This made media dependent on sourcing details from aid organisations.

By Amanda Fisher: Pacific Media Centre

A natural tension existing between aid workers and journalists working in humanitarian crises was evident in the current conflict in Sri Lanka, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

ICRC head of public and media relations Florian Westphal told a conference on reporting war held at Massey University, Wellington, yesterday that tense conditions in Sri Lanka had made it extremely difficult for aid workers to fully cooperate with the media.

“That was a real dilemma for us because, on the one hand, there was a real interest for us in that being covered...[but] on the other hand, we had to be extremely careful that we didn’t say something that may compromise the little we could do,” he said.

“You’re constantly trying to strike the right balance.”

The media had had little access to civilians in Sri Lanka, which had made them dependent on sourcing details from aid organisations, Westphal said.

It was often the most newsworthy situations which were the hardest for aid workers to negotiate.

“Our main responsibility is to have access to the people we set out to help, and to what extent are we going to jeopardise that?”

Joint role
Media and humanitarians often held a similar function in areas of conflict for the outside world and, in that regard, were united in some of their aims, Westphal said.

“Both the media and aid organisations are probably the most prominent sources of what all of us learn about war and suffering.”

Often a member of the media or an aid organisation may be the only outsider present to report on what is happening in a particular situation, he said.

However, while the media and aid organisations might share an end goal of tackling injustices, their operational methods were routinely vastly different.

While there were similarities in the ultimate aim of being “agents for change”, media and aid organisations worked toward different targets within that context, Westphal said.

“We always have to bear in mind that aid organisations and media have different objectives.

“The media have quite a different job.”

Helping victims
The aims of aid agencies to help victims and have access to them often involved objectives at odds with the media, who sought to disseminate information to the public regardless of direct impact on immediate victims, he said.

“Our responsibility is to the people that are the victims of the events.

“Talking to journalists can jeopardise access, especially when you’re talking about something really sensitive, like access to prisoners on the understanding that we won’t speak with reporters.

“It’s not just through exposure and denunciation that we get things done in this world – in some situations it can actually get quite harmful.”

Speaking at the same conference, freelance foreign correspondent Jon Stephenson recognised the value of aid agencies, while criticising them for being, at times, unnecessarily taciturn.

“It’s very important for us as journalists to recognise the contribution aid groups make...but the ICRC isn’t faultless and should be subject to criticism.

“The ICRC could have done more in tipping off the media”, especially in relation to the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which details of human rights abuses were only just emerging, he said.

Useful tool
Westphal said the value of the media to humanitarian organisations should also be recognised. That value was wide-ranging, amounting to more than just a financial stimulus to generating aid.
The news media was a very good tool in placing issues in the public forum and motivating people, he said.

“It’s not just about funding but also about have to be seen to be doing something, and that happens through the media.

“We want to raise public awareness of the suffering.”

Westphal cited the example of nurse Florence Nightingale who found the motivation to act because of newspaper reports on the Crimean War.

Generating funds was an essential byproduct of media exposure, and something currently of particular importance, he said.

“The economic crisis is not just affecting the media, but is also affecting our sector in a major way.”

Latest estimates were anticipating a 25 percent decrease in aid organisation donations, he said.

Optimistic view
Despite any tensions, Westphal said he was optimistic about the relationship between aid organisations and the media.

“I’m pretty optimistic there’s a lot of good day-to-day cooperation going on.

“We have a good relationship, but there are a number of issues we need to work through.”

There were areas which both groups needed to improve on in order to meet the needs of an evolving world, he said.

“The agenda of the media and aid organisations tends to be quite fast-moving and fickle. When the next big event comes along, people quite quickly lose focus.

“The cases of forgotten conflict are not just the fault of journalists but also our fault too.”

“Another shared challenge is where and to what extent we really are a welcome presence in aid areas these days...If what we are trying to do is not accepted then we do not usually have the basis that allows us to go out to those areas and do our jobs.”

There was suspicion among some civilians that the media and aid organisations were agents of western colonialism, operating through a framework of western ideals, he said.

Westphal queried why conflicts such as those in the Congo were less favourably covered in the media than western-led conflicts such as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza.

“Our motives are necessarily being questioned.”

Other areas where the media and aid organisations needed to proceed cautiously included not presenting civilians as “passive recipients of aid” when reports quite clearly showed a substantial amount of support came from within the affected community, and in not over-simplifying conflicts into tales of good and evil when they were often much more complex, he said.

Camera footage
Westphal said the ICRC was committed to collaborating with the media and would continue to disseminate information and camera footage among journalists.

However, in pursuit of greater transparency and credibility, sources of footage and information should be declared by media outlets, he said.

“Audiences here expect us to be truthful and expect us to be credible.”

He also cautioned that aid agencies were not simply another supply of news gatherers.

“There is a tendency to rely on aid workers as being the next generation of news gatherers...just bear in mind that our objectives are not necessarily the same as yours. We do have our own agenda and I’m not going to apologise for that.

“We can help with news gathering but we are not news gatherers first.”

The media should avoid an over-reliance on aid organisations for information on what to report as decisions on the public line were often made at headquarters, and not on the field, where the dynamics were quite different, he said.

Conversely, he acknowledged aid agencies were too often directed by the media.

“It’s easy for us to critique the media but we need to be very, very self-critical because we as aid organisations have tended to adapt to the agenda set by the news media.

“We have also not been willing to take the risk to work on something that won’t get picked up on by the media.”

Pictured: Top: ICRC's Florian Westphal; above: freelance foreign correspondent Jon Stephenson. Photos: Michael Dickison and Matt Backhouse (Massey University student journalists).

Amanda Fisher is a student journalist in Massey University’s Department of Communication, Journalism and Marketing.

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