Are Independent Journalists now targeted as “Unlawful Civilians”?

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The George W. Bush administration invented the label “unlawful combatants” to designate POWs captured in the American war on Afghanistan, so as to bypass the inconvenience of having to ensure their human rights under the Geneva Convention.

Now it will have to coin another expedient term to describe journalists targeted during the American-led war on Iraq. Perhaps “unlawful civilians” will fit the bill.

After all, according to Washington’s rationale sensible (read; compliant) journalists were generously offered the opportunity to be “embedded” within the advancing American forces. Therefore, those who opted to cover the war on their own must be “unlawful” and should not be surprised or indignant at finding themselves targeted “at the choosing” (another favorite Bush phrase) of the American military.

Tariq Ayob was killed by an American missile while working in Al-Jazeerah’s Baghdad office. The Americans knew exactly where the popular Arabic satellite TV station was, because its own network executives, only a few meters away from U.S. central command in Doha, Qatar, told them.

Following the bombing of Al-Jazeerah’s office, they bombed Abu Dubai TV, then the Palestine Hotel where other international journalists where stationed. All of these media-targeted bombings took place only hours before the so-called “fall of Baghdad.”

It seems that George W. Bush’s infamous 9/11 declaration, “you are either with us or you are against us” was addressed not only to other nations, but also to journalists everywhere who might be tempted not to toe the American propaganda line.

Veteran newswoman Helen Thomas found herself abruptly banished to the back of the briefing room, and her questions ignored, after she asked Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer whether the U.S. had violated the Geneva Convention by broadcasting televised pictures of prisoners of war (sorry, “unlawful combatants”) in their outdoor cages at Guantanamo Bay. How could you, Helen? What were you thinking, to ask such truth-challenging questions of the spokesman for the almost-elected president of the United States of America?

It is shocking to realize that the Thomas case hardly fanned a ripple of editorial ire among Canada’s major newspapers. Why weren’t papers on both sides of the border talking about this unconscionable incident and addressing the steady erosion of press freedom? You’d think editors lived in fear of losing their jobs. Maybe they are.

But instead of acting as if the incident barely happened, international media professionals — publishers, editors, in-the-field journalists alike — should have risen up to defend their collective dignity and integrity by boycotting White House press briefings for at least 48 hours. Had they done so, Bush and his spin doctors could not avoid getting the message where it most hurts, in their public relations ratings.

So when will western journalists get up and tell Washington, like the late actor Peter Finch did so eloquently in the classic movie, Network, that they’re “mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore?”

Meanwhile, their colleagues in many developing countries routinely face intimidation, persecution, and even death, not from missiles and machine-guns but in suffering and torture while being detained out of the public eye. Just recently, for example, Egypt jailed reporters Ibrahim El Sahari and Wael Taufik, for opposing the American war on Iraq.

There is little or no hope for true press freedom in developing countries, if that freedom is so casually surrendered in the West. The Bush administration has shown that some dictators are still elected and underscores how a free press, exemplified by proactive individuals such as Helen Thomas, is their sworn enemy.

In a true democracy, therefore, citizens must be given more responsibility, not less, for directing government policies. A public with informed opinions and a wide awareness of national and international events, is the taproot of a healthy society.

The current apathy of the North American public toward political discussion and debate is directly related to the decline of a well-informed public. And the more people perceive that the media is no more than a biased channel for government propaganda, the more they’ll resist buying into it.

The resulting negative feedback is having a devastating effect on the health of our western democracies; newspaper circulation figures tell the frightening story only too well. In Norway, total newspaper circulation is equivalent to 60% of the population. In Sweden and Finland it is 50%, and in Denmark, 40 %. But in Canada it is less than 20% and even lower in the U.S.

We, the public, need more free press and that means journalists and their professional organizations have a duty to all of us to reclaim their professional autonomy. In fact, no other secular vocation has a higher level of social responsibility to maintain.

But journalists cannot educate the public nor tell the truth if they live in continual fear of losing their jobs. Schools of journalism must devote a larger part of their curriculum to teaching the business side of the trade. This way, younger journalists will develop the confidence and talent to break the monopoly of big government-driven media consortiums and start more independent news organizations of their own.

Tariq Ayob and thousands of other journalists the world over have given their lives in the line of duty, whether cut down by the fire-power of local enforcers or by the weapons of clashing armies. But the results are tragically the same everywhere, when journalists are treated as “unlawful civilians” and thereby rendered disposable.

The truth and our right to be informed must not be reduced to mere collateral damages of war. This has got to change.

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