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 UN Chief Asks Media to Shun 'Terrorists'

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By Thalif Deen - Inter Press Service

United Nations, 05 May, (IPS): The United Nations is willing to convene an international conference to formulate ethical guidelines for journalists covering one of the most politically sensitive issues in the world body: terrorism.

Implicitly calling for a virtual ban on interviewing terrorists, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says that both civil society and mass media should play a prominent role in countering "hyper-nationalistic and xenophobic messages that glorify mass murder and martyrdom".

In a new 32-page report on terrorism released here Tuesday, he said the news media may wish to study the experiences of countries that have adopted voluntary codes of conduct for journalists covering terrorism, including, for example, bans on interviewing terrorists.

The study, which was requested by some 150 world leaders at the U.N. World Summit last September, will go before the 191-member General Assembly on May 11.

The United Nations, Annan said, stands ready to work with journalists' associations and press freedom groups on this specific issue, including by convening ...

an international conference, if so desired.

Last month, news media the world over ran statements and videos by Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, each with a price on their heads.

The United States has offered over 50 million dollars for the capture of the three -- dead or alive. But all have received considerable play both in the print and electronic media -- particularly in the Middle East.

The Bush administration has singled out Bin Laden as the prime architect of the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sep. 11 2001. Al-Zawahiri has been described as a second-in-command to Bin Laden, while al-Zarqawi is leading the current anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.

"In Britain, the government banned broadcast interviews with members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) -- and ended up negotiating with them," says Ian Williams, U.N. correspondent for The Nation, columnist for Maxims News and the Deadline Pundit blogger.

"While I was president of the U.N. Correspondents' Association, we invited Sinn Fein leaders to speak as a protest against such forms of censorship," he said. From China, to Uzbekistan to Washington, governments brand their opponents as terrorists.

"In Israel, a government whose political predecessors practiced random bombings and massacres of Arabs under the U.N. mandate, and assassinations of British officials during the war against the Nazis, now says that no one should talk to an elected 'terrorist' government of the Palestinian Authority," Williams told IPS. And it does so while shelling packed civilian areas in Gaza.

"Freedom of information is far too important to risk for expedient or hysterical definitions by officials of any government. A journalists' duty is to ask hard and searching questions of any political actor, whether 'freedom fighter', 'terrorist', elected representative, or self-appointed tyrant," said Williams.

On the question of an international conference, he said that such a meeting would be useful -- but no government can be trusted to control information, or to dictate what or who the media show.

In his study, Annan said that "just as the media cycle is exploited by terrorists every day, we need to take on the challenge to match their narrative of hate with the narrative of victims; the narrative of communities divided and broken by terrorist acts; the narrative of courage of those who risk their lives going about their daily business; the narrative of values for which the United Nations stands."

Tony Jenkins, U.S. Correspondent for the Expresso of Lisbon and also a former president of the U.N. Correspondents Association, told IPS: "I don't have a problem with ethical guidelines per se. But the thorny old issues remain: who gets to define who is a terrorist? Whose ethics?"

He pointed out that the "recent cartoons fiasco taught us a lesson". In Denmark, he said, the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad might by some standards have been tasteless and or insensitive, but they were not unethical. On the other hand, they were clearly deemed unethical by a majority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims.

"Worse, I think the emphasis is misplaced. You cannot censor your way to victory in the campaign against those who use terrorist methods. Rather than shutting Bin Laden up, expose him all the more. Defeat his ideas," said Jenkins.

Any good journalist in the field would die to interview an Osama -- often, they literally do, he said. And if he or she is a good journalist, Bin Laden and his views would be exposed for everyone to judge, as U.S. television journalist Peter Arnett proved.

"That is what the media do. We've had too much censorship, not too little, especially self-censorship. There's been too much media kowtowing to the powers that be, not too little, as the White House press corps has proved to everyone's detriment," Jenkins added.

Perhaps the secretary-general, he said, could instead use the occasion of World Press Freedom Day Wednesday to do something to help ensure that 63 journalists and five media assistants are not killed this year as they were in 2005.

"Or perhaps he could do something about the 120 journalists who are currently in prison for exercising their profession?"

One of the two worst offenders, China, is a permanent member of the Security Council (Cuba is the other, according to some watchdog groups). "In Russia, another permanent member, we have also seen the media come under assault and outright control by the government," he said.

Jenkins said the United Nations is custodian of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of which is freedom of the press. If ever there was a time and a day to speak truth to power, today is it, he added.

In his study, Annan also said the new breed of terrorists rely on communication to build support and recruit members.

"We must deny them this access, particularly by countering their use of the Internet -- a rapidly growing vehicle for terrorist recruitment and dissemination of information and propaganda."

In 1998, according to the report, there were fewer than 20 "terrorist websites" on the Internet. By 2005, that number was estimated to have surged into the thousands.

"Indeed, it seems that some major recent attacks drew support from content on the Internet," Annan said.

"Terrorists take advantage of differences in national responses -- if blocked from operating in one state, they can simply relocate to another. In this way, Internet can become a virtually safe haven that defies national borders," the secretary-general warned.

In an implicit reference to the United States -- which has justified the suspension of civil liberties and rule of law in the name of fighting terrorism -- Annan said the international community "should not sacrifice its values and lower its standards to those of the terrorists".

The United States has come under heavy fire for the treatment of suspected terrorists at the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.

At the same time, U.S. soldiers have been accused of torturing and humiliating terror suspects in the Abu Ghraib prison outside the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and the Baghram airbase in Afghanistan. The mistreatment of suspects is also a violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions which govern the treatment of prisoners of war.

Annan said that international cooperation to fight terrorism must be conducted in full conformity with international law, "including the charter of the United Nations and relevant international conventions and protocols."

He pointed out that when human rights are abused as part of a campaign against terrorism, terrorists exploit the abuse to mobilise recruits and seek to further justify their actions.

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