Aid meets the press
By Joanna Gibbon
The interdependence of the media and
humanitarian organisations has never been more acute. Each has
its own agenda, but relies on the other to publicise the story
or provide the information. What do they expect of one another?
Joanna Gibbon looks at an often fruitful, sometimes stormy relationship.
“So where are the raped women? And which ones are Serb”
asked the Swiss journalist in a loud voice. She was looking
at a queue of dispirited displaced people waiting for their
Red Cross parcels at a Croatian Red Cross branch near Zagreb.
Hoping that no one had heard, I bundled her off behind some
sacks of beans and explained, in my capacity as a Federation
information delegate in Zagreb, that such questions were completely
inappropriate and were likely to upset many people.
This minor incident had no repercussions – the resulting
article was laudatory about Red Cross work – but it
highlights the delicate nature of the relationship between
the media and humanitarian aid organisations. What, given
the constraints and desires of each one, do they need from
each other? Do their respective agendas force them to be always
at odds with one another or can they work together effectively?
Are major humanitarian aid organisations like the ICRC and
the Federation formulating communications strategies that
work for them?
A competitive world
The world of international humanita-rian aid, as well as
that of the media, has changed considerably since the end
of the cold war. The number of disasters, including conflicts,
requiring humanitarian intervention has increased significantly
and, possibly as a consequence, there are more agencies than
ever providing aid. At the same time, funding has not increased
proportionately and agencies find themselves trying to do
more with less.
For their part, journalists are finding greater access to
disasters and conflicts around the world and information is
now a more readily available commodity than it was in the
recent past. Linked to this is the change within the media,
especially with the development of instant news beamed out
by satellite 24 hours a day. Competition has become merciless
and this, combined with sharp budget cuts for foreign correspondents,
has lent truth to the image of a butterfly-like “media
circus” flitting from one crisis to the next.
Not surprisingly, the increased external pressures on both
aid agencies and the media are often painfully felt when their
paths cross. Ian Piper, Director of Communications at the
Federation, sees this in especially sharp focus.
“It’s as if both sides suddenly got the impression
that they were being abused by the other, that their integrity
was being threatened by the other’s attitude. Perhaps
both are less idealistic now,” he observes. Piper, who
until recently worked for the BBC World Service, feels that
the media has just realised that humanitarian organisations
want to transmit a particular and clear message. “We
are not innocents waiting to be admired because we are doing
good. We have our own agenda,” he says.
And similarly, humanitarian organisations are seeing that
those in the media are not always unscrupulous vultures to
be treated with suspicion. “There are lots of journalists
who have very serious views and are critical on a valid level
because they are well informed,” Piper maintains.
Within this new environment, both the ICRC and the Federation
occupy a unique position among humanitarian organisations.
Independent of governments, yet dependent on them for significant
financial aid, they are bound by strict rules of impartiality,
neutrality and confidentiality. That means that dealing with
the media is not always easy or straightforward.
Understandably, there is a certain amount of resistance to
the media in both organisations, which lends strength to the
criticism on the part of journalists that both (but especially
the ICRC) are aloof, media shy and not as forthcoming with
information as they should be. Experience does not always
help diminish the resistance.
Some aid workers, especially those in the field who are living
and working in difficult conditions, find dealing with the
media an unpleasant waste of time. Stories abound of journalists
who consumed all the delegates’ food and water during
the height of the Rwandan crisis and then wrote inaccurate
stories or of those who roller-skated down the streets of
Mogadishu listening to their Walkmans while people died of
But aid agencies will have to contend with the media –
like it or not. “Sometimes it feels a bit like an arranged
marriage,” Bodine Williams, Head of the Federation’s
Media Service, says. “We need each other, but our different
perspectives can put us into situations that make us both
a bit uncomfortable. The important point being that we have
to make it work.”
For aid agencies, the need to make it work is felt now more
than ever as the post-cold war world underscores the very
real power of today’s media. “It is influencing
the agenda of politicians,” Peter Fuchs, Director General
of the ICRC, comments. Fuchs maintains that during the last
few years the ICRC has responded by being more outspoken.
As an example, he cites the ICRC’s public outcry in
early 1991 about ethnic cleansing and the appalling atrocities
in Bosnia. “We felt it might create pressure on the
politicians involved. It was the only way to change a situation,
having found that the usual discreet, behind-the-scenes route
had not worked,” he explains. If the ICRC’s traditional
method of negotiating to protect victims of war by making
private representations to governments is no longer so effective,
then, says Fuchs, it is forced to move towards the media.
For instance, Fuchs says that because Somalia was no longer
of interest as a pawn between the two superpowers, it was
dropped by the interested governments. “I am a bit cynical,
but suddenly Somalia was no longer useful to them. It took
us six months to get a reaction – after alerting governments,
the UN and NGOs – and it wasn’t until we got very
harrowing pictures into The New York Times that something
happened,” he says.
Some of his colleagues also feel that initially Somalia was
competing with the Gulf War, which indicates that the media
is selective and will only deal with one or two crises at
a time. This is not heartening news for the Red Cross and
Red Crescent Movement which may be dealing with 30 to 40 serious
crises worldwide at any one time.
on common ground
Forums that enhance communication among media and
‘‘I had a scoop, and I knew it. I also knew that
publishing the story could put many people’s lives in
danger.” Journalists in war situations can find themselves
confronted by dilemmas of this sort, with life and death repercussions.
This was one of the many topics for discussion at a two-day
seminar on international humanitarian law held last October
in Oslo. Organised by the Norwegian Red Cross, the seminar
brought together some 50 journalists and Red Cross press officers
from the five Nordic countries. It was useful for both groups
to shed light on the different roles played by the media and
the Red Cross in times of conflict, as they often have to
deal with each other in the field.
The aim of the seminar was to inform journalists about international
humanitarian law, partly to make them better prepared for
their missions in conflict areas, and partly to highlight
the issues at the 26th International Conference of the Red
Cross and Red Crescent (see Bulletin Board, page 25).
During the International Conference, a two-day symposium
also brought media and humanitarian professionals together
in Geneva. Over 200 people participated in the symposium which
was organised by the International Centre for Humanitarian
Reporting and was entitled “Weapons of war, tools of
Participants discussed such questions as: Can the media prevent
conflict? Is it a good thing for the military to undertake
humanitarian missions? Is the quality of aid being eroded
by the public relations activities of aid agencies? and Does
the private sector have a part to play in the delivery of
Speakers pointed to the media’s growing power and the
need for it to behave and report responsibly when covering
conflicts and disasters. Many agreed, however, that despite
its undoubted ability to influence public opinion, it was
still beyond its capacity to actually prevent conflicts. Above
all, the symposium highlighted the very real need for the
media and aid agencies to understand each other and work together
for the benefit of the victims of crises.
Just because the media has its own priorities does not necessarily
mean that it has to clash with those of humanitarian organisations.
For example, Fuchs sees the media as a forum to discuss issues
such as the inability of the international mechanism to cope
with today’s disasters. Through such a message, humanitarian
aid agencies can demonstrate that they are not infallible,
and that they must raise funds to carry out their programmes
in forgotten parts of the world.
Sylvana Foa, Director of Public Affairs at the World Food
Programme (WFP), agrees entirely. “With 50 million people
under threat of starvation and 800 million chronically malnourished,
we have to admit we can’t cope and that we need funds
now. Journalists are our natural allies, they are the original
advocates of the underdog and were championing the victims
way before humanitarian aid became an issue. We can’t
function without them,” Foa says.
This dependence is also because WFP changed from being a
quiet development agency five years ago to one working mainly
in disaster relief. And Foa insists that the media is supported
with as much information as possible. “When agencies
waffle, the media gets suspicious. So we must be up front
and truthful,” she maintains. And if the media is becoming
more critical, that’s a good sign. “When the world
is watching, people work harder,” she argues.
At the British Red Cross, which has a substantial track record
in fundraising for international crises, Denise Meredith,
press officer, maintains that during emergencies there is
a direct and sensitive link between media coverage and fundraising.
“If the BBC covers nothing but the military side of
a conflict and doesn’t show any refugees, then in a
few days our income goes down,” she says.
The British Red Cross’s attitude to the media is focused,
robust and pragmatic. Rarely do they have serious problems.
During an emergency, when the world’s spotlight is penetrating
a crisis, the British Red Cross’s press office knows
that is when the money can be raised. During the longer, quieter
periods, the office spends most of its time informing journalists
about forgotten issues and conflicts. This requires hard graft
of a different nature: it took a year to get a freelance journalist
from The Times to go out to Afghanistan.
the same language
If journalists and humanitarians are to meet each other’s
needs effectively though, they must of necessity speak the
same “language”. Clear proof of that can be found
at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
From sounding like a group of strange letters five years ago,
UNHCR is now virtually a household name. Ron Redmond, its
Senior Public Information Officer, feels that this is because
most people in his department are ex-journalists – Redmond
himself has 20 years of foreign reporting behind him –
and understand how to talk to the media.
“If you know how to think like a journalist, then you
don’t end up with a headline that says ‘13,000
could freeze to death in Banja Luka’ when in fact you
had said you were not even sure how many people were in Banja
Luka because your organisation didn’t have access to
the region. You have to know how to tell a story,” he
And with wider coverage comes greater confidence. There are
very few occasions when the media carries gross inaccuracies
about UNHCR. The agency rarely feels the need to counter with
corrections, and it can be outspoken in certain situations
when organisations like the ICRC and the Federation cannot
or will not.
Such outspokenness is not only a function of confidence of
course. The ICRC and Federation tendency to be less forthcoming
with information than others is rooted in operational concerns.
Still, the “discretion” – an ICRC and Federation
by-word – can irritate. Peter Capella, Geneva correspondent
of Swiss Radio International, feels it could do better in
this regard. “They seldom criticise situations involving
governments,” he maintains.
In Rwanda last year, Capella interviewed someone from the
ICRC who later asked that a quotation of “hundreds of
prisoners” be changed to “many”. “The
ICRC was afraid of the reaction of the Rwandan government,”
Capella explains. “I understand the sensitivity but
this was ridiculous. We knew hundreds were dying, we had the
pictures. His reaction was over the top,” says Capella
who, like many other journalists, describes himself as sympathetic
to the work of humanitarian organisations.
Lack of confidence when dealing with the media makes both
the ICRC and the Federation oversensitive. “When we
clash with the media, it is often because we feel misquoted,
but in fact it is rarely serious; the substance is rarely
wrong,” says Margareta Wahlström, Under Secretary
General for Operations at the Federation. “My reading
of it is that we have a very complicated way of presenting
ourselves and so a journalist will use his professional expertise
to simplify things. Then we react.”
As most journalists know, certain information can be potentially
explosive if its source is easily traced and for the ICRC
this might mean risking the lives of the very people it is
trying to protect. The experience of Paul Grossrieder, the
ICRC’s Deputy Director of Operations, illustrates the
As head of delegation in Israel ten years ago, he gave a
journalist, whom he knew well and trusted, some background
information on the condition that it was not to be used as
the core of the article. The journalist paid no attention
and when the article came out attributed to the ICRC, Grossrieder
found that he had to spend months rebuilding the confidence
of his contacts.
“No one was injured, but I’m not sure if I ever
established the same confidence with my contacts,” Grossrieder
says. “When I challenged the journalist he said, ‘My
function is to exploit all the information I can, by any means.”
Building on strengths
While the ICRC’s and Federation’s need for discretion
and care in using information is real, just as real is the
media’s need for reliable sources. Indeed, as the media
owners have cut back on sending them abroad, many journalists
have come to rely heavily on the Red Cross as a highly accurate
source of information. Often they don’t double check
facts when they know that the Red Cross has gathered the information
first hand, on the ground.
John Sparrow, an experienced freelance journalist who has
recently worked for both the ICRC and Federation, feels that
the power of the Red Cross information is a great strength.
“It is reliable, useful information – there are
no inflated figures. The Red Cross has a duty not just to
present the organisation but also to give a perspective on
a situation.” He warns against allowing it to slip into
the temptation of competing with others for front page space
purely for the sake of public relations.
Another asset worth promoting is the Red Cross and Red Crescent
principles. “We realise that we have a universal message,
we do something which is not just patching up the wounded
on the roadside after an accident. That here is something
within us – a moral code – a vision of life and
humanity which has its place in a future world,” says
Kim Gordon-Bates, ICRC News Coordinator.
Ian Piper at the Federation acknowledges that the Movement’s
Fundamental Principles are a potentially rich seam for media
relations, but there is still reluctance within the organisation
to exploit it. “People feel they don’t need to
talk about those values to the outside world; that they belong
to them and no one else; that there is no need to find wonderful
stories demonstrating these values. But that’s a mistake:
the Red Cross doesn’t own humanity,” he says.
Stephen Davey, the Federation’s Under Secretary General
for Communications and Policy Co-ordination, would agree.
He feels the Federation needs to complain less about the media
and grab the initiative. “Are we clear enough about
what is reasonable to expect of the media?” Davey asks.
“If all we’ve got to talk about is what we’re
doing and if we don’t say what we think about something
then it sounds like propaganda,” he argues.
Nevertheless, both he and Wahlström feel that during
the last five years the Federation has received more and better
media coverage. “The articles that have come out of
the former Yugoslavia have been accurate and very positive,”
Wahlström says. At the ICRC, Christian Kornevall, Head
of Communication and External Resources, reckons that 90 per
cent of the media coverage is generally very good.
Both organisations are certainly getting something right.
They are aware that it is not perfect, but that must bode
well for the future.
Joanna Gibbon is a freelance journalist based in London.
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