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To be or not to be in the media

By Josué Anselmo

ICRC information delegate Josué Anselmo has been covering the Great Lakes region through some major crises in the last two years. The experience has led him to re-examine his role and how he views relations with the international and local media.

When the war in the Kivu region of the former Zaire broke out in November 1996, I watched the media and humanitarian circus that followed with a mixture of alarm and sadness. In a flash, hordes of journalists had descended on the area desperate for stories and images. A multitude of NGOs and humanitarian agencies working on the spot got caught up in the frenzy. Competition was fierce on both sides, which led to a form of pernicious symbiosis that did nothing to benefit the victims. Even worse, it raised serious ethical questions about the behaviour of the media and humanitarian organizations.

There are strong indications that this phenomenon will endure if not get worse in the conflicts of the future. Competition amongst aid organizations to attract funds will not abate. For the media, the overall economic situation and the increasing immediacy of information caused by the advance of technology means that the absence of coverage of an event is hardly acceptable for any big agency. When no access is possible to the theatre of events, speculation fills the void. Truth and accuracy are the victims.

As my mission in the Great Lakes draws to a close and following the succession of dramatic events that have buffeted the region, I have come to ask myself some basic questions. These are my personal views and concern only the Great Lakes, meaning that it might be that other contexts require different responses. Indeed, having covered a dozen conflict zones these last eight years either as a journalist or as an ICRC information delegate, I can safely say that never before have I seen a situation as tough as the Great Lakes.



International visibility: not at all costs

In the Great Lakes region where nine expatriate aid workers have been deliberately assassinated and where over 30 local Red Cross workers have died in the course of their duty in less than one year, I would define the two main objectives of an information delegate thus: to ensure access to the victims and to contribute to the security of humanitarian workers.

Visibility in the international media does nothing to serve either purpose in a context such as the Great Lakes, where it can even put lives in danger.

When I say ensure access to the victims, I mean that for the ICRC to be able to assist and protect the victims, it has to be accepted by all parties to the conflict. This is where information acts as a powerful vector for communicating the nature of the institution and the criteria under which it works. These efforts aim to limit the risks a delegate faces when working in a conflict zone.
International media broadcasts are closely scrutinized in the Great Lakes region. In December 1996 in Shabunda, eastern Zaire, a refugee approached an ICRC delegate to say: “You saw what happened three days ago in Chechnya, so you better behave with us...” The refugee, right in the middle of the bush, had heard the news from the BBC, VOA or RFI.

A link has been made between media visibility and fundraising. This is a fact, but relativity is in all things. To start with, long gone are the days when a government decided to whom to distribute its funds solely on the basis of an article read in the paper or a television programme. Politicians have far more privileged information available. As one of the biggest donors in Nairobi told me: “It is less important for the ICRC to appear in the picture than for the humanitarian drama to be screened on CNN. Then we can ask for funds in a global manner to our government and attribute the money according to our own information, which follows a different network to that of CNN.”

Bearing in mind that the National Societies have a specific need for visibility for their domestic donors, the strategy regarding visibility in the international media must take into account the following: the need to protect our operations and delegates in the field; the ICRC’s relative need to be present in the picture; the bigger need to have a humanitarian drama screened on the international networks; and the specific need for visibility of the National Societies. Should visibility in the international media endanger our access to the victims or put the lives of our delegates in the field at risk, there is no doubt that it should be banned without restriction.

It eventually happened in the case of the Zairian war, that the risks inherent in speaking publicly were considered too great and that visibility was sacrificed for the sake of access to the victims and the security of our delegates. This has not gone without debate within the organization and questions have been raised by the National Societies, but at the end of the day I think that the decision was right.

Local media: a tough battle that must be fought

If at times we are obliged to do without the international media, the same cannot be said when it comes to the local media in the Great Lakes. This is particularly important considering that some local media have at times been used to spread propaganda, misinformation and hate messages that have preceded attacks on humanitarian workers or local authority officials — not to mention the 1994 genocide.

Take Burundi, where on 12 December 1995 the ICRC was accused by name in the local media of having handed Tutsi soldiers over to Hutu rebel forces. The programme was broadcast in full in English and again 15 minutes later in French. The television took over at 8.30 p.m. An hour later, grenades were hurled at the expatriate humanitarian community in Gitega in central Burundi. The ICRC suspended its activities throughout the country. Tens of thousands of people were left without aid.

In an attempt to redress the wrong, an intensive campaign was launched to improve communication with the local media, involving the combined efforts of the head of delegation, the dissemination delegate and the information delegate for the Great Lakes region. The effort appeared to pay off. A press release completed at 11 a.m. was taken up in two languages by the radio an hour later, on the basis of a phone call. Whole pages sympathetic to the ICRC were published in the main Burundian daily, setting forth the ICRC’s working principles, the nature of its operations in Burundi and its history.

Sadly, it was not enough to prevent the murder of three ICRC delegates on 4 June 1996. Although I don’t think that the assassination of our delegates was directly linked to the initial bad publicity, as information delegate dealing with the local press at the time of the murders, I am still asking myself: to what extent could an even bigger effort by us to explain our mandate and actions via the local media have prevented it?

But then again, the margin of manoeuvre for an information delegate in such a context is extremely limited. Rwanda, Burundi, Masisi in the Kivu region have all been the scenes of civil strife in recent years, with an ethnic minority in opposition to the ethnic majority, each one in their turn fighting for survival.

In such a context, the ICRC’s priorities — to assist and protect the victims of the conflict — are fundamental for the organization but are considered impertinent in the pervading logic. These same priorities may at certain times and in certain places be in direct opposition to the local dynamic. We can try to make it understood through the local media that we are neutral, independent and impartial. What weight does that carry before the logic of survival? There is no such thing as neutrality when you are battling for the survival of your own kind.

This both justifies the essential work we do with the local media and stresses its limits. Yet that is where I believe the priority lies.


Josué Anselmo
Josué Anselmo is ICRC information delegate for the Great Lakes region.

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