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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.

An arranged marriage

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 starvation.

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.

 

Meeting on common ground

Forums that enhance communication among media and aid workers

‘‘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 peace”.

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 humanitarian relief?

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.

 

Fundraising links

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.

Speaking 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 says.

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 dilemma.

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
Joanna Gibbon is a freelance journalist based in London.



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