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Silence is not(necessarily) golden


by Kim Gordon-Bates

No one can ignore the “communication factor” of today’s conflicts. Either there is not enough press coverage, and so one talks of “forgotten conflicts”, or it’s thought there is too much, at which point it’s termed a “media circus”, which did unfortunately happen in the Great Lakes region recently. The happy medium, whereby conflicts — and accompanying humanitarian concerns — would receive constant and balanced coverage, is, I fear, utopic.

Josué Anselmo did unfortunately experience the “excess”, but it’s not because you have been the victim of a flood that water should be banned. The occasional excess does not justify a simple refusal to talk or, as in the example given, a total withdrawal into “silence”.

Thus, the opinions expressed in the preceding article are based on what appears to me to be a dangerous generalistion. As a general rule, the ICRC believes that it is precisely on those occasions when there is the greatest risk of confusion and exploitation of information that the organization and its representatives should be at their most clear and most communicative. In principle, the ICRC does not have anything to hide, at least not with regard to its way of working; its operational success and the security of its delegates are dependent rather on a maximum of transparency. Josué Anselmo said it himself: when an information campaign was carried out with the Burundian media after it had published propaganda hostile to the ICRC, the tone changed completely.

Moreover, it is hard to prove that there is a cause and effect relation between an exercise in communication and a security incident. The case of the grenades referred to by Anselmo makes one think rather of a premeditated desire to intimidate than of a spontaneous outburst of passion incited by a radio programme.

The media circuses of which we have had painful experience were at least in part prompted by humanitarian organizations saying any old thing or exaggerating for reasons we can well imagine (money, money, money). The ICRC’s communication policy naturally refuses such practices; when we don’t know, we don’t make it up. It is not dishonourable or harmful to say “I don’t know”.

If we can, legitimately, choose to put a specific — humanitarian — emphasis on a fact or story, we can’t expect the information made available to be recycled,
handled, distributed, weighed and counted according to the strict criteria dictated by humanitarian interests. Indeed, we must also take into account the media’s own requirements in terms of communication. That is, we must accept that we are sometimes asked questions of superficial relevance to our immediate concerns for the simple reason that the institutional message must remain credible. If, even for the most praiseworthy reasons in the world, we were to devise our communication policy and practice solely on the basis of our institutional mandates, we would be quickly reproached, more or less openly, of wishing to manipulate or distort information. If that were the case, we would lose our credibility and that would be very serious. It would create distrust and it is distrust, not communication, that causes problems.

It is clear, however, that the ICRC cannot say everything in all circumstances. The same goes for the press, which must also practice self-censorship according to ethical guidelines that at the end of the day are very similar to ours. For example, a journalist cannot publish information, even if it is true, that would lead to the death of a person. In the same way, the ICRC can hold back information that could put lives in danger or — and this is just a corollary of the same principle — emperil the success of an operation, a definition that naturally includes our protection activities. When this happens, it is enough to take the person concerned into one’s confidence (and I would say it is precisely the job of an information delegate to know how to do this) in order to explain the reasons behind such a public silence.

Kim Gordon-Bates
Kim Gordon-Bates is editor of ICRC News.



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