Opening remarks by Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja at the symposium "Under Fire: the Media in Armed Conflict"

International Symposium on Humanitarian Law Organised by the Legal Department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights of the University of Helsinki Helsinki 17 November 2000

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs I wish to welcome you all to this seminar on the role of the media in armed conflict. The seminar is organised jointly by the Legal Department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Erik Castrén Institute of the University of Helsinki.

The presence of the mass media in present-day conflicts has not removed the old problems of news communication but has rather made them more pertinent. The development of information and communication technology has increased the possibilities for real-time and world-wide news broadcasting and reporting. At the same time, and partly because of the need for ever-faster reporting, it has become more difficult to spread meaningful information.

A fundamental question still is whether the media should try to report on conflicts in an objective and restrained manner, or whether it is justified to require that media professionals clearly provide support to certain points of view which are considered correct and worth fostering.

How can the basic values of pluralism and freedom of speech be ensured in conflict situations? There is a danger that free news broadcasting will in any case work at the terms of the stronger party.

If, on the other hand, it is required that the media be on "our side" and support "our values", it is necessary to see to it that the news do not change into propaganda. The risk is real - heavily biased information can make the crisis worse and the warfare more cruel.

There are also situations where "the tyranny of real time", so central to TV broadcasting, is turned against governments which are pressured to take quick decisions on the basis of all too summary information.

One example of high media coverage is the conflict in Kosovo which turned into war last year. The media played an important role at the various stages of the Kosovo conflict, especially when the crisis aggravated in the winter and spring of 1999.

The parties to the Kosovo conflict took advantage of the possibilities offered by the new information technology. They also used classic war propaganda, including exaggeration.

It is worth asking what kind of an effect the open presentation of atrocities, and the accusations concerning the cruelties of the other party, had on the aggravation of the war and on the commission of war crimes. It can further be asked whether the propaganda used during the warfare contributed to the acts of revenge that have taken place in Kosovo after the conclusion of the armistice.

Commercial competition also distorts the image. The media often give a dramatic picture of the events, and even favour the aggravation of the conflict instead of cooling down emotional charges.

The problems associated with competition between the various media companies were clearly seen last summer, when efforts were made to release the hostages kept on the Jolo island. Faced with competition, journalists may even be prepared to pay the criminals in order to get a story that sells.

What role, if any, could the media have in the protection of civilians and the promotion of international humanitarian law in armed conflicts? Would such a role prejudice the freedom and impartiality of the media or tie its hands in an undesirable manner?

Truthful to its mission of transmitting information, the media can be an indispensable watchdog, alerting governments to humanitarian dramas that are unfolding and to atrocities that could otherwise remain unnoticed. In that sense the media can truly contribute to the protection of civilians in armed conflicts. On the other hand, shocking images of human suffering also create an opportunity for exploitation and abuse.

Here I would attempt to make a distinction, however artificial, between attempts at micro-managing and macro-managing media in conflicts. A case can be made that micro-managements of media coverage in strictly limited situations, such as hostage crisis, by exposing media bans and other such measures, is acceptable if the sole aim is to save human lives and reduce suffering, but never on a prolonged basis; whereas macro-managing media coverage in conflicts is not acceptable and will, in the long run, always be counterproductive for anyone believing in freedom of thought and speech, democracy and human rights.

The role as a watchdog should therefore be coupled with a sustained effort at responsible reporting, including respect for the dignity of the victims and basic understanding of international humanitarian law. An enhanced dialogue between media professionals and humanitarian organizations could usefully contribute to the realization of this goal.

It was in this sense that my Government proposed to the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, last year, that the ICRC, together with the media and other relevant actors in the field develop innovative ways to promote the acceptance of international humanitarian law in armed conflict situations. By organising this seminar the Government of Finland wishes further to facilitate a discourse between the humanitarian organisations, the military and the media with a view of developing models for such action.

With these words I have the pleasure of opening the seminar. I wish you a fruitful debate.