Journalism under threat conference, Belfast, 22/11/2003

Notes for Kevin Cooper's presentation

Northern Ireland is a society emerging from 30 years of conflict. We are in the transitional period, not post-conflict.

I intend to give examples through personal experience as a journalist and as an NUJ activist of the sort of pressures and range of issues that have affected journalists in Northern Ireland in recent years.

There is a perception that those journalists who report on the Northern Ireland conflict fly in to do so. The vast majority of journalists who cover the Northern Ireland conflict are from Northern Ireland and come from the full cross-section of communities in Northern Ireland. At their end of their shift they go back home to those communities. The NUJ supports political diversity in the media in Northern Ireland and its membership is drawn from that diversity. We should not over emphasise the numbers of those that do cover the conflict, though important that that work is. Only a small percentage of journalists cover hard news, security and politics in Northern Ireland the rest do sport, social and economic stories, features, subbing and production duties.

Journalists have been threatened and attacked by paramilitaries on all sides of the conflict. They have been physically prevented from entering areas to cover news events. The British and Irish governments introduced censorship by Broadcasting Bans and Section 31. Emergency legislation and other legislation were used to force disclosure and the handing over of journalistic material as well as to restrict journalists carrying out their work. The deliberate misleading of journalists by omission or misrepresentation of the facts by press offices (Government, political and police press offices) have led to scepticism among local journalists about the reliability of the information supplied.

Staff were killed at the Belfast Telegraph in a bombing, a Polish journalist was killed on the lower Falls in crossfire, a journalist was killed in the Harrods bombing as a customer and a journalist was killed by falling glass from the building he was sheltering under in the City of London bombing. Tragic and terrible as these deaths are, there is a difference between these deaths and the targeting of journalists because of their work such as the murder of Martin O'Hagan by loyalist paramilitaries and Veronica Guerin by criminal drug gangs and the attempted murder of Jim Campbell when he was shot and left for dead outside his home. The murder of Martin O'Hagan has implications for other journalists because he was targeted for his work.

Here are some of the incidents and circumstances, which have caused problems for journalists in Northern Ireland:

  • After the murder of the two corporals, Margaret Thatcher made a statement “Journalists had to decide what side they are on. Are they on the side of democracy or on the side of the terrorist?” and the subsequent legal cases.
  • Sinn Féin attempting to issue their own press card and not recognise the NUJ press card.
  • False NUJ press cards found in paramilitary homes.
  • The introduction of the Broadcasting Ban in Britain and Section 31 in the Republic of Ireland.
  • The kidnapping and interrogation of journalists by paramilitaries.
  • Paramilitary threats to individual journalists.
  • The joint loyalist command threat to the Sunday World.
  • The BBC's decision to extend the coverage in the evening and stop the live broadcasting of the 12th July demonstrations led to threats the BBC were not welcome in Portadown.
  • The use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act to seize photographic and TV material.
  • Contempt of court charges against journalists for failure to disclose sources.
  • Ed Moloney case.
  • The Saville Inquiry and journalistic sources.
  • Nick Martin Clarke case disclosing source and surrendering journalistic material and contact book to police.

It is important to remind the public and sometimes journalists that journalists are human and humans make mistakes.

It is the role of the NUJ:

  • To encourage their members to uphold the highest professional standards by upholding the NUJ's Code of Conduct.
  • To defend the right of all journalists to carry out their journalistic work free from threat or intimidation.
  • To defend everyone's right to freedom a speech.
  • Defending the press card.
  • To make representation on behalf of members.

The NUJ need to promote good ethical standards as well as a greater understanding of journalism and the need to protect journalistic freedoms within Government institutions and communities emerging from conflict.

The practical ways the NUJ can help is to offer advice and information to communities about journalism and thereby build understanding. There are no quick fixes in changing their attitudes of the public towards the role of journalists; openness, dialogue and offering advice helps.

Due to the political sensitivities and situation in Northern Ireland it is sometimes better that a Northern Ireland NUJ voice speaks on behalf of the union with the clear support of the NUJ.

Silence is not an option.

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