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JOURNALISTS SEEK TO END "NEWS EMBARGO" ON IRAQ

NEW YORK, N.Y., April 18, 2001—An international group of journalists, foreign policy experts and human rights advocates agreed here to seek an end to what they called a "news embargo on Iraq."

They blamed the Clinton and Bush administrations and major Western media for "keeping the public in the dark" about "the real and tragic conditions" of Iraqi citizens who are the "victims of continued U.S. and British bombing" and of a trade embargo that is "effective only in isolating the U.S. and British policy makers from the rest of the world."

The two-day (April 5-6) meeting of secular and religious journalists was sponsored by the World Association of Christian Communication (WACC) and its North American regional body, NARA-WACC. Funding was provided by several denominations and ecumenical organizations, including Church World Service, the global service and witness ministry of the (U.S.) National Council of Churches.

In a welcoming address on April 5, John McCullough, executive director of Church World Service, said that "the U.S. government stands alone" and called the present policy toward Iraq "morally intolerable." He blamed a lack of access to complete information for the apathy of the American people.

Two prominent former UN officials, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, participated in the event and documented the humanitarian crisis. Both left the international agency because the U.S.-dominated Security Council made it impossible to get adequate food and medicines to needy Iraqis.

Halliday, a U.S. citizen, said that "with its linkage to the establishment," the American media has perpetuated "silence, racism and a misunderstood fear of Islam."

Von Sponeck, a German national, told the journalists that "you don’t need to be a fanatic nor an apologist for Iraq to insist that lawlessness of one kind is no free ticket for lawlessness of another kind." Having served in Baghdad until last year, Von Sponeck insisted that reporting on Iraq is not complicated. But, he said, it requires "honesty, a balanced exposure to contacts, travel to and within Iraq, and training in Middle Eastern issues."

The general secretary of the World Association for Christian Communication, Carlos A. Valle, said that "truth and justice are not abstract" and urged both secular and religious journalists to work for "free communication that is free from restraint."

Several eye witnesses, including Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit, described the seriousness of the food and health problems in Iraq. Several mentioned the "future burden effect," which will be caused by a generation of children who have been malnourished from before birth, many of whom have been exposed to shelling and bombs that used depleted uranium.

David Anderson, editor of Religion News Service, asked, "Where is the public outcry? We need the leverage of an aroused public to break the communication embargo." A British journalist, Jake Lynch of Sky News, described the challenges of what he called "Europe’s peace building media." He said that there is often too little time for analysis of events. "Journalists go from one bombing to another. We have a responsibility to "frame rather than to reflect" the events.

Rania Masri, who coordinates the Iraq Action Coalition, asserted that in all the coverage of the so-called no-fly zone, no publications have yet pointed out that the United States and Britain have no UN mandate for taking such actions. She also criticized Western media for deliberately de-humanizing Saddam Hussein with such phrases as "keeping him on a leash."

None of the speakers defended the Iraqi leader. Several, like Ibrahim Ramey of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, said that "the reality is that Iraq has a repressive government." He also pointed out that the media have generally lost sight of the fact that Iraq is an important country in the Middle East, with a significant culture. He suggested that reporters and peace activists need to commit themselves to positive interaction with Iraq "for the long haul. Our children will need to talk tomorrow with the children who are being bombed today."

During discussion led by Rena Yocom, a United Methodist who heads NARA-WACC, the group began developing strategies for what they called "the post-sanctions era." They agreed that accuracy and accountability are essential in dealing with the secular media and that credibility as a reliable source is essential. They also acknowledged the importance of coordinating their networks and sharing information and resources.

Mike Nahhal, who heads the humanitarian efforts of the Middle East Council of Churches in Baghdad pledged "to facilitate the travel in the region for journalists who want to see what’s really happening."

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Besides CWS/NCC, funders included the American Friends Service Committee; General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church; Mennonite Central Committee; Maryknoll Missioners; North American Regional Association of the World Association for Christian Communication; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); United Church of Christ/Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the World Association for Christian Communication.

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