ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 4, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 49
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Reporters Without Borders or without scruples

By Neville de Silva

In most parts of the world except where authoritarianism prevents it, Press Freedom Day would have been celebrated yesterday. It is as it should be. One need not have to reiterate that democracy cannot and would not function as it should without an unbridled fourth estate. While media practitioners would welcome local and international support to preserve that freedom-a freedom that goes with responsibilities- there is a need to guard against some who present themselves as defenders of the media and the safety of journalists. Under cover of this laudable intention some of them pursue an agenda that is dictated by others, especially of those who provide the financial support to sustain such questionable organisations. Such financial support could come from foreign governments as well as foreign organisations that are conduits for government money. Through such indirect means foreign interests try to give a cover of legitimacy to their public activities.

Unfortunately the media that should guard itself against such infiltration and the usurpation of its interests and responsibilities by foreign organisations, have been generally remiss in maintaining the vigilance necessary to protect itself from manipulation. One such organisation is Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) or Reporters Without Borders which had the audacity to issue its list of “predators of press freedom” to coincide with last week’s event. If there is a predator of press freedom whose predatory work has been undertaken on behalf of its financial donors, some of them undisclosed until prised open, in different parts of the world, it is RSF.

The public would have better understood the manner in which RSF functions if our own media had given sufficient publicity to the recent statement by UNESCO. The Paris-based UN body withdrew its patronage for the International Day for freedom of expression on the Internet organised by RSF, also based in Paris. UNESCO said it withdrew patronage “following the publication of information by RSF which did not follow the arrangements agreed upon between the two organisations concerning the event.” “In its communications on the day RSF published material concerning a number of UNESCO’s Member States, which UNESCO had not been informed of and could not endorse. Furthermore UNESCO’s logo was placed in such a way as to indicate the Organisation’s support of the information presented,” the statement said.

One would have thought that the local media would have taken a keener interest in this because the RSF has regularly presented itself as a great defender of the interests of the media and journalists in Sri Lanka. If in doing so it has distorted situations and incidents and filed totally false reports it would not come as a surprise to those who have been studying the history of RSF duplicity, particularly in the last seven to eight years.

On 23rd March this column highlighted the false and tendentious report RSF distributed internationally headlined “Army seizes control of public SLRC Television” referring to the authorities shutting out some 200 employees of Rupavahini who had threatened to go on strike that day. Curiously the French-language version made no mention of the army ‘seizing’ control. “Sous controle de l’armee”, the headline said which is far from saying the army seized control. While both headlines were false and hinted at a coup of sorts, international researchers who have studied the work of RSF would know that this is how the Paris-based organisation acts in pursuit of political rather than media agendas. If the local media and researchers are interested in the ways of foreign-funded organisations that present themselves as arbiters of the human rights situations in small developing countries in particular, whose politics do not follow the path charted by foreign donors, would find it highly revealing to read what has been uncovered about the RSF.

On May 13 2005, French writer Sami Lamrani, a researcher at Sorbonne University published an article called “Reporters Without Borders Fraud.” It is useful quoting him at some length because it reflects what others, journalists and writers before and after him have observed. “The strong suspicions that have surrounded the dubious and partisan activities of Reporters Without Borders were not unfounded. For many years various critics have denounced the largely political activities of the Parisian entity, particularly with regard to Cuba and Venezuela whose characteristics that utilizes propaganda is obvious. The positions of RSF against the governments of Havana and Caracas are found in perfect correlation with the political and media war that Washington carries out against the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutionaries.”

“Finally the truth has come to light. Mr Robert Menard, secretary-general of RSF for twenty years, has confessed to receiving financing from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the organisation that depends on the US Department of State whose principal role is to promote the agendas of the White House for the entire world. Menard was very clear. “We indeed received money from the NED. And that hasn’t posed any problems.” If it posed no problem why was this donation not reflected in the accounts of RSF until some enterprising journalist researcher prised it out of RSF that was behaving oyster-like and keeping it tightly closed.

Writing in November 2007 in the “World Politics Review”, its contributing editor John Rosenthal states that until 2005, RSF made no mention of the fact that it was receiving financial support from the European Union. Rosenthal writes that RSF’s annual Press Freedom Index has named 17 European countries in the top 20. Says Rosenthal: “The performance of European countries in the RSF press freedom rankings is impressive. It becomes less impressive, however, when one knows the extent to which RSF depends for its financing upon European governments either directly or indirectly via the European Union. RSF is commonly referred to as a ‘non governmental organisation or NGO.” “But in the light of its financial dependence upon and close ties to, in particular, the French Government and above all, European institutions, RSF could be regarded as the very prototype of what might be better called a PGO, para-governmental organisation.” As in the curious difference in the headlines of the Sri Lanka story cited above, in the 2006 accounts of RSF there is some hanky-panky. Rosenthal points out that a line called “subsidies” that appears in the French version had mysteriously disappeared in the English version. There is plenty more about RSF, especially its political meddling and partisanship in the 2002 coup in Venezuela that tried to oust the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez. Unfortunately the lack of space does not permit me to deal with that aspect and other issues in this column.

But there is much in writings on RSF that should cause concern among policy makers and media persons at home. There might well be journalists who have been inveigled into the RSF embrace because it is seen by them as a respectable institution defending freedom of expression. But the facts that have been unearthed about the RSF by journalists and others including even conservative newspapers such as Le Figaro and the Los Angeles Times, should leave one questioning the authenticity of RSF’s stated intentions.

Just as there are serious questions about the financing of RSF one should also examine where some of our own organisations with similar objectives such as the Free Media Movement, receive their funding. If transparency is what they demand of others, it is best that they have it themselves to erase any lingering doubts that people might have about them. I remember in the old days it was alleged that American organisations such as Asia Foundation were actually front organisations of the CIA. Perhaps it was not true, I would not know. But if today some media organisations that present themselves as defenders of free media and journalists and receive funding from such organisations as the Asia Foundation it is best to dispel any misgivings by declaring any affiliations or receipt of funds.

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