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Kate Adie : Silence and secrecy are never good for democracy

London, 7 March 2005

Star BBC reporter Kate Adie has been covering the main hotspots all over the world for twenty years now and has sometimes had to fight to be allowed to send in her reports and do her job free of interference. She will be reminding the European ministerial media-policy conference in Kiev that the main beneficiary of press freedom is democracy itself.

Question : War reporters are often closely supervised by army and government information services. Just how compliant do you think they should be with official demands?

Kate Adie : No two wars are identical. When you are covering a life-or-death struggle, as British reporters were in 1940, it is legitimate and right to go along with military censorship, and in fact in situations like that there wouldn’t be any press without the censorship. But in the first Gulf war the United Kingdom was not under any threat from Iraq, and is still less so in the second one. Then there is no justification for obstructing freedom of information, particularly as nations have a right to know what their soldiers are being used for.

Question : Governments frequently don’t want media reports on terrorism, or, as in wartime, they only want reports that take the official line. What can the press do about that?

Kate Adie : Most governments faced with terrorism bring that kind of pressure to bear on the media. On the Northern Ireland question, for instance, the British and Irish governments prohibit media contact with members of the IRA, but we have always gone ahead, believing in the right to information. Of course you have to be very careful in situations like that, not least because of the risk of being used, but we refuse to withhold views or information. The better the information it has, the better democracy works. Silence and secrecy are never good for it. That is something all countries need to understand, but by no means all of them do. Beslan, where the Russian authorities stopped live coverage of the school being stormed, was an illustration of the progress we still have to make.

Question : In recent weeks a number of journalists have been taken hostage in Iraq, placing a safety question mark on the duty to provide information. How do you see the issue?

Kate Adie : It’s totally mistaken to suppose that an armed escort is going to give a journalist any protection – on the contrary, journalists who turn up surrounded by armed personnel are just turning themselves into targets and in even worse danger. I worked in Bosnia, where 77 journalists were killed and 400 wounded, and at the BBC we have just lost a news producer in Africa. Staying in a danger zone or leaving it is a decision for the individual journalist and no-one can take it for you. Respect for journalists is like respect for doctors. It involves making your neutrality clear and being seen to be neutral.