The power of words

Amnesty award-winner Robert Fisk says prizes can be a form of protection for journalists
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The Independent Online
IN A WORLD where journalists are increasingly attacked for their work, it is gratifying when an organisation of Amnesty International's authority and stature appreciates a reporter's work. Even in the cold and over-cynical world of journalism, we all like to get patted on the back. But there is a far more important reason why journalists should be grateful when our work is honoured.

Over the past 22 years in the Middle East, I have noted the ever-increasing power of lobby groups. Well funded, well versed in methods of denial, they are past masters in suggesting to our editors - and, if they can get away with it, in the readers' letters columns - that we are lying or racist when we uncover the sordid truth of cruel regimes or brutal states. Reporters have to be thick-skinned. Journalists must take the rough with the smooth, but we should not ignore our enemies - those who will malign our work or character in order to shut us up. For investigating the torture chambers run under the command of the former British Special Branch officer Ian Henderson in Bahrain, a Bahraini newspaper compared me to a rabid dog. (Rabid dogs, you will remember, have to be put down.) For writing my eyewitness report on the Israeli massacre of more than 100 Lebanese civilian refugees in the UN camp at Qana in southern Lebanon in 1996, I was vilified by a reader as anti-Semitic and compared to Hitler - a statement not repeated when I threatened a libel action.

In Egypt, the supposedly authoritative newspaper Al Ahram accused me of being "a black crow pecking at the corpse of Egypt" because I had investigated the state's fraudulent election results. In Boston, a Jewish lobby group called me "Henry Higgins with fangs" for working on a documentary about the Middle East and Bosnia. Accusing me of pouring "venom into the living- rooms of America", the organisation lied about the contents of the film; the Israeli-occupied West Bank was "never occupied", and the Israelis never sent their Phalangist militiamen into the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian camps in Beirut prior to the 1982 massacre. (Even the Israelis admitted that.) But the Jewish group did prevent the Discovery Channel giving a second showing to the film in the US.

Given these enormous pressures, journalism awards acquire a new meaning. When Amnesty gives its annual presentations to reporters on newspapers, magazines, radio and television - as it did last week in London - its prizes are a form of protection for our words, a confirmation that our work has integrity. True, awards cannot save us from shell splinters in Lebanon or Algeria or Kosovo, but they do shield our work, reducing the firepower of our more vicious critics. They encourage us to go on reporting the world's wickedness.

Looking back through two decades of clippings from the Middle East, I noticed my reporting of human rights issues has grown more extensive. This has not reflected any growth in my interest in the issue, but it is evidence of increasing cruelty towards the individual, in the lands in which I work. Never have so many men and women had their heads chopped off in the Arab Gulf. Never have I recorded so many torture victims in Israeli or Arab jails. When I first reported from the Middle East in 1976, I never thought I would one day climb over mountains of Palestinian corpses, slaughtered by Israel's allies as the Israeli army surrounded a Palestinian camp and watched through binoculars. Not in my wildest nightmares did I imagine that I would walk into Algerian villages such as Bentalha, as I did last year, to report the cutting of the throats of hundreds of old men, women, children, babies.

In The Independent last week, Mark Lattimer, Amnesty's communications director, wrote that the publication of evidence is often what first "ruptures the culture of impunity which allows systematic violations of human rights to occur". I would like to think this was true. And yet I have to question whether journalists really have the effect - long term - of breaking open those prison doors, of tearing down the scaffolds and dismantling the torture equipment.

Real journalism is different from the Hollywood version, from Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent - the movie which persuaded me at the age of 12 that I must be a reporter - in which the journalist Huntley Haverstock unmasks Nazi spies in pre-war Holland, wins the girl, and survives being shot down over the Atlantic to file his scoop. With rare exceptions, we do not move mountains or bring down regimes; instead, we just chip, chip, chip away at the rock face, hoping that someone notices - so that no one can say "we didn't know".

In Egypt, I have catalogued the systematic torture of Islamist prisoners by the state security police. Over the past seven years, I have conducted dozens of interviews with torture victims in Cairo, Assiout and Beni Suef and identified the floor of the Lazoughli Street police headquarters where electricity is used on prisoners. In response, the Egyptians have merely denied all the evidence, pointing out that they are fighting "international terrorism". Given the slaughter of western tourists, Egyptian Christians and policemen by the Gama'a Islamiyah (the Islamic Group), the Cairo authorities are certainly at war with the regime's enemies. But the gross human rights abuses - of which they are guilty - have merely grown worse.

British and other western governments have put no pressure on the Egyptians to halt these evil practices. President Moubarak is uncritically called the West's most faithful Arab friend. When an American colleague sought to investigate police torture in Cairo several years ago, he was dissuaded from doing so by the local US ambassador who assured him that Moubarak was going to curb the police use of torture. Nothing of the kind happened.

After Israel's 1996 massacre of Lebanese refugees at the Qana camp, The Independent obtained video film proving that the Israelis had a pilotless aircraft with television cameras aboard over the massacre site which sent live pictures to the artillery battery firing at the victims during the attack. Our publication of the video pictures helped to force the UN to publish its own report into the massacre (the Americans had tried to brow-beat Boutros Boutros-Ghali into keeping it secret). Moved by our reports, a brave American Jewish woman embarked on a campaign to persuade US newspapers and television stations to mark the anniversary of the Qana butchery. The result? The woman was ignored. The most we learnt was from an Israeli newspaper which quoted one of the gunners as saying: "A few Arabushim died, there is no harm in that."

After our own long series on Algeria last year - which won last week's overall Amnesty journalism award - dozens of readers wrote to me and to the editor of The Independent to ask how they could help the four young women whose faces were printed on our front page, young women arrested by the Algerian security police and then "disappeared"? How could they show their fury at the so-called Islamists who cut the throats of Algerian villagers - or at the intelligence services which may also have been involved?

I urged all of them to join their local Amnesty branches, and to write to their MPs and their MEPs. I suggested they wrote to the Foreign Office. And what happened? Some of them joined Amnesty. Others waited for a delegation from the European Parliament to visit Algeria - only to hear that at least one of the delegation gave his support to the Algerian regime. One well- known French intellectual, Bernard Henri-Levy, even chastised us journalists for suggesting that the Algerian killers might not be Islamists. Merely to ask who the murderers were was an "obscenity", he told us.

Much stands out in ever braver solitude among the gutlessness of our politicians and parliamentarians and intellectuals. Perhaps our work as journalists does open the occasional cell door and sometimes saves a soul from the hangman's noose. I hope so. But I wonder whether Amnesty's regular requests to its members to write to the world's dictators with appeals for mercy should be redirected. I wonder if Amnesty members should not flood their own foreign offices with appeals for an end to torture in the regimes to which the West gives military, economic and trade support. Could not our masters be forced to put pressure on the torturers and killers, which Amnesty alone cannot do?

Our job as journalists will be the same: to go on reporting on the men who die with acid-soaked rags stuffed in their mouths in Algerian police stations, on the women who are gang-raped, on the babies who are knifed, on the young men dragged crying to the scaffold. A life saved is a life in earthly paradise. Amnesty's gratitude to journalists can only faintly mirror the gratitude that prisoners must feel towards Amnesty for their freedom. But how much greater that gratitude would be if those we elect would give the organisation the same support as Amnesty's members.

Robert Fisk was last week declared overall winner of the 1998 Amnesty International UK Press Awards.

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