Allocution de Mme Michèle S. Jean
The dangerous and confusing search for truth in Afghanistan
by Graeme Smith
Conférence principale de Graeme Smith sur “« La dangereuse et déroutante quête de la vérité en Afghanistan »
I’m always intimidated by this kind of distinguished crowd, being far
from distinguished myself. In fact, an organizer of this event sent a
last-minute message this weekend, asking for a longer bio – and I have
to apologize, because there is no longer bio.
I’m a 29-year-old dropout. Nobody should listen to me, really. But I
get invited to talk because I’ve spent the last three years in
southern Afghanistan, and people are curious. It’s not just
distinguished people like yourselves; bartenders, bank tellers, cab
drivers – all of them ask about the war. The conversations are always
useful, partly because your average South Asian taxi driver knows a
lot more about the region’s politics than I do. The conversations are
also useful because they reveal how little we know about the conflict.
You hear bits of news every day, but I still get people who grab me by
the sleeve, and ask, “What is Canada really doing over there? What’s
really going on?”
The honest answer to these questions is, “I don’t know.” Oh sure, I
can lecture for hours about Afghanistan. I can bore you to tears,
telling you what is known about the current situation (and I will
leave plenty of time for Q&A) but the fact of the matter is we don’t
know nearly enough. Over the years in Kandahar I started to feel I was
living on Matthew Arnold’s darkling plain, “Swept with confused alarms
of struggle and flight / Where ignorant armies clash by night.” I
could almost hear the stories passing me by in the darkness, important
events that never got reported. Villagers massacred in the desert,
their throats slit, possibly by men who arrived on helicopters in the
night. Who? Why? Did it actually happen? I don’t know. A member of
parliament sprayed with bullets outside his house – maybe the Taliban
killed him, but then again, he had enemies in government too. I don’t
know. Or an example from the news this weekend: Canadian troops
destroy their own outpost in the village of Mushan, saying it’s no
longer needed. Are the Canadians retreating? I don’t know.
I sweated and toiled to answer questions like this – as did my
colleagues – but I was never satisfied with the results. Kandahar
lacks so many things that it almost seems trivial to lament a dearth
of journalism, but we’re talking about the central battlefield in a
war that has become the focus of Western military efforts. Our
democracies cannot stumble blindly to success. We need good
I saw how this works in 2007, when we published a series of stories
about detainees. Canada had been taking at face value the assurances
of the Afghan government that prisoners were not abused after our
soldiers handed them over to the local intelligence agency. Obviously
those assurances were false – the prisoners were routinely tortured -
and we proved that by interviewing 30 detainees and ex-detainees who
had survived the system. One of the places we found those survivors
was Sarpoza prison, on the western outskirts of Kandahar city. Walking
through those prison gates always felt a bit dangerous (in fact it was
dangerous, because the Taliban later detonated a truck bomb that blew
those gates to smithereens, and I saw a chunk of metal the size of a
picnic table that was thrown the length of a football field) but on
the day when we were finally leaving the prison gates for the last
time, I remember very clearly how I got into the car with my fixer and
started ranting about journalism. I was probably too emotional,
because I was feeling relief that our research was finished and we’d
survived, we had the story, we didn’t need to listen to any more
horrible tales of torture and look at prisoners’ scars. Anyway, for
whatever reason, I started rhapsodizing about the virtues of
journalism, talking about the importance of documenting what happens
in a war and holding the players accountable. And of course these are
still pretty foreign ideas in Kandahar, so my fixer – a dignified
intelligent man – just gave me the usual patronizing smile that he
gives all the silly foreigners. But two weeks later, when our story
was raising a ruckus in parliament and Canada hastily re-wrote its
bilateral agreement with Afghanistan on the transfer of detainees…
my fixer called me up and said something like, “Mr. Graeme, that stuff
you were shouting about in the car? Now I understand.” When I hired
him in 2006, he was almost certainly doing it for the money. Now, in
2009, he’s still doing it for the money, of course – but he’s a
believer. He can see why his country needs journalism.
But the obstacles to a free and functioning press aren’t always what
you expect. I can’t tell you how many times journalism students ask me
about military censorship. That has occasionally been a problem,
sometimes when overzealous officers get too aggressive in their
interpretation of “operational security” – that is, what information
could get soldiers killed. But you can understand why young officers
err on the side of caution when protecting their buddies, and these
are usually minor squabbles. Major squabbles do happen sometimes -
Murray Brewster of The Canadian Press has documented some of the
recent twists and turns – but usually reporters and soldiers find ways
to live with each other in the field. Ottawa is a different story;
I’ve been dismayed by how little information gets released from here,
but that’s not really my problem as a foreign correspondent. In
Afghanistan, stonewalling in Ottawa is really the least of my worries.
Nor is the worst enemy of press freedom the Afghan government, despite
the entirely justified outrage over the arrests and intimidation of
journalists who disagree with the regime, or who speak out on issues
of gender and religion. Still, this does cause serious gaps in our
ability to report the news. As readers, you’ve probably asked yourself
why no Kandahar journalist has investigated allegations that the
president’s brother is a drug dealer. It’s the same reason why I
stayed away from that topic. I’m afraid of Ahmed Wali Karzai, just
like every other reporter in the city. Even less powerful figures have
a long reach; Western intelligence officers in Kabul recently warned
me to stay away from the country for the foreseeable future, because
of threats against me as a result of a drug corruption story I wrote
earlier this year. This was because I accused the top
counter-narcotics official of dealing drugs, and now I’m afraid of him
Even more, though, I’m afraid of the insurgents and bandits who roam
the countryside. Kabul is a journalist’s paradise compared with the
war zones in the south and east, areas labeled “black holes” by
Reporters Without Borders. You’ve all seen the UN security risk maps
getting darker and darker. I’ve watched friends and colleagues who
investigate those areas get killed or kidnapped. My office in Kandahar
city was raided by masked gunmen in the spring of 2007. You all
remember my friend Mellissa Fung, kidnapped last year. You might also
remember my friend Jojo, a journalist for CTV, shot dead in the city
streets earlier this year. (By the way, we’re trying to raise money in
Jojo’s name, to help his family and other independent Afghan
journalists. You can ask me afterward.)
You could make an argument that the Taliban – or general insecurity -
are the biggest enemies of press freedom in Afghanistan. But maybe
that’s wrong. Maybe our worst enemy is ourselves. (As so often happens
in life.) In my very short biography you can see that my claim to fame
was devoting more time to the southern Afghanistan than any other
Western journalist from ’05 to ’09. How can I say for sure? Well, I
was the only guy covering the south full-time during those years. To
me, that’s shameful. Southern Afghanistan is the eye of the storm, the
Taliban’s power base, the former home of Osama bin Laden, and now the
focus of U.S.-NATO military efforts. We need more correspondents
working on this story. (Psychologist might say I need to let go, now
that I’m on book leave. Apparently one of the emotional side effects
of covering a war is that you start to feel responsible for it.) But
still, I’m really hoping the U.S. surge in southern Afghanistan will
bring an influx of good journalists.
Yes, it’s more dangerous than ever. Yes, you’ve got military
officials, government officials, warlords, Taliban, bandits, all kinds
of people who sometimes make our lives difficult. Yes, we live in a
new media age of shrinking budgets. But ordinary people still ask me
about the war – bartenders, bank tellers, cab drivers – and it’s our
duty to inform them, no matter what.
Thanks for your time.
ALLOCUTION DE Mme Michèle S. Jean
Présidente de la Commission canadienne pour l’UNESCO
à l’occasion de laJOURNÉE MONDIALE DE LA LIBERTÉ DE LA PRESSE
Ottawa, le mercredi 5 mai 2009
En ces temps de graves turbulences économiques et politiques, où l’on est en quête d’un équilibre entre le chaos et l’harmonie, les médias offrent toujours et encore des réponses à ceux et celles qui cherchent à mieux comprendre la nature des événements.
Les médias suscitent la réflexion. Ils permettent d’objectiver les événements, de mettre fin à la rumeur. Ils facilitent le passage de l’émotion au débat, ils permettent d’entrer dans la rationalité et le raisonnement.
En invitant à chercher le consensus au-delà des différences et des oppositions, ils évitent de laisser la seule émotion collective guider l’opinion publique.
The media not only acts as a watchdog against political and public abuses, it also empowers citizens by providing the information they require to exercise their democratic rights. Freedom of the press is not only about the freedom of journalists to report and comment. It is also deeply connected with the public’s right to freely access information and knowledge and its right to know.
This year, the theme for World Press Freedom Day is The Potential of Media: Dialogue, Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation.
On the occasion of this year’s celebration, Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO said:
Communicating across cultural differences is a central challenge of the contemporary world where globalizing forces have accelerated interactions among peoples. The media, viewed as an arbitrator, has an important role to play in encouraging and facilitating this communication and in providing an open platform for debate among all parts of society.
The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity was adopted in 2001, recognizing cultural diversity as a common heritage of humanity as well as the potential of intercultural dialogue. The Declaration states in its Preamble that:
… culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.
This was complemented in 2005 by the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. Article 2 stresses the interdependence of diversity and the respect for fundamental freedoms:
Cultural diversity can be protected and promoted only if human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression, information and communication, as well as the ability of individuals to choose cultural expressions, are guaranteed.
Ceci dit, il s’agit aujourd’hui plus que jamais pour les gouvernements de ne pas surréguler la profession, mais bien mais de créer et de maintenir les conditions qui permettront à la presse démocratique de continuer d’exister au XXIe siècle. Et favoriser ainsi l’épanouissement d’une opinion publique démocratique.
La Journée mondiale de la liberté de la presse n’est pas seulement l’occasion de mesurer les progrès en matière de protection de la liberté de la presse, ou de rappeler à quel point il est important de protéger ce droit fondamental qu’est la liberté d’expression, inscrit dans l’article 19 de la Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme. La Journée mondiale de la liberté de la presse est également l’occasion d’intensifier nos efforts pour garantir la sécurité des journalistes dans la pratique de leur métier.
Please let me conclude by reading the Preamble of the Declaration of Chapultepec adopted by the Hemisphere Conference on Free Speech in 1994:
A free society can thrive only through free expression and the exchange of ideas, the search for and the dissemination of information, the ability to investigate and question, to propound and react, to agree and disagree, to converse and confront, to publish and broadcast. Only by exercising these principles will it be possible to guarantee individuals and groups their right to receive impartial and timely information.
This year’s winner of the Press Freedom Award, Daniel Leblanc, was nominated by The Globe and Mail. His decision was to protect the identity of a source whose information was critical to a series of stories that became known as the “Sponsorship Scandal”. The stories led to the establishment of the Gomery Enquiry.
As mentioned earlier, despite considerable personal jeopardy, Daniel Leblanc has resisted a judicial order that would help identify his source. He was also ordered to stop reporting on negotiations in a related lawsuit between the federal government and a Montreal-based company implicated in the sponsorship affair.
M. Leblanc would you come forward.