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Journalists' groups protest over US media vetting

(IFJ/IFEX) - 26 August 2009 - The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and United States journalists' groups today condemned military vetting of journalists covering the Afghanistan conflict to see if they are sympathetic to the American cause.

Journalists and media people seeking to travel under the protection of US armed forces to report on the escalating military operations in Afghanistan may be screened by a Washington public relations firm commissioned by the Pentagon to determine whether media coverage portrays the US military in a positive light.

"This profiling of journalists further compromises the independence of media," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. "It strips away any pretence that the army is interested in helping journalists to work freely. It suggests they are more interested in propaganda than honest reporting."

According to the American journal Stars and Stripes, journalists may be vetted by The Rendon Group, a notorious public relations firm which prior to the US invasion of Iraq helped create the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group later blamed for spreading false information about Iraq's supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Two months ago, American army officials barred a Stars and Stripes reporter from embedding with a unit in Iraq because the reporter "refused to highlight" good news promoted by military commanders.

The IFJ affiliate organisations in the US have added their voices to the protest. Roberta Reardon, President of the he American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, whose members include broadcast journalists, said: "Many Americans rely on the unbiased information that journalists report to understand what is happening in the world and to make critical decisions. If the military pre-approves only certain journalists to report a specific point-of-view or agenda, our decisions cannot be made independently or freely and that threatens our democracy. I am deeply disturbed by this assault on quality broadcast journalism and on our freedom."

Bernie Lunzer, President of TNG-CWA, and representing newspaper reporters joined the protest adding: "This practice would undermine our core value, the ability to report the truth objectively and without government censorship. Embedding has its own problems, but this is over the line."

The IFJ says that the recent merger of US and NATO public relations work in Kabul has created a single source for media information and handling all requests from journalists to be embedded. This has reinforced the influence of The Rendon Group. According to official sources there are at present 60 media outlets - excluding Afghan media - on the ground with US and NATO forces.

"Bringing democracy to Afghanistan is a massive challenge," said White. "But it will not be made easier by trying to manipulate media or encouraging journalists to show bias in favour of the military."

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