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18 May 2000 Edition

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UN supports ex prisoners' freedom of expression

BY LAURA FRIEL

A United Nations report on freedom of expression has endorsed complaints against the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) initiated by the republican ex prisoners' coordinating group, Coiste na n-Iarchimí.

     
The BBC are living in the past, they're out of step with the current peace process and the responsibilities of conflict resolution
A report submitted by Special Rapporteur Abid Hussain to the UN Commission on Human Rights accuses the BBC of bias and criticises the corporation's attitude towards ex prisoners, which it says inhibits reconciliation within the North of Ireland.

The report went on to call on the British government to scrap emergency legislation, ban the use of plastic bullets, stop the use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, publish the Stalker-Sampson inquiry and the Stevens' report and guarantee the rights of others are not violated in the exercise of the right to assemble and march.

Commenting on the specific issue of freedom of expression for ex prisoners, Coiste spokesperson and former republican POW Laurence McKeown said: ``The BBC are living in the past, they're out of step with the current peace process and the responsibilities of conflict resolution.''

In January 1999, during a press conference to launch Coiste na n-Iarchimí, a BBC film and radio crew interviewed, at their own request, three republican ex prisoners who had been recently released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

The former prisoners spoke of their hopes and fears for the future and the difficulties of reintegration. All three supported the Good Friday Agreement and Coiste's self-help ethos.

The establishment of Coiste, which represents 20 local groups and projects run by and for republican ex prisoners, was a significant development towards peace and reconciliation.

It is estimated that 15,000 republicans have experienced imprisonment during the last 30 years of conflict. Clearly the launch of Coiste was an important media event which should have commanded coverage on local television and radio.

Yet coverage of the launch and the interviews of the three ex prisoners were never broadcast by the BBC. Although Radio Ulster indicated on air at 12 noon that there would be a report on the one o'clock news, when the programme was broadcast there was no mention of the launch.

According to a newspaper report at the time, the BBC had ``pulled a planned radio item about the launch of a prisoners' rights group an hour before transmission... The BBC says it stopped the broadcast as it did not have enough opportunity or time to consult with the relatives of the victims.''

Following a formal complaint by Coiste Director Mike Ritchie, the BBC cited guidelines drawn up by the corporation to deal with interviews with former and serving prisoners. ``BBC NI has reported fully the debate surrounding the release of paramilitary prisoners and their future in this society and will continue to do so in a fair and comprehensive manner,'' replied radio news editor Kathleen Carragher.

``The guidelines cited by the BBC are geared towards dealing with interviews of criminals in England and as such are totally inappropriate for dealing with people imprisoned as a result of political conflict in the Six Counties,'' says Laurence McKeown.

In response, Coiste described the guidelines as offensive to their clients: ``A large element of the conflict concerned attempts by the British state to criminalise the republican perspective in general and republican prisoners in particular. From our point of view , dealing with political prisoners as if they are criminals is to abandon neutrality concerning the nature of the conflict.''

In a submission to UN Special Rapporteur Abid Hussain, Coiste pointed out that the BBC's guidelines ``are problematic in that they make no distinction between criminal and political convictions''. Coiste pointed out that there was a danger that ex prisoners ``will continue to be defined in media terms in relation to their victims rather than in their own right.

``Particularly in relation to a transition from conflict, this is unhelpful to our overall project of reintegration and reconciliation. Indeed, it could be argued that such an approach has been deeply undermining of the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Ireland.''

But it was Dr David Miller of the Stirling Media Research Institute who pointed out the BBC's hypocrisy. In a letter to Andrew Coleman, the head of news and current affairs of the BBC in the Six Counties, Miller asked why interviews with Irish republican ex prisoners should be governed by guidelines drawn up to deal with criminals.

Miller pointed out that there was a section within the guidelines which states: ``Interviewing political dissidents and activists is an important part of providing a full understanding of events.'' The BBC's implementation of the guidelines was not only inappropriate it was arguably duplicitous, he contended.

``Are there any occasions on which you have informed victims of the security forces when interviewing them? Have BBC journalists, for example, consistently informed Karen Reilly's parents before an interview with Lee Clegg was broadcast?''

Of course they had not. In a submission to the UN Special Rapporteur, Miller pointed out that the ``different standards which are applied to individuals or groups is dependent not on their actions but on which side they are.'' Miller cited the example of Lee Clegg and accused the BBC of double standards.

But behind this is an even bigger issue said Miller. ``Although British forces have been responsible for a large number of civilian and paramilitary deaths in the conflict, less than ten have been jailed for murders committed while on duty. This does mean that the operation of the justice system in Northern Ireland tends to further disadvantage those who are imprisoned in the sense that they are disproportionately regarded as criminals.''

Focusing on the BBC in the Six Counties, Miller pointed to the corporation's pro-British agenda and pro-unionist ethos: ``The BBC in particular has on the one hand been overly reliant on government statements and briefings during the peace process.'' On the other hand, he said, ``there has been a tendency to treat Orange parades as matters of either cultural expressions or as the focus of disputes rather than as expressions of dominance... the view of Orangeism as fundamentally sectarianism is extremely rarely reported and explained.''

In their submission to UN official Abid Hussain, Coiste concluded: ``BBC NI is open to being politically influenced by unionist anti-Agreement elements who have been very opposed to the prisoner release programme and have used this emotive issue to attack the peace process in general.

``It is disappointing that the BBC have not reviewed and altered their guidelines given the changing political situation and in particular the Good Friday Agreement, with its proposals for the release of political prisoners.

``That agreement clearly indicates the distinction between political prisoners and ordinary criminals. This is nowhere reflected in the BBC guidelines.''

In his judgment, the UN Special Rapporteur recognised the rights of victims but went on to endorse Coiste's view that the BBC's ``attitude does not favour the reintegration of ex prisoners and reconciliation in Northern Ireland''.

The rapporteur concluded that the BBC should ``review its guidelines in this particular regard, taking into account the changing political situation in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, which clearly indicates the difference between political prisoners and ordinary criminals''.

The UN report went further, calling on the British government to publish the Stevens inquiry into crown force collusion with loyalist death squads, and the Stalker and Sampson report into summary executions by crown forces. The UN official said that the victims of state violence should have access to the reports.

On the issue of contentious marches, he described the freedom of expression and assembly as ``core human rights'' but he also recognised the need to guarantee that ``the rights of others are not violated in the process''.

He also urged the British government ``to stop the use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, in particular the indiscriminate use of life threatening plastic bullets, as recommended by the Committee Against Torture in 1998''.

Commenting on the UN report, Laurence McKeown said: ``Abid Hussain has vindicated our challenge to the attitude of the BBC towards republican ex prisoners. The UN report places the media's denial of political prisoners' rights to freedom of expression within the wider context of attempts by the British state to suppress the truth about their role in the conflict. It also places the onus on all of us to move into a new period of change based on truth and justice.''
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