Anybody who pays critical attention to outputs of corporate news media will be aware that the idea of a free press, while lauded in principle, is scarcely actualised in practice. A further worrying development is that the very principles animating the idea are apparently being called into question by an organisation that purports to defend them.
Protecting press freedom is supposedly the purpose of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). There has been concern for some time that RSF serves this mission in a selective and politicised fashion. In line with its funding stream, it directs particularly critical attention to regimes that Washington disapproves of, while giving allies an easier ride.
If that is not bad enough, however, this past week has seen the organisation attempt actually to curtail press freedom.
In a letter to the Swiss Press Club, RSF issued a protest against an event due to be held by the Club on 28 November 2017. RSF tried to pressure the Press Club into cancelling the event, which is dedicated to critical investigations into the activities of the White Helmets in Syria.
To his great credit, the Club president, Guy Mettan, has resisted this pressure, condemning it as ‘a grave attack on freedom of speech’. He notes that it is unprecedented for an organization defending press freedom to try to censor a conference.
I believe we should be grateful for the courage, integrity and principles of Guy Mettan. There is an important public interest in airing these questions. The attempt to suppress them underlines its importance.
The White Helmets are themselves at the heart of an extensive public media campaign that manages information reaching Western publics about events in Syria. While the coordinated media outlets portray them as humanitarian heroes, it is widely understood that the truth is more complex, and perhaps darker. Certainly, even the most casual acquaintance with White Helmets publicity material, like the Netflix film about them, raises certain questions. For instance, how would a Western film team manage to roam with impunity in an area into which journalists were unable to venture due to proven risk of kidnap, murder, or beheading? Or if no independent crew in fact ever ventured there, how could they be sure of the authenticity of what is shown? Another curiosity is that in films and videos about them, white helmets seem so often to be rescuing babies whose mothers are absent. A further puzzle – given the tens of thousands of Syrians reportedly rescued by them – is why we don’t hear much testimony from grateful civilians.
But there are more directly disturbing lines of question too. The kind of evidence that independent investigators have turned up potentially implicates White Helmets in grave crimes. The speakers at the Geneva event are likely to draw wider public attention to the available evidence and its implications.
It is clearly in the public interest to understand as fully as possible the role of the White Helmets, particularly given that a great part of all media communications about Syria originates from their organisation (which is funded by the foreign governments that RSF seems to be aligned with).
The attempt to suppress dissemination of investigations by independent journalists with detailed knowledge of the subject is a clear attempt at censorship. It is a particularly targeted kind of censorship. Given the track record of RSF as pressing the geopolitical agenda of Washington, an obvious inference to be drawn is that Washington has a vested interested in protecting the White Helmets from scrutiny. That interest appears to be strong enough for an organisation whose entire reputation rests on protecting press freedom to be willing to sacrifice its most fundamental purpose.
Evidently, much is at stake in protecting White Helmets from critical investigation.
So a final comment is in order about the wider context. Over the past year we have witnessed an unprecedented degree of unbridled hostility and unsubstantiated criticism levelled by press and politicians against Russia. If there is one thing we have already learned from the reaction of RSF to the Swiss event it is this: whatever propaganda Russia may or may not be putting out, the West’s own press ‘watch dogs’ are prepared to defend Western propaganda, even at the cost of press freedom. Anybody who is seriously worrying more about Russia today than about the corporate control of our media might ask themselves how well they really understand what is going on …
Diana Barahona (2005) ‘Reporters Without Borders Unmasked’ https://www.counterpunch.org/2005/05/17/reporters-without-borders-unmasked/
Diana Barahona, Jeb Sprague (2006)‘Reporters Without Borders and Washington’s Coups’ http://www.voltairenet.org/article142922.html
Tim Anderson (2008) ‘Cuba and the “Independent Journalists”’ https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/cuba-and-independent-journalists
F. William Engdahl (2010) ‘Reporters Without Borders seems to have a geopolitical agenda’ http://www.voltairenet.org/article165297.html
 In the mid 2000s persistent investigations into RSF’s funding sources revealed, with an eventual reluctant admission, the central role of the National Endowment for Democracy. ‘Former U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, created the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 1983, during a period in which military violence took the place of traditional diplomacy in order to resolve international matters. Thanks to its powerful ability of financial penetration, the NED’s goal is to weaken governments that would oppose the foreign hegemonic power of Washington.’ (Lamrani 2005) https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1125
 RSF’s letter to Guy Mettan (Swiss Press Club Director)
Geneva, November 23rd, 2017,
We are aware of the event organized by the Swiss Press Club on November 28th: ”They do not care about us”. About white helmets true agenda. “We were also challenged on our” support “for this conference, with the name of our organization appearing in the list of media members.
We totally dissociate ourselves from this event and do not wish to be associated with a conference that welcomes a so-called journalist, Mrs. Vanessa Beeley, who justifies the use of torture by the Syrian regime in order to preserve it. She has never been published in an independent media, it is surprising that it is referenced at least two hundred times in the Russian media propaganda (SputnikNews, Russia Today).
Moreover, it is unacceptable to invite Mr Marcello Ferranda De Noli, president of Swedish Doctors for Human Rights, an association that we believe is acting as a tool of Russian propaganda. It is likely that you have not been aware of these items of information, we have the appropriate links to this effect.
Anyway, we invite you to abandon this project which will damage the image of the Swiss Press Club. Depending on your decision, we reserve the opportunity to study to keep our membership card.
Looking forward to hearing from you, Mr Director, dear Sir, our best regards,
Gérard Tschopp and Christiane Dubois
 Reply to RSF from Guy Mettan, Geneva Press Club
“On one hand, this seems to me, to be a grave attack on freedom of speech and in total contradiction with the “liberty to inform and to be informed everywhere in the world” that RSF pretends to defend in its charter and which appears in all its letter-heads.
I have never seen anything like it. An organization defending press freedom is telling me to censor a conference. This kind of pressure to cancel press conferences usually comes only from countries known to be dictators, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Bahrain. This is the first time such a demand has come from an organisation defending journalists, from a democratic country! It goes without saying, I will not be following up. That would be to dishonour a profession that I hope you still adhere to!
Rather than practice censorship, I propose that you participate in this press conference, as I have also suggested to the White Helmet supporters, and to pose questions that you find useful to the speakers. For my part, applying the principles of openness and the search for truth that characterizes the Press Club since its foundation, I am naturally ready to welcome a press conference with the organisations that support the White Helmets so they can put across their point of view. So far, they have not responded.
Regarding the personal attacks that have been levied at our colleague Vanessa Beeley & M De Noli. They are a shame on journalism.
Finally, I am forwarding to you, some of the many messages I have received from all over the world, supporting the initiative and reassuring me that the freedom of expression is just as under attack among us as it is under the “dictatorships” that you claim to denounce.” Translation: http://members5.boardhost.com/xxxxx/thread/1511540138.html
Tim Hayward is Professor of Environmental Political Theory at Edinburgh University. He is the founding Director of the Just World Institute and the Ethics Forum. Beyond Edinburgh he administers the Political Theory Email List, including its facebook page and is a founding member of the Britain and Ireland Association for Political Thought.