Journalists or activists?

Twenty war correspondents, including Martin Bell and CNN’s Christian Amanpour, have signed a letter in today’s Guardian calling for restrictions on the arms trade.

I don’t doubt their bravery and commitment. But is it really the job of journalists – and we are supposed to be impartial – to issue specific political demands? What happens the next time one of the signatories is sent to interview an arms dealer or war lord? How will they refute accusations of bias?

This is also a more complicated issue than it seems. In Bosnia many journalists believed there were not enough weapons – at least on the government side. The arms embargo prevented the Bosnian government soldiers from defending themselves against the Bosnian Serbs. Or should be west be arming the rebels in Darfur to defend their people from Sudanese helicopter gunships?

It’s a tricky issue to judge when a journalist’s personal beliefs should be kept private. But the power of the twenty signatories’ names comes from their public face as objective reporters, not from their private consciences. Overall, I think the cause of human rights is better served by reporting what is happening in the world’s war zones (as the signatories do), rather than publishing declarations.