The closure of the international divisions of the Freedom Forum couldn’t have come at a worse moment, according to Chris Cramer, president of CNN International.
The independent foundation, dedicated to promoting free press around the world, has scrapped its international division, closing five offices around the world, including its London bureau. It is funded by a trust set up by Gannett in the US in 1935.
As well as promoting press freedom, it was heavily involved, alongside the BBC and CNN, in working with journalists who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after covering the world’s war zones.
"In the difficult and controversial area of post-traumatic stress, they really put their money where their mouth was," said Cramer. "This announcement is horrible timing. There are hundreds of media people in New York and Washington who are going to experience post-traumatic stress at a personal level."
The closures have been blamed on stock market losses and the cost of its Washington-based ‘Newseum’ of journalism. It is understood that the forum had planned to cut back its international operation while keeping the London office open. But that was before the terrorist attacks in the US of 11 September, which saw a further crash in the values of its stocks.
John Owen, European director of the Freedom Forum, who heads the organisation’s three-man operation in London, said he felt the organisation had made a valuable contribution to journalistic life in the city.
"We’ve become such a gathering place for media groups," said Owen. "The special thing about us is that we have become a place where working journalists can stop and reflect on what it is they do, away from management. It is unique in that sense." Richard Sambrook, director of BBC, News, paid tribute to the hard work Owen brought to the organisation: "John took the lead on issues like safety for journalists. He made things happen and acted as our conscience. He and the forum will be sadly missed. It was a force for good for journalism."
Owen was particular proud of the London office’s last initiative. In Macedonia, it was the first organisation to attempt to bring Slav and Albanian journalists together in the same room.
"There was an incredible amount of vitriol, but we made some good progress", said Owen.
Vin Ray, deputy head of news gathering at the BBC, said: "It’s a big loss to London. John acted as the conscience of broadcasters, prodding them to think about things. We’ll miss it and we’ll particularly miss John Owen."
By Martin McNamara