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DAWN - Opinion; December 31, 2008

December 31, 2008

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Media’s role in war and peace

By Zubeida Mustafa


AT a time when the media in India and Pakistan is virtually driving South Asia to the brink of war, it is sad that journalists’ professional bodies have failed to moderate the hype that has been created. The only voice of sanity to be raised was that of 22 editors from the region — only three from Pakistan — in the form of a release issued by Kanak Mani Dixit, the editor of the South Asian magazine Himal (Kathmandu).

While expressing their sadness at the “horrific killings in Mumbai” and their deep concern at “the fallout of rising India-Pakistan tensions on the entire region”, the signatories called on “all media professionals, especially in the television networks, to observe restraint in reportage and interpretation, and to be careful to avoid imbalance”. They pointed out that media coverage has influenced opinion on crucial issues and impacted on the political stance and policies of the authorities. Most importantly, the editors stressed that “media can exacerbate or ameliorate a situation: we are keenly aware of this, as journalists based in various parts of South Asia who continue to seek a common future in peace”.

To my query about the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists’ position on the present crisis, Secretary General Mazhar Abbas said that his union and the Indian federation of journalists are planning a peace conference in January or February. This would obviously be addressing the war and peace issue from a long-term perspective. That would be significant. But the PFUJ must exert itself immediately to translate into reality what Mazhar Abbas calls “the need for responsible journalism and the importance of not allowing truth to become a casualty”.

The fact is that a section of the media, mainly a number of television channels with quite a few newspapers in tow, are reinforcing a new phenomenon. The media by and large has emerged as an actor — and regrettably an irresponsible one in some cases — in national and international policymaking in both countries.

On the international level, this new dimension of television came to the fore with the launching of CNN in 1991 that set the scene for what we call 24/7. The impact of television’s ubiquitous presence was felt in Somalia in 1993. An official of the US State Department admitted that the Clinton administration had to pull out US forces from Mogadishu hastily when CNN showed gory images of a US soldier’s corpse being dragged through the city by enraged crowds. This demonstrated for the first time the immense potential of the electronic media to force the pace of events by exerting pressure on governments without allowing them time to do some dispassionate thinking.

Now that we have our own 24/7 media, its compulsions and how these affect its role need to be better understood and self-regulated. Television cannot be permitted to ride roughshod over national interests in the name of the freedom of expression. It cannot disregard the wider public good because the channels have to fill in 24 hours all seven days a week, because they do not have the resources to produce programmes other than talk shows, and because they are competing for viewership and some of them believe a measure of sensationalism is in order.

These aspects will have to be kept in mind by the news channels in both countries. Spurred by the unbridled screening of images of violence and the public reaction to it, the PFUJ worked on a code of ethics. In August 2008 it adopted a draft of the Code of Principles for the Conduct of Journalism in Pakistan. This contains many excellent guidelines, though some need further refining. Unfortunately due to lack of response from many key stakeholders the code has been pushed to the backburner. The role of the press and television in the current crisis created by the India-Pakistan stand-off should prompt the PFUJ to take up the code again with special emphasis on peace journalism.

Among the principles enumerated in the preamble to the code is that the media are “independent, tolerant and reflect diversity of opinion” which are essential for the smooth functioning of a democracy. To this list must also be added the provision that the media “subscribe to peace and are opposed to war”. Since the role of the media in promoting peace is being increasingly recognised worldwide, it is time our journalists were given sufficient exposure to peace studies to make them aware of the constructive role they can play in peace and conflict resolution.

As has been correctly observed and as has been confirmed by the direction the media has given to developments, two journalists can present the same piece of news differently to create the image of peace or whip up war frenzy. Neither of them will be suppressing news or exercising self-censorship. But the impact of the same news will be changed by the method of its presentation. Journalists exercise choices. If they are going to present the hawks day in and day out and allow them to breathe fire with all the vehemence they can command won’t they create the war hysteria that Mr I.A. Rehman wrote about in his column on these pages last week?

It all depends on what the man at the desk wants to focus on and if there is any editorial control.

Another area where the media has often been found wanting is that of contextualisation. By not providing objectively the context in which an event is taking place, the media can mislead the viewers/readers. A foreign affairs reporter for the BBC, Gordon Corera, puts it thus: “It is vital for journalists to tell the public and opinion-formers about the complexity of the world out there and to explain to them the way different people and cultures think.” Not an easy task when the journalist has his/her own biases and prejudices.

It is now time for peace journalism with the media actively pursuing the goal of conflict resolution through dialogue. The PFUJ should consider adding a 27th point to its code of ethics: ‘A journalist will champion the cause of peace and eschew war’.

zubeidam@gmail.com

Demise of the newspaper?

By Dr Syed Amir


THOMAS Jefferson, the third president of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, is reported to have once remarked, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter”. But that was before he became the president of the republic and himself a target of much press criticism.

Some two centuries after Jefferson’s pronouncement, newspapers in America, one of the world’s most vibrant democracies, are finding themselves in deep trouble. Their difficulties stem not from any restrictions imposed by the government; they are victims of the modern information age, the advent of the internet, and the disinclination of younger Americans to subscribe to printed editions of newspapers.

Shrunken in size and volume, they are experiencing sharply declining circulation, and most significantly a reduction in their income from advertisement. The circulation of the daily newspapers has declined by nearly three per cent during the past six months alone. Some of the well-known newspapers in the United States, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe, among others, have suffered a loss of 30 to 40 per cent of their readership during recent years.

The Newspapers Association of America (NAA) recently estimated that in 2007, concordant with the general decrease in the readership, the revenue from advertisements was reduced by more than nine per cent, one of the sharpest losses recorded in half a century. It is well known that only a small part of the cost of newspapers is covered by subscriptions. Over 80 per cent of it is borne by advertisers which constitute the main source of income of newspapers. A significant number of businesses are now promoting their products, automobiles, appliances and real estate on the internet. Both the loss of readership and the progressive decline in income from advertisements have been exacerbated by the ongoing economic slump in America.

The NAA predicts that the newspaper industry likely suffered a loss of 11.5 per cent in its advertisement income in 2008, which would translate into a loss of more than $40bn.

In an attempt to override some of their difficulties, the newspapers have adopted a variety of measures. Many have reduced their staff and closed down foreign news bureaus. The San Francisco Chronicle has reduced its staff significantly, while the publishing giant, The New York Times, also plans staff reductions although not on the same scale as the Chronicle.

Most startling has been the announcement by the Christian Science Monitor, a highly respected newspaper that has just celebrated 100 years in print, that in 2009 it will cease to be a daily newspaper and will only be published as a web-based edition, the first major American newspaper to do so. Started in 1908 by Mrs Mary Eddy to promote the ideals of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, over time it evolved into a much venerated publication that analysed in depth contemporary, major issues of national and international importance.

To save money and attract a greater number of readers, some newspapers have turned parochial, highlighting local news often related to crime and scandal, and de-emphasising international and even national stories. Some of the actions seem counter-intuitive.

Within the next few days, Washington will witness the installation of a new president and his cabinet, and throngs of enthusiastic people are expected to descend on the city to be part of the historic event. Normally, it would be a major story for a newspaper to cover and, indeed, many international newspapers will be sending a large contingent of reporters to the capital city. Paradoxically, a number of American newspapers, in order to cut costs, are either closing down their bureaus here or drastically reducing their size. Resultantly, some of the most experienced and respected journalists will become unemployed, while their papers will draw upon the dispatches sent by news agencies.But all this does not mean that print journalism has become irrelevant. The 19th-century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle used the term ‘fourth estate’ to describe the power of the press, the first three being the crown and the two Houses of Parliament. Since the publication in 1704 of the first newspaper, The Boston News-Letter, American newspapers have enjoyed great influence and prestige across the nation, sometimes provoking wars and in one case forcing the resignation of a president.

In 1898, two powerful newspaper publishers, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, propelled America into a war with Spain by putting out sensational and largely unfounded stories about Spanish atrocities in Cuba, which was a Spanish colony at the time and where a popular uprising was in progress. These stories helped whip up war hysteria. In the ensuing war, Spain ceded control of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to America.

More recently, the power of the press has been exercised to support more honourable causes. In 1973, two young correspondents of The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, through a series of brilliant articles helped expose a criminal conspiracy to cover up an offence that culminated in the initiation of impeachment proceedings and the subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Even today, newspaper editors and correspondents continue to have great power on public opinion, which serves to hold the government accountable for its policies and actions. Many critics, however, believe that the news media failed in its duty by not aggressively questioning the Bush administration about their bogus rationale for leading the country into the disastrous Iraqi war.

If the predictions come true and the print editions of newspapers become extinct in the coming decades, it is hard to imagine what the world would be like without them. Those of us so addicted to the pleasure of reading the printed word at the breakfast table may never feel at ease with the disembodied internet version, however convenient and inexpensive it might be.

Israel’s bloodiest onslaught

By Seumas Milne


ISRAEL’S decision to launch its devastating attack on Gaza on a Saturday was a “stroke of brilliance”, the country’s biggest selling paper Yediot Aharonot crowed.

Of the ferocity of the assault on one of the most overcrowded and destitute corners of the earth, there is at least no question. In the bloodiest onslaught on blockaded Gaza, at least 310 people were killed and more than 1,000 reported injured in the first 48 hours alone.

As well as scores of ordinary police officers incinerated in a passing-out parade, at least 56 civilians were said by the UN to have died as Israel used American-supplied F-16s and Apache helicopters to attack a string of civilian targets it linked to Hamas, including a mosque, private homes and the Islamic university.

As Israeli journalist Amos Harel wrote in Ha’aretz at the weekend, “little or no weight was apparently devoted to the question of harming innocent civilians”, as in US operations in Iraq. Among those killed in the first wave of strikes were eight teenage students waiting for a bus and four girls from the same family in Jabaliya, aged one to 12 years old.

Anyone who doubts the impact of these atrocities among Arabs and Muslims worldwide should switch on the satellite television stations that are watched avidly across the Middle East and which do not habitually sanitise the barbarity meted out in the name of multiple wars on terror. Then, having seen a child dying in her parent’s arms live on TV, consider what sort of western response there would have been to an attack on Israel, or the US or Britain for that matter, which left more than 300 dead in a couple of days.

You can be certain it would be met with the most sweeping condemnation, that the US president-elect would do a great deal more than “monitor” the situation and the British prime minister go much further than simply call for “restraint” on both sides.

But that is in fact all they did do, though the British government has since joined the call for a ceasefire. There has, of course, been no western denunciation of the Israeli slaughter – such aerial destruction is, after all, routinely called in by the US and Britain.

Instead, Hamas and the Palestinians of Gaza are held responsible for what has been visited upon them. How could any government not respond with overwhelming force to the constant firing of rockets into its territory, the Israelis demand, echoed by western governments and their media.

But that is to turn reality on its head. Like the West Bank, the Gaza Strip has been – and continues to be – illegally occupied by Israel since 1967. Despite the withdrawal of troops and settlements three years ago, Israel maintains complete control of the territory by sea, air and land. And since Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, Israel has punished its 1.5 million people with an inhuman blockade of essential supplies, backed by the US and the European Union.

Like any occupied people, the Palestinians have the right to resist, whether they choose to exercise it or not. But there is no right of defence for an illegal occupation – there is an obligation to withdraw comprehensively. During the last seven years, 14 Israelis have been killed by mostly homemade rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, while more than 5,000 Palestinians were killed by Israel with some of the most advanced US-supplied armaments in the world.

Hamas is likewise blamed for last month’s breakdown of the six-month lull. But, in a weary reprise of past ceasefires, it was in fact sunk by Israel’s assassination of six Hamas fighters in Gaza on Nov 5 and its refusal to lift its siege of the embattled territory as expected under an Egyptian-brokered deal. The truth is that Israel and its western sponsors have set their face against an accommodation with the Palestinians’ democratic choice and have instead thrown their political weight, cash and arms behind a sustained attempt to overthrow it. The complete failure of that approach has brought us to this week’s horrific pass.

But as with Israel’s disastrous assault on Lebanon two years ago, it is a strategy that cannot succeed. Hamas’s appeal among Palestinians and beyond doesn’t derive from its puny infrastructure, or even its Islamist ideology, but its spirit of resistance to decades of injustice. So long as it remains standing in the face of this onslaught, its influence will only be strengthened. And if it is not with rockets, its retaliation is bound to take other forms, as Hamas’s leader Khalid Mish’al made clear.

— The Guardian, London