Human Rights Day: Media Rights and Responsibilities

U.N. panel discussions can be deadly, with orations by overly diplomatic diplomats or fulminations by NGO representatives armed with deadly prose and speaking in monotones. The fear that they would put audiences into narcoleptic slumber is probably why proposals for a TV channel to cover events at the world organization are often raised only to be deep-sixed. I am sure some pharmaceutical companies have investigated bottling the essence of "U.N. speak" for use by insomniacs.

Nevertheless, the U.N. continues to try to get the issues it champions into the media stream. It's huge Department of Public Information serves media needs, promotes training of media workers in developing countries and organizes events to garner attention. Secretary General Kofi Annan has often said he considers CNN the sixteenth member of the Security Council. When a global issue is not in the media, governments and the public don't respond to its demands.

I've been going to media panels for years in the hope that they would ignite an expanded sense of global responsibility on the part of journalists and media companies. Many of these sessions fall flat because issues of media accountability are avoided. However, on Dec. 6, the media became the issue at a U.N. annual Human Rights Day forum called News vs. Propaganda, The Gatekeeper's Dilemma. Ably moderated by acting Department of Public Information chief Shashi Tharoor, there was a lot more than what is usually labeled blandly and disingenuously "a free and frank exchange of views." (Translation: No one said anything of substance.) This time around a panel of journalists and media gatekeepers squared off in an unusually heated and candid discussion.

The U.N. convened the event as a follow-up to the noisy and controversial racism conference in Durban, South Africa, last September, which detonated into discord just a few days before those jets slammed into the World Trade Center, driving other news out of public view. The prestigious and divergent cast included two prominent Arab journalists, an Al Jazeera representative among them, a top New York Times correspondent, a CNN VP, a senior editor from the BBC and the deputy head of news at the South African Broadcasting Corporation. There to add a U.N. voice was Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland who is now High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Lakdar Brahimi, fresh from running round-the-clock negotiations in Bonn between Afghan factions with far more experience at killing each other than working together. They were all articulate, mostly candid and occasionally angry.

Perspectives Galore For Karen Curry of CNN, the human rights and values the UN promotes are considered by her network to be byproduct at best, not a mission. Journalism, in CNN's conventional view, is about reporting "the facts," nonpartisanship, accuracy, balance and agenda-free fairness. We have all heard this mantra, and the debate about what constitutes objectivity.

When challenged about a lack of coverage of antiwar protests, Barbara Crossette, a longtime U.N. correspondent for the New York Times, said there are too many protests going on all the time and can't all be covered. More interestingly, she admitted -- and this was the first time I heard someone high up at the Times say this -- "We have a point of view" as in "news is what we say it is."

The BBC, the West's model broadcaster, while also positioning itself as a bias-free news organization above every fray, at least has a commitment to serving the public interest in a way that commercial media does not. Its non-commercial approach has always been at the heart of its credibility.

Hafez Al Mizrahi, Washington bureau chief of the controversial Qatar-based satellite TV station Al Jazeera -- in the U.S. often called the "CNN of the Arab world" -- mentioned that Al Jazeera was actually modeled after the BBC in its approach to news gathering, not CNN. He was eloquent in denouncing what he called "double and triple standards" by broadcasters and governments that criticized their attempts to offer even-handed coverage of Bush and bin Laden. He also insisted that Al Jazeera has featured far more antiterrorist views than bin Laden boosterism, arguing that Al Jazeera was being denounced for serving up propaganda by governments that want only their own propaganda to frame the news. "You in the West taught us about journalism and then turned on us when we practiced it," he said.

Abden Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of the London-based Arabic-language paper Al Quids Al-Arabic, asserted that the press has a clear mandate to promote human rights for all because freedom of the press itself is one of those rights. "We must stick to our values and protect oppressed people," he said. He was also exercised by laws and rules that stigmatize Muslims as if "we are all bin Ladens." He lashed into both the U.S. and British governments, noting that when the IRA was blowing up bombs in London, all Irish people were not assumed to be terrorists or treated as if they were. He told of spy agencies that recently had him under surveillance and of a chilling in his relationship with Western media agencies that now treat him like a pariah. He told me that CNN, which used to have him on the air regularly, now rarely calls for comments.

South Africa's Mathatha Tsetu, a fine columnist who is now a TV exec, boldly asserted that media should serve the poor and voiceless because the rich and powerful have plenty of ways to express their views.

Everyone acknowledged that they could do a better job. U.N. diplomat Brahimi noted that 1,200 journalists covered the high-profile meeting he had just run in Bonn, but barely a handful had been in Afghanistan a year ago when tens of thousands were starving to death. He also called on his Arab colleagues to avoid blaming the West for all their problems and to look into abuses in Arab countries.

Mary Robinson spoke despairingly of the way in which human rights concerns are at the lowest point she has ever seen. She said the media have to be better prepared to cover complex crises and more sensitized to their context. She spoke specifically about bias incidents against Muslims in the United States and Britain, which are going underreported, and the way in which the significance of Israel's occupation of Palestinian communities is underplayed. "It is not coming through," she insisted.

Barbara Crossette of the Times changed the subject when a producer of the Democracy Now radio show (listen here to the interchange and more excerpts from the event) asked her why the Times cropped a picture of an antiwar protester who was draped in an American flag to make it appear as if she was backing the government. She was critical of the coverage of the Beijing Women's Summit from years back, but that was not the subject here. Crossette is an excellent correspondent but clearly less comfortable as a spokesperson.

The BBC's Steve Williams found himself denounced after the event as an anti-semite by one particularly obnoxious member of the audience for suggesting that in his view 90 percent of American media outlets, outside the big national papers and networks, skewed their coverage toward Israel. For the most part, he said, U.S. media impressed him. He credited the diversity of the BBC's workforce for improving the quality and sensitivity of its coverage. He was also rather boastful about how the BBC had scooped its competitors. "We've had a good war," he said with a bit too much smugness for my taste.

Ideas Matter Panels like these are seldom reported on because they are "only" about ideas. Nothing happens. No resolutions are passed or policies pronounced. Besides, most news and magazine programs think all the public wants are stories and characters. Yet ideas do matter. Many of us live in our own bubbles, in a deadline-crazed business where busyness blocks reflection and inhibits debate. That leads to defensiveness or arrogance or both, with critics consigned to the sidelines and feedback primarily coming from friends and family members -- folks who tend to go easy on us. As a result of this (and for other, institutional reasons), changes in media practices are slow in coming.

In that context, events like this can have value. Media professionals clearly need to have their consciousness raised and their assumptions challenged from time to time. Doctors, lawyers and other licensed professionals are expected to take continuing education to keep up with their fields. Journalists are not. That is what made this event so exceptional. There was a genuine openness -- even a hunger -- for a venue to discuss problems that can't be reduced easily to soundbites.

This forum also showed that there is far more than a digital divide in the world; there are also gaps of culture, understanding and values. People with different beliefs and backgrounds were talking to each other and not at each other. All gave as good as they got, and heard how important the media role is in terms of informing the public and serving our world. On Human Rights Day, we get to realize that our rights matter. And so do our responsibilities.

Danny Schechter is executive editor of MediaChannel.org and author of "News Dissector," which reports on how a citizens' war crimes commission was reported derisively during the Vietnam War.

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