Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

7th May 2000

First casualty in a war

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NEW YORK— The United Nations celebrated World Press Freedom Day last week condemning Third World governments that silence the media and criticised the Western press for its one-sided coverage of global political events.

Both were equally guilty of wrong doing even though the murder of journalists does not really rank on the same scale as the deliberate suppression of news stories. According to an old axiom, the first casualty in any war be it in Kosovo, Sierra Leone or Sri Lanka, is truth.

But Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out last week that, all too often, the men and women whose job it was to tell the truth have become the first victims in most wars.

"They were not accidental casualties, but deliberate targets," he said in a message delivered on World Press Freedom Day last Wednesday. Those who made war often had an interest in suppressing truths by killing or intimidating journalists, Annan said. "The rights of journalists to carry out their work must be protected, as their freedom was our freedom," he argued.

In its annual report released in March, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that 34 reporters were killed in the line of duty last year marking a "disturbing increase" from the previous year when 24 journalists were murdered worldwide.

On Wednesday, the CPJ also released a list of "Ten Worst Enemies of the Press"- political leaders from Iran, Yugoslavia, Kazakhstan, Angola, Peru, Malaysia, Tunisia, Sierra Leone, China and Cuba- who are held responsible for suppressing the media in their own backyards.

"These enemies of the press use methods that range from outright torture and murder to more subtle techniques aimed at keeping uncomfortable truths from being told," Ann Cooper, CPJ's executive director said.

Addressing a panel discussion on "Reporting the News in a Dangerous World," Shashi Tharoor, the UN's Director of Communications and Special Projects, turned the heat on the Western news media whose coverage of events has continued to raise many uncomfortable questions.

Tharoor accused the world press of "unevenness" in its coverage of news stories. One only had to look at the difference in the coverage of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Mozambique and Sierra Leone, he said, citing examples from Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

The news from Africa, he pointed out, received less coverage. What explained the lack of coverage in some cases?, he asked. Was it ignorance or apathy? Who made the global media in the brave new world? Were the voices from the developing countries necessarily the most authentic ones from that part of the world? Was the Internet the answer? The so-called mass media is obviously a misnomer because, from a global perspective, what is seemingly "mass" has only a limited audience. Thus, undue reliance on that medium could marginalise those who were out of its reach, he added.

On the positive side, access to the media offered the world unprecedented opportunities. "It held out the possibility of a new and truly global information ethos," he noted.

Tharoor also complained that while bloodshed frequently made the headline news, there was very little shown on reconciliation or peacekeeping. He cited UN successes in Mozambique, Cambodia, El Salvador and Haiti, which he said "were seldom aired" by TV networks or covered by the print media. Addressing the UN Committee on Information, Peter Mollema of the Netherlands said that while technological innovations, satellite communications and the rapidly expanding Internet brought access to all parts of the world with the touch of a fingertip, not all parts of the world were benefiting to the same extent from those developments.

Access to new technologies was far greater in the Western world than in the developing world. That gap, he said, must be taken into consideration when developing a media strategy aimed at a worldwide audience, as the United Nations was obliged to do.

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