Events

Media in International Affairs

September 26, 2005 // 9:00am3:00pm

To watch the video of each panel discussion, follow the links in the See Also box to the right of this screen.


Panel I: Reporting from Restricted Areas

Barbara Slavin, Chair: Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, USA TODAY
Azadeh Moaveni, Author/Journalist for Time Magazine, Tehran, Iran
Qian Gang, Director, China Media Project, Journalism and Media Studies Center, University of Hong Kong
Marta Dyczok, Current Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center; Associate Professor, History and Political Science, University of Western Ontario

Barbara Slavin opened the meeting by introducing the subject of the discussion: the difficulty of reporting in countries that restrict the freedom of the press. She recounted her experience in China in the early 1980's, when she and her husband, the UPI bureau chief in Beijing, discovered that her house was bugged. She invited the panel to discuss their experiences in, and understanding of, the restricted nature of the media in their own nations.

Azadeh Moaveni discussed the media situation in Iran. She cited three distinct phases in the development of the modern Iranian media environment. Prior to 1997, Iran's media was controlled tightly, but with the election of reformist President Mohammed Khatami in 1997, the Iranian press flourished. Many newspapers opened up which enjoyed wide circulation and were able to be openly critical of the government—indeed, Ms. Moaveni suggested that journalism was seen as a means of being politically active in a country with highly circumscribed political discourse. Hardliners in Tehran became increasingly worried about the independence of the media, however, and in 2000 they struck against the media, closing hundreds of reformist newspapers and jailing journalists who wrote stories portraying the government in an unflattering light.

Since 2000, says Ms. Moaveni, the state has exercised control over the Iranian media through intimidation—the threat of jail time, possible torture, and the disbanding of newspapers has brought an era of self-censorship to the Iranian media. Still, some Iranian media outlets maintain degrees of independence. Some, such as Shargh, a large reformist newspaper with ties to former President Rafsanjani, push against political "red lines" indirectly, implying criticism of the state through reporting on social issues. Other journalists have moved to the Internet and joined Iran's flourishing weblog community—although, Ms. Moaveni insisted, the blog movement focuses on social and sexual issues more than political ones.

Iran's hardliners have proven their ability to control the flow of information to ordinary Iranians on the nuclear issue, Ms. Moaveni asserted. She suggested that Tehran was able to redefine the issue in terms of national sovereignty and pride instead of the merits of a nuclear weapons program by careful restrictions on media coverage and suggestions it passed to journalists covering the issue. Despite this success on the part of Iran's media handlers, Ms. Moaveni said, the recent election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leaves the scope of future media control unclear—although a second thaw seems unlikely.

Qian Gang addressed the evolving role of China's media. He summarized the current media situation in three words: "control, change, and chaos." Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Qian cited two "buzz-phrases" that have marked the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policies towards the media: "guidance of public opinion" and "media reform." Guidance of public opinion has been a consistent policy throughout the past 16 years—the CCP sees the media as a means by which it can direct public attention away from potential embarrassments for the Party. This view was particularly influential after the Tiananmen Square protests, which many Party leaders (such as Premier Jiang Zemin) saw as a failure of the "media reform" as pursued by Premier Zhou Ziyang. While press freedom increased compared to the 1970's, the larger effect was a shift towards commercialization of the media, as advocated by Premier Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese media exploded in the past 25 years, with the number of newspapers rising 11-fold since 1978. Upon becoming Premier in 2002, Hu Jintao called for the media to be more relevant to the people, and many expected Mr. Hu to expand press freedom. However, the outbreak of SARS in Guangdong province changed everything, said Mr. Qian. Local newspapers started to pick up on the story, but Beijing suppressed it almost immediately, denying SARS' existence for nearly a month. "Guidance of public opinion" remains very much alive.

Although Mr. Qian insisted that most of these new media outlets support increased freedom of the press, the CCP often restricts coverage of stories the Party deems sensitive without much opposition—yet such control does not allow Beijing to dictate the news. The combination of limited freedom and unlimited commercialization lead to uniformity and trivialization of news, he said—citing a newspaper's "reality TV-like" coverage of a young woman's liver donation, and media that conducted SMS quizzes on topics like the hostage crisis in Beslan, Russia (the latter drew a rebuke from Beijing during a crackdown on "non-moral coverage").

Mr. Qian saw three paths the Chinese media might take in future. The first, an "alliance of power and money," sees commercial interests pushing the media to align with the CCP to the mutual benefit of each side: Beijing gets its "guidance of public opinion," while the commercial media reap increased profits. The second, a "whatever sells" approach, sees the media continue its trend towards increasing commercialism within the framework of Party restricts, leading to the domination of tabloid journalism and sensational, but mostly trivial, stories. The third, "independent media," Mr. Qian characterized as the least likely but most promising: a shift towards a free, independent, and critical press capable of performing a watchdog role.

Marta Dyczok considered the condition of the Ukrainian press since the fall of the Soviet Union. She described the Ukrainian media as operating in the shadow of their Soviet past, when the media was little more than an arm of the state. After the fall of communism, most journalists were unaware of how media functions in a democracy and continued to play the role of cheerleader to the state, although some took on a more active role. In response to increasing independence in the media, however, President Leonid Kuchma began a censorship program (which functioned through bribes more than constraints). Mr. Kuchma's successor, the reform-minded President Viktor Yushchenko, abolished the censorship program and promised to shift the state-run television channels to a BBC model (a promise that remains outstanding). While Mr. Yushchenko has been friendlier to the media than Mr. Kuchma was, his government has been profoundly unresponsive, and sometimes hostile, to concerns raised by investigative journalists.

The restrictions on Ukraine's media are more institutional than legal, Dr. Dyczok suggested. While about 90% of Ukraine's media is privately held, control is consolidated in the hands of a few oligarchs, often cozy with government officials in an environment rife with corruption. Indeed, allegations of corruption, some involving media ownership, led President Yushchenko to fire his entire government in early September 2005.

Perhaps the biggest problems with Ukraine's media, according to Dr. Dyczok, are the institutional attitudes that linger from the Soviet period. Many journalists define themselves in relation to the state, rather than in relation to an ideology or to objectivity. Journalists who lionized the Kuchma government while it held power have shifted gears to praise his successor-rival with equal effusion. Perhaps more surprising, many journalists who sided with the opposition in savaging Mr. Kuchma and his allies during the Orange Revolution remain in opposition to the new government.

According to Dr. Dyczok, most journalists in Ukraine simply are not familiar enough with the role that a free media ought to play in democratic society to perform effectively, and those in the media who are effective journalists are left fighting an uphill battle against inertia, media consolidation, and corruption to raise the standards of Ukrainian journalism.


Lunch Discussion:

Anthony Shadid, author, Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War; 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner; Islamic correspondent for the Washington Post; former visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center

Anthony Shadid described his new book chronicling the United States invasion of Iraq as a collaborative effort with people, staff, editors, and reporters. He said he was initially reluctant to undertake such an endeavor because, working as a reporter in Baghdad, he felt the story was too important for him to leave. He also thought that it might be too early to write a book as the ultimate outcome of U.S. intervention would take months or years to ascertain. He finally accepted the opportunity because it allowed him to write about the broader story of what was taking place.

Shadid identified two major themes of his book: the experiences of ordinary people in extraordinary times, and the consequences of two estranged cultures attempting to occupy the same space. He said he hoped to insert grey into a story that is perceived by many as black and white. He shared his difficulty dealing with such a complex environment by saying, "the longer I was there the less I understood it."

Shadid said that there were certain preconceived storylines surrounding U.S. intervention in Iraq. Words like liberation, democracy, and insurgency are overused and fail to convey the depth of the Iraqi experience. Voices that do not fit into this preexisting framework are often overlooked and ignored. Shadid sought to provide a space for those voices to be heard. He first spoke of Wamidh Nadhme—"the only person worth talking to." He said Nadhme was not afraid to say things that were breathtaking and provocative—his was a voice that splashed color on a dark landscape.

Another voice that illuminates the Iraqi landscape is that of a 14 year old girl, Amal, whose diary plays an important role in Shadid's book. He said her depiction of "Iraqis eating dry bread with tea" is indicative of the nation's predicament as a whole. Her words evoke images of Iraqis suffocating from years of repression, war, and sanctions.

Shadid said that he thought U.S. intervention in Iraq was a catalyst for events that no one forsaw. He eloquently expressed the myriad emotions he felt while watching Baghdad, "this most fabled Arab capital," fall. He said he understood he would only see a moment like this once in his lifetime and he would spend the rest of his life writing about it.


Panel II: Media in Conflict: Influencing Public Perception

Ralph Begleiter, Chair: Professor of Communication, University of Delaware; Former CNN World Affairs Correspondent
Bill Berkeley, author, The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa; former editorial writer, New York Times
Lukas Luwarso, Humphrey's Fellow, University of Maryland; Executive Secretary, Indonesian Press Council, Indonesia

Ralph Begleiter began the discussion by describing the role of the media not as experts but as interlocutors. He described the "CNN Effect"—the impact on policymaking of the ability of news agencies to share information worldwide, twenty-four hours a day—as a major phenomenon since he first since began working at CNN in the early 1980's. Although his experiences centered on the original cable news network, the phenomenon is now evident with myriad other news outlets such as Al-Jazeera and BBC News.

Begleiter asked what role news outlets have in shaping policy and acknowledged the difficulty in discerning the precise impact. He cited the 1986 uprising in the Philippines, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Tiananmen Square protests as examples of the media influencing state actions. He also discussed the possibility that the ubiquitous international presence of the media has placed greater significance on the shaping of public perceptions through the creation of the spectacle. He sighted the actions of the insurgency in Iraq in that their objective may not be to defeat the U.S. military, but to influence public perception of the conflict.

Bill Berkeley described the role of the media in Africa and the relationship between U.S. press coverage of the region with American public perceptions. American media images of Africa focus on the victims of conflict and center on famine and war in particular. He acknowledged that media portrayals of Africa have often had a positive effect, but intentionally focused in on their negative impact. Western media too often have had the effect of reinforcing racist attitudes, he argued. The New York Times Magazine, for example, ran a feature story generalizing an instance of cannibalism in the Congo across the entire continent and cited as a contributing factor to Africa's problems. He utilized the New York Times as an example because it often exhibits outstanding journalism, yet even it was subject to these ill-conceived stereotypes.

Berkeley argued that American media portrayals of Africa focus on the exotic—that somehow conflicts among African people are too difficult and strange for Americans to understand. Conflicts in Africa were struggles for power in a geopolitical space, similar to conflicts in other parts of the world—something media outlets could make evident if, instead of focusing on the victims, they did a better job analyzing the role of the beneficiaries. The logic of violence, power, and terror hold true in these places as well. He said the fundamental cause of conflict in Africa is tyrannical rulers who utilize ethnic motivations for their own ends.

Finally, Berkeley described the lack of attention American news outlets give to the continent of Africa and that this was a result of an indifferent U.S. public. Africa is an enormous, complex place, but a news company like the New York Times only devotes three permanent reporters to the continent. The sheer scope of the task makes it difficult for them to communicate the depth and breadth Africa's conflicts.

Lukas Luwarso described the role of journalism in Indonesia. He said that the Indonesian press has a tremendous amount of freedom since the establishment of democracy in the country. However, he contended that the press is irresponsible in its use of this freedom—it does not practice a code of ethics. Luwarso said the CNN Effect has had a profound impact on Indonesia and that the media there model themselves after the United States' outlets. At the same time, the media have little impact on the decision-making process of political leaders. They can humiliate the president and it will have little or no effect on government actions.

Luwarso detailed the media's blossoming since the fall of President Suharto's dictatorial regime in 1998. Before 1998, Indonesia had 200 print media, and the country had one television and one radio station, both restricted to entertainment content. Today, there are 1600 print media, 1700 radio outlets, and eleven television stations in Indonesia.

Luwarso went on to convey the difficulty in getting quality journalism in conflict stricken areas. In Indonesia, violent clashes most occur in rural remote locations whereas major news media are centered in urban hubs. This limits access and enhances the ability of the military to control what information is disseminated to the public. Moreover, he also emphasized the tendency of the media to become embroiled in conflicts and incite violence among warring groups. If a news source reports an attack by a Christian group on a Muslim group, it often leads to bloody retribution by the Muslims (and vice versa). Luwarso cited his own work at the Indonesian Press Council to encourage news outlets to slow down their reporting of violence in order to "lower the temperature of the conflict."

Drafted by Stephen Hendrickson and Evan Hensleigh

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