10 December 2001


Coverage of Durban Conference Discussed; Renewed Focus on Middle East
Situation, Afghanistan, Terrorism also Reviewed by International Panel

NEW YORK, 6 December (UN Headquarters) -- The danger that journalists in search of a story might sometimes miss history was raised today by Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at a forum at UN Headquarters entitled, "News vs. Propaganda: The Gatekeeper’s Dilemma". The forum, arranged by the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI), also included Lakhdar Brahimi, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, and a number of international television and newspaper representatives.

Mrs. Robinson responded to criticism of the recent World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, which she said had been described as a well-intentioned, but ultimately flawed event.

Leading a discussion on media coverage as it related to the United Nations agenda for human rights and its forward-looking role in promoting tolerance and respect for diversity, she said the Durban conference was seen as a powerful and empowering forum for many people, amongst them refugees, asylum-seekers and young people. Speaking by video link from Geneva, she said those were populations who previously felt that did not have a voice. Their stories were often overshadowed by the media’s coverage of the Middle East issue that dominated the Conference.

Mr. Brahimi, who spoke by video link from Paris, said that until 11 September, the situation of Afghanistan, and the plight of the people there, suffered from an absence of interest from the media. He noted the extent to which things had changed. Last week, he said, there were 1,200 international correspondents covering the United Nations discussions in Bonn, Germany, on establishing an interim Government for Afghanistan.

Also taking part in today’s forum were Hafez Al Mirazi, Washington Bureau Chief of Al Jazeera; Steve Williams, Senior Editor of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World News; Karen Curry, Vice-President and New York Bureau Chief of Cable News Network (CNN); Mathatha Tsedu, Deputy Chief of News of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC); Abdel Bari Atwan, Editor-in-Chief of Al Quds Al-Arabi; and Barbara Crossette of the New York Times.

The forum was moderated by Shashi Tharoor, Interim Head of the United Nations Department of Public Information. He explained that the forum was being held in observance of Human Rights Day, traditionally 10 December. But the date had been changed this year, since 10 December, next Monday, was the day when the Secretary-General and United Nations would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

Mr. Tharoor said there was no question that news executives had an impact on the coverage of world events. That moulded the opinions of audiences, whether they were in Cairo or Sydney or in a small village in Bangladesh.

Mr. Tsedu said that as the host broadcaster, to the Durban conference his organization had now had a responsibility to familiarize itself with the issues that would be discussed at the Conference. That included looking at issues of racism and discrimination all over Africa, like slavery in Sudan.

Mr. Williams, referring to the decision of the United States and Israel to walk out of the Conference because of a disagreement over the language in the proposed texts of the Conference, said the BBC’s approach had been to simply tell the story of the Conference as it progressed.

Ms. Curry said CNN made great efforts to cover the conference in its breadth. That breadth, however, included coverage of a very legitimate news story: the walkout of the United States and Israeli delegations and the issue of Zionism.

Mr. Al-Mirazi, said he felt some of the Western media coverage was decidedly biased, matching the attitudes of their governments that the situation in the Middle East should not be discussed specifically in Durban.

Opening Remarks

SHASHI THAROOR, Interim Head of the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI), moderator of the forum, welcomed guests and panellists. He said today's forum was being held in observance of Human Rights Day, traditionally 10 December. But the date had been changed this year, since on 10 December, next Monday, all eyes would be on Oslo, where the Secretary-General and United Nations would receive the Nobel Peace prize.

He said today’s forum, "News vs. Propaganda: The Gatekeeper’s Dilemma" would focus on one of the most complex and perplexing issues facing the world today: the role and responsibility of the media in covering explosive issues of race and ethnic discrimination in their reporting of world events. There was no question that news executives had an impact on the coverage of world events. That moulded the opinions of audiences, whether they were in Cairo or Sydney or in a small village in Bangladesh. He said today's discussions would focus mostly on television news, since its influence was huge -- crossing national borders and posing the question whether international news coverage and reporting had additional responsibilities.

For its part, he said, the United Nations had helped to articulate a body of human rights laws and standards that had influenced governments all over the world. It was the Organization's duty, therefore, to see that human rights norms and standards were applied equally and in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Some questions he would like the panellists to focus on during the discussions included, what are the responsibilities of the press concerning coverage of the most sensitive human rights issues such as race, identity and culture? What affected the decision-making process in the heat of the moment? Had news coverage following 11 September exacerbated stereotypes that could linger long after events had passed into history?

Before giving the floor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, joining the discussion via videoconference from Geneva, Mr. Tharoor said that Western media had been critical of the World Conference against Racism, Racial, Xenophobia and Other Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa, from 31 August to 9 September, arguing that it inflamed intolerance rather than inspiring new commitment to fighting such behavior. As Mrs. Robinson had served as the Conference's Secretary-General, Mr. Tharoor wondered about her opinion on the notion held by others that news coverage had distorted the perception of the Conference and had focused exclusively on the contentious Middle East issue.

Mrs. ROBINSON, speaking from Geneva via videoconference, said that in some media the world conference was portrayed as a well intentioned, but ultimately flawed, conference. At the worst, it was seen as another forum that was a part of an ongoing plot to attack the West, and in particular, Israel. But Durban was seen by many as a powerful and empowering conference for refugees, asylum-seekers, and young people -- people who could not previously have been heard. In the rush to get the story, the media sometimes missed history. Many media, however, did give tremendous resources to cover the conference.

MATHATHA TSEDU, Deputy Chief of News, South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), said the SABC had two responsibilities for Durban: it was the host broadcaster, and it was the broadcaster for all of Africa. As for its own national responsibilities, it was understood that South Africa came out of a very racist past. In preparing for the conference, many decisions had to be taken. They had to build up the issues that were going to a part of the conference, and that included sending reporters to the preparatory committee meetings in Geneva. It also looked at issues of racism and discrimination all over Africa, including ongoing issues like slavery in the Sudan. He said the SABC prepared 200 staff members to go to Durban, and preparation meant making them aware of the issues that would be addressed at the conference. It was understood that many issues would not get time in the spotlight, and the SABC tried to get these issues some attention.

KAREN CURRY, of the Cable News Network (CNN), said that on certain occasions it was perhaps true that charges of bias could be leveled against the news media. That could have been particularly true of the Durban Conference. For CNN's part, planning had begun for coverage of the conference in the spring and taped segments highlighting viewpoints from all over the world had been prepared. The Network had made great efforts to cover the conference in its breadth. That breadth, however, included coverage of a very legitimate news story: the walkout of the United States and Israeli delegations and the issue of Zionism.

STEVE WILLIAMS, Senior Editor of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), said the job of the media was to tell it as it was, "warts and all". The BBC believed in fairness and that it was important to point out racism wherever it existed. The BBC’s approach had been to simply tell the story of the conference as it progressed. Following its conclusion, the network had aired an hour-long report on various aspects of the issues that had been under consideration. He added that the BBC had indeed reported in full the hypocrisy and intolerance displayed by some of the participants in the conference. He believed that the BBC was generally quite strong at covering the "360-degree depth" and range of most stories, and in the case of the conference it had included taped discussions on race, sex and other forms of intolerance, as well as racism.

HAFEZ AL-MIRAZI, Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Jazeera, said while it considered the Middle East story an integral part of the Durban Conference, it was not the only issue. The Western media was decidedly biased, matching the attitudes of their governments. The idea that the situation in the Middle East should not be discussed at all was the same as their government’s attitude. Durban was the first item in Al-Jazeera during the Conference because the Middle East was part of it. It was very important for the news media not to decide on its own what should be broadcast, basing it on what was politically correct in Washington or London.

ABDEL BARI ATWAN, Editor-in-Chief of Al Quds Al-Arabi, said he expected the conference to exert pressure on Israel, and on the Zionist movement. But there was a huge political and media gap between the first and third world. That gap allowed the Conference to be hijacked and other issues to be diverted from. The pressure exerted on the Conference, even by South Africa, which wanted a peaceful conclusion to the Conference, was a setback.

BARBARA CROSSETTE, correspondent of The New York Times, said she was not in Durban or in the United States at the time. In Canada, the coverage on the CBC was focused mainly on Canadian issues. It was not just on the Middle East. If you watched the news in Canada, you would have thought the only issue was about indigenous issues. She took exception to the idea that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) all thought this Conference came out fine. Some Asian NGOs felt that the caste system, for example, was ignored, and it was not just the Middle East situation that was glossed over. The preparatory conferences were very hard to report in newspapers –- television could do it better by preparing documentaries in advance. The Beijing conference (on women) for example, was badly covered in many ways because there was not a lot of preparatory coverage.

Responding to comments by the panellists, Mrs. ROBINSON said she agreed that preparation for coverage of the Conference had certainly been important. The Conference had sparked an extraordinarily important dialogue, but it had only been the beginning of global consideration of important and sensitive issues. It had been painful and difficult, but if one looked at the strong networks that had developed around some of the issues such as the Dalits, the overall value of the process could be seen. So while the issue of discrimination based on caste had not made it into the outcome document, the dialogue the issue had generated had been invaluable.

She said language about Israel appeared in the final document of the Conference. Specific language about other countries and their problems had not been included. That may perhaps be due to the strength of feeling about the Middle East issue in Durban. And though there might have been NGOs that felt that other issues needed to be addressed, it was true that part of the negotiation process at conferences such as the one held in Durban was that a successful outcome required consensus.

She asked members of today’s panel about plans of their respective organizations to follow up the Conference, particularly in light of 11 September. She said she had seen far more xenophobia and bias since the tragic events of that day, hearing direct accounts from the victims of discrimination. The agenda from Durban had become infinitely more urgent and serious, and that was perhaps not coming through in the media, particularly its willingness to examine the roots of racism, hatred and intolerance.

Mr. AL-MIRAZI of Al-Jazeera said one grave situation following the events of 11 September had been that security measures in the United States had taken on the appearance of institutionalized discrimination. As an example, he was filling in at today’s forum for Al-Jazeera's Chief Editor who had been unable to attend because, as an Arab male aged 18-45 and travelling on an Egyptian passport, he could not enter the United States for an additional period of 25 days for a background check.

He said much work had to be done, particularly by the Western media to mitigate the perception that all Arabs and Muslims were evil. He noted that Al-Jazeera's annual talk show on human rights, airing this Saturday, which had usually been devoted to humanitarian issues in the Arab world, would this year unfortunately be based on human rights abuses in the United States, particularly those based on types of discrimination and xenophobia. It was important to note, he added, that the United States appeared to differentiate between human rights and civil rights.

Ms. CURRY of CNN said that, before the Durban Conference, the United States was consumed with stories of racial profiling and race relations. It was an important story. Americans were realizing that America was a very diverse society, and it was dealing with all the challenges that came with that. On 11 September, many different kinds of people were affected by that. The media had tried to explore what it was like to live in other communities in America today -- what it was like to live as an Arab-American post-11 September.

Ms. CROSSETTE said that almost 10 years ago The New York Times did a great story on Islam in America. Soon, the Muslim population would pass the Jewish minority in the country. Since 11 September, there had been very few violent acts. There had been discrimination and fear. It would be interesting to note how many Arab journalists had talked to American families and asked how they felt about the changing society, with the Arab population growing.

Mr. ATWAN of Al Quds Al-Arabi said Muslims faced a lot of pressure in the Western world. They were told the Western world meant personal liberties and freedom. In Britain, there were emergency laws that, by and large, only affected Arabs and Muslims. If something was written, or hinted, that could be linked with terrorist organizations, you could be locked up without a trial. He said he received death threats because he expressed his point of view. One of them came from the United States, and it was delivered to his house. All Arabs were accused, and all were under scrutiny. When the IRA bombed London, the British Government did not ask the Irish to pledge their loyalty to the British Government. But Arabs in England were asked to do so.

Mr. WILLIAMS of the BBC said he agreed with Mrs. Robinson that coming to grips with issues such as racism, hatred and racial discrimination was very painful. The only explanation for the tragic events of 11 September could be nothing but hatred. The BBC's ethnically diverse staff had provided the opportunity to discuss myriad sensitive issues. Employing an ethnically diverse staff was a sure way to move forward discussions of race. His network had been provided with the opportunity to discuss the events of 11 September with many people living in the Arab nations and around the world.

Mr. TSEDU of the SABC said, as a black journalist in an environment that was probably still overwhelmingly white, the challenge was to ensure that the sorts of hang-ups that go along with growing up in a country where racism had been institutionalized could be overcome. Whites needed to be coaxed out of their own sense of superiority. The way to do that was to stop treating people like they were homogeneous stereotypes. That was particularly true of perceptions painted of people from the African continent. He added that, early in his career, people in the United States would ask him wonderingly if he had ever tasted ice cream or how he had arrived in that country, as if he had come by elephant.

He said the general perception, based on news coverage, was that nothing else was happening in the third world but wars and famine. The world media had the responsibility to move out of the notion of "parachute journalism" -- jumping into "bloody" situations and "moving on when the blood dried up". It seemed as though only very critical and horrendous incidents made it into news coverage today. If the perception that every Muslim was Osama Bin Ladin was ever going to change, the world media must accept its responsibility to change its coverage not just of a single story, but of an entire region of the world.

Mrs. ROBINSON spoke of the divide in perceptions between the first and third world, especially post-11 September. She said it was important to have diversity in the media workplace. A plan of action was necessary, coming out of the Durban Conference, but it was now even more necessary because of the 11 September events. This was the bleakest of times that she had known in human rights. And in bleak times, there was a need to go beyond dialogue, there needed to be a plan of action.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, speaking by video link from Paris, said the interest of the press and media in general was certainly welcome. Until 11 September, the Afghanistan situation was suffering from an absence of interest from the media. It was not only the media –- it was also ignored by diplomats and governments. In Bonn, there were up to 1,200 correspondents covering the conference, which was unheard of in Germany.

He said it should be recognized that the sudden interest did not start with the realization that the people of Afghanistan deserved more interest. The interest was triggered because of 11 September. Until now, there was probably more interest in that aspect of the crisis in Afghanistan, rather than the crisis faced by the people in Afghanistan. Any interest was welcome, and support was welcome.

Ms. CURRY of CNN said she believed CNN had done quite a good job, contextually, covering the situation in Afghanistan. Indeed, the network already had a team on the ground in that country on 11 September. She noted that CNN had never lost track of the country and had covered the political and social issues of the country as best it could.

Mr. WILLIAMS said the media had been accused of sensationalism, but unfortunately the story was pretty sensational on its own. The BBC's position had always been to invest in first-hand reporting. It had been no accident that BBC had reporters in place when Kabul had been liberated. Indeed, the network had several reporters that had been working in the region for several years. Those journalists understood the language and culture of Afghanistan, and even though "locals" might not have agreed with their opinions, they had been respected.

Mr. AL-MIRAZI said the motto of Al-Jazeera was that it was covering both sides of the story. It was modelled after the BBC. The problem was when there were double or triple standards. To use an old journalistic phrase when it "bled it led" on 11 September, but "bleeding" did not lead after the bombing started on 7 October. He said one rule had to be stayed with until the end. Al-Jazeera was not picked by the Taliban because they liked it. Bin Laden and the Taliban people should hear all sides of the story. Coverage was interrupted whenever there was a news conference from Washington or London, and Al-Jazeera gave Bin Laden only 10 minutes.

Ms. CROSSETTE said television operated at a disadvantage because of the time element. Newspapers could get so many more words into a story than television could. Concerning having people in the region, she said that, with the exception of CNN, reporting in the early days of the bombing, showed a lack of understanding of the situation on the ground, which was appalling. This war was being covered from the Pentagon. The situation in Afghanistan was much more complicated than people could think. Afghan people were starving to death last year and freezing to death last year, and very few people paid attention to it.

Mr. ATWAN said a major problem of news coverage had generally been "enlargement of the enemy". The world had been told that events of 11 September had precipitated the "Third World War". Where was the objectivity in that? he asked. Having been to Afghanistan, as well as having interviewed Osama Bin Laden, he could say for certain that the country had been completely ruined. There was no way a sustained attack could be mounted against the West. He said it was time for the international media to show some sympathy to the innocent people that were being killed there. Where that had been the case, Arab journalists were considered propagandists.

He said the overall response of the United Nations community to the situation in Afghanistan had been lacking. He said he had been appalled when the representatives of the Organization had said it lacked the capabilities to intervene, in the case of prisoners of war at Mazar-i-Sharif.

Mr. TSEDU said that the beauty of CNN had always been its presence on the scene as events unfolded, as well as its ability to bring events to the world in a timely manner. But it had been a terrible disappointment that CNN had agreed with the Bush Administration not to air the taped messages of Osama Bin Laden. A war, he said, involved two sides. If the world could hear what President Bush and Pentagon officials had to say, why could it not hear Bin Laden? Why were announcements issued by the Pentagon considered as facts?

Ms. CURRY said that the first tapes were aired on CNN when they were coming in to Al-Jazeera. At the same time, she said there was quite a distinction between airing a pre-taped message from Osama Bin Laden and a press conference held by President Bush, where he could be queried by the White House and international press corps.

Mr. BRAHIMI, addressing a previous statement, said the United Nations was not involved with putting anyone in prisoner camps in Iraq. On the United Nations presence in Afghanistan, he said the United Nations was not present in Afghanistan at all; perhaps, the United Nations could have tried to have done something if it had a peacekeeping mission there. There were only local employees who were trying to deliver food to people. It was not realistic to expect the United Nations to take charge of thousands of people struggling in Afghanistan.

On the reporting on the Afghanistan situation, he said some outlets had people permanently placed there. But how many of those reports were seen in the West before 11 September? he asked. In one week, following the terrorist attacks, there were more reports on the situation of women in Afghanistan than there had been in the previous five or six years. About propaganda, when a country was fighting a war, the interests in achieving the end of that war take precedence over high moral ground and high moral principles. On xenophobia, he said people in the West were more and more understanding, open and tolerant than they were before.

Questions and Answers

When the forum was opened to questions from the audience, the panel was asked about the possibility of infiltration of the news media by various intelligence agents and CIA representatives. Both Mr. WILLIAMS and Ms. CURRY said that they were not aware of any such cases in their organizations.

Asked about television footage of Palestinians celebrating the horrific attacks on the United States 11 September, and the fate of the Associated Press journalist who had reported on that event, Mr. ATWAN said the correspondent was still alive. At the same time, he noted that the world's view of that incident had been manipulated by the media. There could always be people sympathetic to a cause was perhaps normal. The Ku Klux Klan existed in the United States. And so, along with the journalists, doctors and belly dancers that lived in the Arab countries, why were those countries not also entitled to have a "few lunatics who supported Bin-Laden"?

There was a question on the discussion of racism in relation to ongoing hostilities.

Ms. CURRY said racism existed all over the world. The actions of 11 September were also was related to hatred. Organizations covering this war were struggling to make the connection.

Mr. AL-MIRAZI said American anchors wore the American flag on the pin, and used the term "we". Patriotism and journalism should be not linked. Al-Jazeera was grilled on how it received the tape of Bin-Laden, which had been delivered to it. An American journalist would not be asked about his sources. He said there was racism in that.

To a question on whether Arab journalists felt pressure since 11 September, Mr. ATWAN said Al Quds Al-Arabi was under suspicion all the time. Every day, he received requests to be interviewed. At all times, those in his they had to prove their innocence.

Asked why there was such a "gaping hole" in the coverage of the anti-war movement, Ms. Crossette said the peace movement was not as large as many people who were involved in the movement wished it were.

Ms. CURRY said that in the early days of the current conflict, CNN covered the anti-war movement; but it did not develop to the degree that other anti-war movements had. However, activities of the Justice Department were moving to the forefront.

A questioner asked why, when there was a bombing in Jerusalem, there were three hours of coverage. When five Palestinian children were killed, it received only a headline.

Ms. CURRY noted that the Israelis did not necessarily feel that CNN was sufficiently balanced. CNN had more staff in the Middle East than most American television networks.

Mr. WILLIAMS said there were many very good American outlets, but on the Middle East stories about 90 per cent of the outlets appeared to be in the Israeli camp. The BBC offered a different perspective; it had had a good response in the United States, perhaps because people were seeing the story in a different way for the first time.

Mr. AL-MIRAZI said the Arab media had "pushed the envelope" and been critical of their own governments. The media had a responsibility to urgently try to achieve balance and objectivity.

Ms. CURRY said CNN had a tremendous commitment to being present in the world, and living in the areas of the stories it covered. No network was perfect, but CNN prided itself in speaking the language of the people it covered. On the issue of human rights, she said journalists were not crusaders, they covered events and issues that were raised. While she and other reporters believed in human rights it was going too far to say a news organization should carry forward any human rights agenda. News organizations covered events, and if situations were improved by that coverage, that was a bonus.

Mr. TSEDU said it was clear the media had a responsibility to protect the poor and the weak. The rich and the mighty could protect themselves. If there was any bias it should be for the poor and weak.

Mr. ATWAN agreed, saying the media should not be intimidated by the events it covered. News agencies should be biased toward human rights issues, civil liberties and freedom of expression. Journalists had a duty to call for fact-finding missions to study the situation in Afghanistan, so that the oppressed people there could be protected.

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