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UN: Forum Examines Role Of Media In Feeding Discrimination

  • Robert McMahon

The events following the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States have focused new attention on how major media handle the challenges of covering wars and issues such as human rights. A recent UN-sponsored forum on the subject found journalists from the developing and developed world agreeing on the need for fairness but differing in some key ways over how to portray the war and U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

United Nations, 10 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives of some of the world's major media organizations have received a fresh reminder about the need to strive for objectivity in covering topics such as war, terrorism, and human rights.

A forum sponsored by the United Nations on 6 December grouped prominent journalists from media including the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera TV, and "The New York Times." They engaged in a sometimes spirited debate about the focus and depth of their news coverage, especially in relation to events after 11 September.

The Washington bureau chief of Al-Jazeera, Hafez Al-Mirazi, defended his station's coverage of the war in Afghanistan against charges it was showing a pro-Taliban bias. He said the views of the Taliban and accused terrorist Osama bin Laden are a necessary part of the story of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Al-Mirazi stressed that Al-Jazeera was not giving equal weight to the words of accused terrorists and the West: "We put 90 percent [of programming] coming out of Washington and London. We interrupted our daily programming to put news conferences by President [George W.] Bush, Secretary [of State Colin] Powell, Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld. And 10 minutes [or] 20 minutes only of tapes from bin Laden every two or three weeks bothered people and made them forget the criteria of balance and objectivity."

The deputy chief of news for the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Mathatha Tsedu, said he was "terribly disappointed" by CNN's decision to comply with a U.S. government request to limit the showing of taped messages from bin Laden. Tsedu accused CNN of overtly siding with the Bush administration and presenting its views on the conflict in Afghanistan as fact.

"When the announcement comes from the Pentagon, it is announcement of a fact," he said. "That has been very problematic for us as a corporation that uses a lot of CNN stuff."

Karen Curry, a vice president at CNN, said the network still broadcasts excerpts of bin Laden's comments. But she said there is a major difference between broadcasting live press conferences in Washington and videotapes in which an accused terrorist's view goes unchallenged.

"The difference between a tape from bin Laden, to whom no one is able to address questions, query, ask him to back up statements that he's making, and a Bush press conference where he puts forth his point of view and then the press corps -- not just the U.S. press corps but the international press corps -- can query him and have him explain and justify what he's saying, I think, is quite a distinction," Curry said.

Steve Williams, a senior editor of the BBC World Service, says it is still difficult to grasp the level of hatred that led to the attacks of 11 September. But he said the BBC has tried to improve its coverage of issues such as religious struggles and race by employing an ethnically diverse group of journalists. This diversity, Williams said, helped his network deal with the sensitivities of covering the terrorist investigation when the suspects were reported to be Muslims. Williams said the BBC found in its reports from various capitals after 11 September a surprising gap in perceptions between the media of the developed and developing world.

This was especially true, he said, in the way bin Laden was perceived: "Most people, I think, in Britain and America would instantly assume that Osama bin Laden is guilty, and two-thirds of the rest of the world were extremely skeptical of that point of view."

Addressing the forum from Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson expressed alarm at a rise in discrimination against Arabs and Muslims in Western countries. Robinson says her office is receiving reports of discrimination on a daily basis. She also cited reports from the UN refugee agency indicating a sharp drop in the number of refugees and asylum seekers accepted in Western states. Robinson says the Western media is declining to cover this side of the story.

She says it has also failed to probe the reasons why support exists for those who staged the 11 September attacks: "I don't see this as yet coming through in the coverage of 11 September, the willingness to go deeper. The willingness to look more at the roots, including the roots of the occupation for 34 years of the [Palestinian] territories. It doesn't justify [the attacks], but it is part of the problem."

Another top UN official speaking to the forum, special envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi, welcomed the new media attention on Afghanistan. Speaking from Paris, Brahimi said Afghanistan had been ignored by media for a decade despite its immense problems -- but managed to attract 1,200 journalists to the just-completed political talks he brokered outside of Bonn, Germany.