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Media Matters: January 19, 2006

19 January 2006, Volume 6, Number 1
By Julie Corwin

What does it take to attract the attention of U.S. television news cameras? Hundreds -- if not thousands -- of unnecessary deaths, large-scale movement of refugees, and/or senseless violence and mayhem provide no guarantee. Doctors without Borders, an international humanitarian group, recently issued its eighth annual list of the top 10 under-reported humanitarian stories of 2005. Included were stories such as the conflict in Chechnya, violence in Haiti, and the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While U.S. network nightly news programs all but ignore certain stories, such as Chechnya, they are covering more international news than 10 years ago.

"It was actually a very heavy year for the international beat. Twenty percent of the entire news hole was international stories, so over 3,000 minutes. And that was the heaviest year of international coverage since 1994. It was the heaviest in 12 years," said Andrew Tyndall, the publisher of the online journal "The Tyndall Report," which monitors the three major television networks' news broadcasts.

What were viewers seeing? The after-effects of the tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and the earthquake in Pakistan. Natural disasters, according to Tyndall, are more likely to be covered than disasters that are man-made, such as civil wars.

"We're talking about television news now. There�s one thing about natural disasters [and that] is that they have very vivid pictures. It's much, much more suited to that medium than say newspaper coverage," Tyndall said.

Natural disasters are also easier to report than conflicts where access may be difficult. "I think it is easier to -- for the media to cover natural disasters and also for the general public to immediately empathize with victims of a natural disaster because it is natural, because it is external, the causes are sudden and unexpected and people are all kind of blameless and affected by this outside force," said Nicholas de Torrente, executive director of Doctors without Borders in the United States.

"It is easier. The victims are, in a way, pure," he continued. "When you have a war situation, it's more complicated to understand what's going on but also you have this sense that there are lot of shades of gray rather than a clear black-and-white picture. And that makes reporting more difficult."

According to de Torrente, TV news executives say they ignore certain stories because of lack of interest from their audience. "One of the largest explanations that is always given is that there is no audience for these kinds of stories for the plight of people in the Congo, for instance, who are suffering [in] an ongoing war, or in southern Sudan, or in Chechnya," he said. "American people, or people in wealthy countries in general, are just not interested in these stories."

Doctors Without Borders lists the 10 most under-reported stories in 2005 as the humanitarian crises in Chechnya, Uganda, India, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Somalia, Haiti, and over HIV/AIDS tools.

Compared to the 1970s -- when as much as two-thirds of a television evening news broadcast could be devoted to foreign news -- coverage of international stories today has plummeted. One reason is cost of coverage.

In a May 2002 study, the U.S.-based Project for Excellence for Journalism disputed the notion that television news got "lighter" because viewers stopped being interested in "hard" news. Instead, the study says, the content changed because the corporations that were now running the television networks wanted to devote less budget money to producing the news.

According to the study, as a result of budget and staff cuts, TV networks must "jump from crisis to crisis, parachuting in reporters, producers, and photographers." Meanwhile, stories that are "medium-sized" and require more sustained attention suffer.

What are the American people interested in? Not Chechnya -- at least, judging by network news executives� decisions. Last year, according to Tyndall, the three U.S. networks together devoted only two minutes of the entire year's coverage to Chechnya compared with 169 minutes about the case of Terry Schiavo, a brain-dead woman in Florida whose family was locked in a legal dispute about whether to remove her feeding tube.

When television does decide to cover a story, a tsunami of money can pour in. According to de Torrente, a single TV story broadcast on the BBC last July on famine in Niger led to an outpouring of assistance. In addition, other television networks, including CNN, finally decided to cover the story.

"I think this year we had one very pure example of how media attention can spur action on the part of aid organizations and donors in response to crises," de Torrente said. "And that is what happened in Niger, which was a huge nutritional crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of children. That was completely ignored until the media did a report. There was a TV report in July. And you can really trace the increase of aid and the beginning of a real aid response to that TV report and the media attention that followed."

De Torrente said he and his colleagues would prefer that international assistance money was distributed according to need rather than fluctuating media attention. Still, he said, any kind of media attention is better than silence.

The Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders on 4 January released its annual global survey of press freedom, in which it reported that 63 journalists were killed in 2005 and some 1,300 were physically attacked. The same day, RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Mohammad Tahir spoke with Anabel Arki, head of the organization's post-Soviet section, about press-freedom issues in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL: During 2005, some 63 journalists were killed and 1,000 were attacked. What was the most dangerous zone for journalists in 2005?

Anabel Arki: The most dangerous zone in the world for journalists that year was probably without any doubt Iraq, because of the war. Many, many journalists were killed there.

RFE/RL: Were there any incidents reported from Turkmenistan?

Arki: We know that this year a Russian journalist from the state press agency RIA-Novosti -- his name is Viktor Panov -- and he has been accused of spying by the Turkmen authorities. He has been thrown out of the country by the authorities and he went back to Russia. It was in March 2005. There were several cases, but this is the only one that we investigated. There is very little information about what is happening in Turkmenistan because the country is quite closed. The regime of President [Saparmurat] Niyazov is very strong for the independent press and human rights defenders. The regime of the president controls entirely the country. All the media are controlled by the state and it is quite impossible for foreign journalists to get into Turkmenistan. They cannot get any visas. Their requests are rejected by the authorities and we have some journalists who told us they think there is a kind of blacklist for foreign journalists.

RFE/RL: In your previous reports Turkmenistan is always shown as one of the most repressive countries in the world. But what was the rank of this country in terms of media censorship for 2005?

Arki: For that year, there were no cases of censorship in Turkmenistan, as far as we were concerned. We know that Russian radio, Radio Mayak, had troubles last year. They had troubles broadcasting their programs in Turkmenistan because they have a station in Turkmenistan. They had technical problems to broadcast and the information director of the station said the Turkmen authorities wanted to sanction Radio Mayak. Radio Mayak was investigating discrimination against the Russian minority in the country, which is a problem there. So, they have been cut off from broadcasting -- it was in July last year.

RFE/RL: There is no indication that the situation regarding press freedom in Turkmenistan will get better in the coming year?

Arki: No, we don't think the situation will be better this year. Unfortunately the situation is very, very controlled. Everything is controlled by the president, who has been elected for life.

RFE/RL: In your report it shows that press freedom in Uzbekistan is also deteriorating. What was the situation in that country in 2005?

Arki: The situation in Uzbekistan is a little bit better than in Turkmenistan, but since the Andijon uprising in May 2005, the situation has been getting worse and worse for journalists working there and for freedom of the press and of expression in general. It was impossible for journalists to cover the events in Andijon. People got killed after those events, as you know, and the authorities officially recognize only 186 murdered people and actually it seems that it is probably from 500 to 1,000 people killed. So, the authorities are very afraid about a [possible] revolution in Uzbekistan and particularly an Islamist one. And that is why they try to control the media. The situation is getting worse and worse for journalists. During the year, after those terrible events, the British channel BBC got closed by the authorities. The Internews office also was closed in Uzbekistan in September of this year. And not so long ago, the Radio Free Europe [Radio Liberty] local bureau lost its accreditation to work officially in the country. So, the will of the current president, Islam Karimov, to control the media is quite obvious. They don't want any voice from outside to tell the truth or to criticize the authorities.

By Ahto Lobjakas

The European Commission said on 10 January that EU-funded television and radio broadcasts to Belarus will "definitely" start before the presidential elections in mid-March. The announcement came in response to reports that the EU would be unable or unwilling to speed up the tendering process after the elections were brought forward. A commission official said broadcasters seeking to win the EU contract must be able to provide preelection broadcasts to Belarus. The selections will be made before the end of the month.

The European Commission has sought to put to rest accusations that the EU is unwilling to take tough action against the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus.

Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said on 10 January that the ground-breaking 2 million-euro ($2.4 million) project to start independent media broadcasts to Belarus is on track. She said television and radio broadcasts will begin before the presidential elections, which were recently brought forward to 19 March.

"There will be specific TV and radio programs dedicated to the elections broadcast ahead of the election date," she said.

Polish media last week suggested the delay in the tender would prevent broadcasts from beginning in time for the elections. But Udwin said the contracts will be awarded according to who is able to guarantee preelection broadcasts. She added, however, that the broadcasts would not likely reach full strength until some time after the elections.

Udwin said the commission has whittled down the number of candidates to a shortlist of four, and that a final decision will be made within weeks.

"I can confirm it is definitely the case that there will be a decision on the successful candidate for the new contracting for broadcasting into Belarus in January," she said. "That will happen within the month of January -- so we're just a week or two away from that now."

The EU last year advertised for companies interested and able to conduct both television and radio broadcasts into Belarus. It said it was also looking for companies open to future expansion into other media like the Internet.

Udwin said the EU shortlist includes four consortiums, each made up of two companies. The teams include one with two Polish partners, a Russian and German partnership, one made up of two Latvian companies, and a Lithuanian and Belarusian combination.

The EU had set a turnover threshold, forcing smaller interested companies in neighboring Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia to seek other partners.

Under the terms of the tender, the broadcasts will take place in Russian and Belarusian. The commission has argued that Russian-language coverage has a greater chance of being understood in Belarus, and could also attract interest in neighboring regions in Ukraine and Russia.

Last year, the EU awarded a smaller, pilot contract to broadcast to Belarus to the German international news organization Deutsche Welle. The broadcasts started on 1 November and will initially run for 12 months.