16 November 2001, Volume
COUNCIL OF EUROPE MOVES TO BAN INTERNET HATE SPEECH.
The Council of Europe (CE) is drafting a side agreement to its cybercrime convention which would ban racist content and hate speech on the Internet, reports the European Journalism Center (EJC), citing "The New York Times". If approved by the CE's 43 member states, the side agreement will compel signatories to ban racist web content and online hate speech originating within their borders or "aimed at an audience in another country." The convention, set for ratification in Budapest on 23 November, defines activities such as online fraud, child pornography, and hacking as cybercrimes. The CE had tried to include online racist content and hate speech in the convention's definition of cybercrime, but the U.S. resisted the move, citing its First Amendment free speech protections. For more, see http://press.coe.int/cp/2001/646a(2001).htm. (International Freedom of Expression eXchange Clearing House Communique, 13 November)OCTOBER CIS MEDIA NEWSLETTER ISSUED.
The October 2001 issue of the "European Institute for the Media Newsletter" on media developments in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) appeared on 13 November. There is information in five categories for each country: media news; media and government; media law; media conferences; and new media technology provided by EIM correspondents in 12 countries of the former Soviet Union that are now members of the CIS. The EIM bears sole responsibility for the content of these reports. This newsletter is produced as part of the EIM program "Media for Democracy in the CIS (2000-2003)" and is partly funded by the Commission of the European Union through its Initiative for Human Rights and Democracy. The newsletter is also available in Russian. For more, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. ("European Institute for the Media CIS Newsletter," 13 November)
The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO), a network of editors, media executives, and leading journalists in Southeastern Europe, condemned the violent attack on Nikolle Lesi, publisher of the independent Albanian newspaper, "Koha Jone." On 8 November, Lesi was assaulted in Tirana by an unidentified assailant, who attacked the publisher and threatened him with a gun. Apparently, the attack was related to articles published in "Koha Jone." (SEEMO Press Release, 14 November)
JOURNALISTS' ORGANIZATION TO FREEZE CONTACTS.
Yerevan Press Club (YPC) Chairman Boris Navasardian told a press conference in Yerevan on 13 November that his organization has decided to freeze contacts with Azerbaijani journalists due to the hostility and intolerance to which visiting Armenian journalists have been recently subjected in Azerbaijan, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The YPC and similar organizations have been organizing regular exchanges with Azerbaijan since 1996 with the aim of creating what Navasardian termed "an appropriate atmosphere for the improvement of relations between our peoples and countries." But, Navasardian continued, mutual visits in recent months have proven counter-productive, and the most recent visit to Baku by a group of journalists from Armenia and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic gave rise to what he termed "anti-Armenian hysteria." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November)
JOURNALISTS ARRESTED, ASSAULTED BY POLICE.
On 15 November, the staff of the banned weeklies "Milletin sesi" and "Bakinski bulvar", along with colleagues from other banned newspapers, tried to conduct a picket in front of the monument to the founder of Azerbaijani print media, Hassan Bey Zerdabi. Policemen from the Sabayil District Police Department dispersed the demonstration, arresting and beating journalists. Editor in Chief of "Milletin sesi" Shahbaz Khuduoglu; Elmar Husseynov, the founder of "Bakinski bulvar"; and a third unidentified journalist were arrested. Their arrest was followed by a violent attack by the police. Khuduoglu was attacked by at least 10 policemen, while several militia attacked Husseynov. Other journalists, including women, were also violently assaulted. (Journalists' Trade Union, 15 November)EDITORS PROTEST RESTRICTIONS ON NEWSPAPER DISTRIBUTION.
Editors of Azerbaijani media outlets met on 13 November with Baku Mayor Hadjibala Abutalibov and presidential administration official Ali Hasanov to protest Abutalibov's systematic destruction of newspaper kiosks belonging to the Gaya distribution network, Turan reported. Gaya owner Hanguseyn Aliyev said he believes the Azerbaijani authorities want to eliminate any competition prior to privatizing the state-owned periodicals distribution network. Also on 13 November, media editors decided to stage a picket in Baku on 15 November to protest the enforced closure of the newspapers "Bakinskii bulvard" and "Milletin sesi." But on 14 November Abutalibov rejected their request for permission to do so, Turan reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November)
INDEPENDENT PAPER CLOSED.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) denounced a Belarusian High Economic Court decision to shut down the Hrodno-based independent weekly "Pahonya." On 13 November, the court found "Pahonya" guilty of insulting President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and publishing the statements of an unregistered civic organization, according to local and international press reports. The newspaper had received two prior warnings on these charges, on 17 November 2000 and in early September 2001. Before the second warning, the regional Prosecutor-General's Office confiscated "Pahonya's" print run and initiated criminal charges against the paper. "Pahonya's" Editor in Chief Mikola Markevich plans to appeal the decision and will publish the newspaper on the Internet, local sources reported. (Committee to Protect Journalists Press Release, 14 November)
TELEVISION MOGUL DETAINED.
Television mogul Vladimir Zelezny was detained on 13 November and spent the night in police custody, CTK and international agencies reported. A police investigator said the Prosecutor-General's Office is expected to ask the court that Zelezny be placed in "preventive detention." He is charged with "attempting to cause financial damage to a creditor." Zelezny already faced a related charge in April, but was released from detention. Zelezny is suspected of attempting to inflict on the U.S. Central European Media owned by businessman Ronald Lauder damages of about 900 million crowns (over $24 million). ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November)PREMIER VOICES SUPPORT FOR RFE/RL.
In Austin on 7 November, Milos Zeman discussed the current economic recession and ways to deal with it with Texas Governor Rick Perry. CTK reported that Zeman is interested in attracting modern communication technology investments to the Czech Republic. Upon his arrival in Washington later that day, Zeman told journalists that if the U.S. Senate approves a House of Representatives bill on launching Radio Free Afghanistan, his government will approve its operation from Prague, under the patronage of RFE/RL. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November)
BROADCASTING COMMITTEE: THREE TV STATIONS ENOUGH.
Peeter Sookruus, the head of the Culture Ministry Media and Copyright Department, announced on 6 November that the Broadcasting Licenses Committee had decided that three nationwide TV stations are enough for Estonia, BNS reported the next day. Taking into account the realistic volume of the Estonian TV advertising market, the television channels' practices thus far, and the need to create the necessary conditions for the development of digital broadcasting, the committee urged the Culture Ministry not to issue another nationwide television broadcasting license earlier than 2005. The three stations are the state-owned Eesti Television (ETV), and the foreign-owned commercial stations TV-3 and Kanal 2. The license of another commercial station, TV-1, was revoked in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline." 22 October 2001) because it failed to pay transmission fees. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 November)
MEDIA WATCHDOG SLAMS PANNON RADIO.
The media watchdog of the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT) said on 14 November that Pannon Radio is "solely committed to the dissemination of an extremist ideology" bearing the mark of "far-right nationalism and of conspiracy theories," Hungarian media reported. The ORTT report said that the radio broadcasts programs opposed to liberalism, globalization, and multinational companies, while also promoting hatred against Roma and homosexuals, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. In so doing, the report said, Pannon Radio violates the media law and the constitution and by disseminating only the views of the Hungarian Justice and Life Party ignores its obligation to provide balanced information. The report recommends imposing a 2-3 million forint ($7,059-$10,588) fine on the station. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November)
An international human rights organization reported that a court in Djalalabad on 13 November sentenced journalist Samagan OrozAliyev on 1 November to nine years' imprisonment on charges of blackmail, falsification of documents, illegal possession of arms, and resisting the police. OrozAliyev was arrested in May shortly after he arrived in Djalalabad to make a documentary on official corruption. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November)
EDITOR'S TRIAL POSTPONED.
The trial of the former editor in chief of the Podgorica daily "Dan" was postponed on 5 November after defense counsel requested the presiding judge be exempted, alleging political bias. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has filed private charges against Vladislav Asanin over claims printed in the daily concerning the Balkan cigarette-smuggling scandal. The defense lawyer claimed the judge was a friend of the president of the Podgorica preliminary court, who had earlier sentenced Asanin to five months in prison on similar charges filed by controversial businessman Stanko "Cane" Subotic. The judge rejected the lawyer's claims and Djukanovic's lawyer labeled the initiative as an attempt "to undermine these court proceedings." Commenting on the charges against him, Asanin said that he had been accused of personal bias against the president, but he insisted that he had merely been doing his job. ("ANEM Weekly Media Update," 3-9 November)PRESIDENT DENIES PERSECUTION OF JOURNALISTS.
On 5 November, Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic rejected claims that journalists are being persecuted in Montenegro. He also denied that state security groups are planning to assassinate Ivo Pukanic, director of "Nacional," the Zagreb weekly which has publicized several controversial claims about a Balkan cigarette-smuggling ring. Djukanovic said the alarm had been raised by "a flood of misinformation and political speculation" and that the interior minister had denied these charges in writing. The president stated that his legal case against the former editor of the Podgorica daily "Dan" "cannot be interpreted" as "harassment of opposition journalists." ("ANEM Weekly Media Update," 3-9 November)DIRECTOR OF RTV MONTENEGRO ELECTED.
Miodrag Vucinic was appointed director of Radio Television Montenegro on 5 November. The managing board emphasized the need to transform RTV Montenegro into a public broadcaster as soon as possible. ("ANEM Weekly Media Update," 3-9 November)
BALKAN STABILITY PACT CRITICIZES GOVERNMENT SUBORDINATION OF NEWS AGENCY.
In a letter to Romanian authorities, the Balkan Stability Pact on 8 November called on the government to revoke an ordinance subordinating the national news agency Rompres to the control of the Public Information Ministry, AP and Romanian media reported. Michael Zenner, the chairman of the pact's Media Task Force, wrote that the pact's Charter for Media Freedom, which the Romanian government has endorsed, states that "publicly owned media should serve the interests of the public, and not of parties in power." A recent report by an independent Romanian organization that analyzed news bulletins on five television stations showed that the government and the ruling Social Democratic Party have been allotted 10 times more coverage than opposition parties. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 November)
DORENKO GIVEN FOUR-YEAR SUSPENDED SENTENCE.
A Moscow court on 9 November convicted television talk show host Sergei Dorenko of "aggravated hooliganism" for running down a pedestrian with his motorbike in April, gave him a four-year suspended jail term, and ordered him to pay 10,200 rubles ($350) in damages, Russian and Western news agencies reported. Dorenko is currently seeking a seat on the Moscow city duma, but the court decision does not prevent him for running for that office. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 November)HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH URGES U.S. TO RAISE PRESS VIOLATIONS.
On the eve of the U.S.-Russia summit, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged President George W. Bush to make use of new opportunities to raise human rights concerns. HRW noted that "freedom of expression has seen important setbacks" in recent months. The Russian government has imposed restrictions on major broadcast outlets, journalists and activists have been harassed for critical reporting, and there have been trials of journalists and scholars on unfounded charges of espionage. These trends point to "the resurgence of the Federal Security Service (the former KGB) as an institution set on curtailing civic and political freedoms." (Human Rights Watch Press Release, 12 November)PUTIN SAYS U.S. LOSING INFORMATION WAR WITH TERRORISTS.
President Vladimir Putin said in his interview with ABC's Barbara Walters that the United States is "to a well-known degree now losing the war [with terrorism] not in the military sphere but in the information area," according to a transcript of the program reported by Interfax on 8 November. He added that in his view, the terrorists are acting more aggressively and presenting their positions better and more emotionally than the United States. Putin also said Russia's involvement with Iran's nuclear program will not lead to the production of an Iranian atomic bomb. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 November)RUSSIA SIGNS PRIVACY PROTECTION CONVENTION.
First Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Avdeev signed in Strasbourg on 8 November the international convention on the protection of information about individuals, Interfax-Europe reported. The convention sets rules against the misuse of such information and governs the sharing of such information across national borders. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 November)CONTROVERSY OVER REALITY TV SHOW CONTINUES.
The Union of Orthodox Citizens on 13 November said that the showing of the "Behind Glass" reality television show by TV-6 showed its connection with totalitarianism, Interfax reported. But First Deputy Media Minister Mikhail Seslavinskii said that the show does not violate any existing laws, the news service said. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November)CHECHEN STATE RADIO RESUMES BROADCASTING.
Chechen state radio has resumed broadcasting, having suspended broadcasts in October 1999 when the current war began, Chechnya's Deputy Media Minister Yurii Rossokhan told Interfax on 13 November. A new Chechen newspaper began publication in August after repeated delays. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November)NOVGOROD GOVERNOR SAYS PEOPLE 'DISDAIN' MOSCOW-BASED NEWS.
At a recent press conference in Omsk, Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak said that one of Russia's chief political problems is the gulf between the federal center and regions, nns.ru reported on 7 November, citing the Omsk newspaper "Chetverg." According to Prusak, Moscow and its perceptions are all "remote from the reality of Russian regions," and people in the regions view with some disdain the information that central journalists dispense. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November)ZYUGANOV SAYS MEDIA TRIED TO HIDE GROWING SUPPORT FOR COMMUNISTS.
Speaking on 8 November after the 7 November holiday, Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov said that the party attracted more supporters and demonstrators this year than last, and complained that Russian media attempted to play down this fact and also the fact that many of the party's supporters are young and well-educated, Interfax reported. He added that attempts were made to prevent communists from reaching march sites. Meanwhile, the news service cited Russian analysts as saying that the upsurge of participation in communist marches reflects the party's disappointment in President Putin's economic course and also the party's desire to portray itself as the most consistent opponent of his reforms. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 November)RUSSIANS CAN NOW SEND MUSICAL TELEGRAMS.
As of 1 November, Russians can sent musical telegrams on special blanks provided by the Communications Ministry, Interfax reported on 7 November, citing the ministry's website. The cost of this new service is 30-40 rubles ($1-$1.30) per telegram. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November)ONLY 2 PERCENT OF RUSSIAN SCHOOLS CONNECTED TO INTERNET.
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 6 November that only 2 percent of Russian schools are linked to the Internet compared to more than 65 percent of American schools in 1996. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 7 November)OCTOBER EIM RUSSIA MEDIA BULLETIN ISSUED.
The October 2001 issue of the "European Institute for the Media Newsletter" on media developments in the Russian Federation was released on 13 November. It contains information on media news; media and government; media law; media conferences; and new media technology from 10 EIM correspondents in Russia. This newsletter is produced as part of the EIM program "Media for Democracy in the CIS (2000-2003)." The project is partly funded by the Commission of the European Union through its Initiative for Human Rights and Democracy. The newsletter is also available in Russian. For more, send an e-mail to Ljudmila von Berg at email@example.com. ("European Institute for the Media October Russian Federation Newsletter," October)
ROMA WANT REPRESENTATION ON STATE-OWNED MEDIA EDITORIAL BOARDS.
Representatives of some 50 Romany associations, meeting in Banska Bystrica on 13 November, called for including Romany journalists on the editorial boards of state-owned media, CTK reported. A recommendation to that effect was made to the Slovak government. Alena Horvathova, a member of the commission that drafted the recommendation, said people would get better and more objective information on the Romany minority if the information was provided by the Roma themselves. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November)CRIMINAL LIABILITY FOR DEFAMATION TO STAY ON THE BOOKS.
The parliament rejected by a vote of 56 to 55, with one abstention, an amendment to the Penal Code that would have abolished a provision related to the defamation of the head of state, the parliament, the Constitutional Court, and the government, CTK and AP reported. The amendment was submitted by deputy Tomas Galbavy of the Slovak Democratic Coalition. Its rejection means that the prosecution of journalist Ales Kratky of the daily "Novy cas" will proceed. Kratky wrote that President Rudolf Schuster's State of the Nation speech earlier this year revealed "the signs of his spiritual incapability to head the state," and described him as an "arrogant egomaniac." The Vienna-based International Press Institute has sent a letter to Schuster, urging him to withdraw the lawsuit against Kratky. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 November)
The editor in chief of BK Television, Milomir Maric was fined 8,000 dinars by the Belgrade District Court on 7 November for the unauthorized publication of passages from a book by Svetlana Petrusic. Petrusic's lawyer said that as director and editor of "Profil" magazine, in December 1997 Maric published excerpts from the book "Failing To Speak Up Is Also A Crime, World War III Has Begun." Maric will also face criminal charges on these charges. ("ANEM Weekly Media Update," 3-9 November)POLICE CONFISCATE CAMERA TAPE FROM B92 CREW.
The Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) protested the confiscation on 10 November of tape with unique footage of protests by the police special operations unit known as the Red Berets. About 30 members of the elite police unit in jeeps and dressed in full combat gear mounted a blockade on the Belgrade-Subotica highway near Vrbas, between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. yesterday. The special forces held spectators at bay while plainclothes police seized a tape showing the Red Beret column on the move from a TV B92 television crew. (ANEM Press Release, 11 November)IDENTIKIT STATE SECURITY 'FARCE.'
The release of an identikit picture of the killer of publisher Slavko Curuvija is just another farce from the Counterintelligence Service and State Security, Curuvija's brother Jovo said on 8 November. "The identikit was made a year ago in the police station on 29 November St. Why is it being published only now?" Slavko Curuvija's widow, Branka Prpa, declined to comment on the publication of the identikit, citing her status as a witness in the case. "I hope the investigation will yield some significant results," she said. ("ANEM Weekly Media Update," 3-9 November)TV NOVI SAD BANS PROGRAMS.
In a statement issued on 14 November, the ANEM strongly protested the decision of Petar Jovanovic, new director of RTV Novi Sad appointed by the RTS Management Committee, to take off the air a TV Novi Sad program by independent producer UrbaNS. According to UrbaNS editor Marina Fratucan, the newly appointed RTV Novi Sad management asked to see the contents of the UrbaNS shows before they were broadcast, and reserved the right to influence the producer's editorial policy. After UrbaNS refused, new director Petar Jovanovic decided the UrbaNS program would no longer be aired on TV Novi Sad. The first UrbaNS show taken off the air was scheduled to be broadcast on 14 November and covered the protests of the Serbian Interior Ministry special operations units known as the Red Berets. (ANEM Press Release, 14 November)MEDIA GROUP: 'MEDALS FOR THE MEEK, LAWS FOR THE BRAVE.'
The Association of Independent Serbian Journalists on 8 November lashed out at Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic over his comment in Washington that he was "irritated" by complaints about the status of independent media. In reply to a question about his government's failure to regularize the broadcast license of several independent media outlets, the prime minister said that media who had shown bravery under the Milosevic regime could have medals, not channels. The journalist association today recommended that Djindjic instead give medals to those media which were obedient to every regime, including his own. The association called for the consideration of draft broadcasting legislation in parliament as soon as possible so as to democratize the media. ("ANEM Weekly Media Update," 3-9 November)
U.S. SENATE LINKS AID TO PROGRESS IN PROBES INTO JOURNALISTS' DEATHS.
The U.S. Senate has adopted amendments to legislation providing for the U.S. government's assistance for the independent states of the former USSR in 2002, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on 13 November. According to the bill, out of the $795.5 million appropriation proposed for the former Soviet republics, Ukraine is to receive $180 million, including $35 million to increase the safety of its nuclear reactors. The Senate makes assistance to Ukraine contingent on the Ukrainian government's progress in investigating the murders of Ukrainian journalists and obliges the State Department to submit a relevant report on this progress to the Congress. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November)
CONFERENCE FOCUSES ATTENTION ON RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MEDIA, POLITICIANS
By Jeremy Bransten
Politicians and journalists from several countries met in Prague in the first week of November for a conference focusing on the relationship between politicians and the media. Participants in the conference, hosted by the Czech-based Ferdinand Peroutka Foundation, discussed current trends and argued whether there can ever be such a thing as "objective reporting."
Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, opined more than 200 years ago that if he had to choose between living in a country with newspapers and no government or a country with a government and no newspapers, he would choose the former. The press, Jefferson said, is the lifeblood of democracy. Despite Jefferson's words, rare is the politician today who praises the media. And journalists usually return the compliment, working to expose the corruption and venality of many politicians.
Participants at the Prague conference on the media and politicians agreed that the Czech Republic was an apt place to host such a discussion, as 12 years after the fall of communism, the issue continues to appear at the forefront of public debate. While the country enjoys a varied and free press, Prime Minister Milos Zeman has publicly called journalists a "pack of idiots" and worse. In October, his cabinet pledged to sue a prominent Czech political weekly ("Respekt") for calling his government corrupt and he openly pined for the weekly's closure. One of Zeman's ministers recently sued another national newspaper for printing lewd caricatures of himself and other politicians -- and won.
Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Rychetsky gave an illustration of the current Czech government's attitude to the media in his speech to conference participants. Rychetsky said that contrary to what some might think, politicians did not have much power. Power, according to Rychetsky, rests in the hands of the media, which reflect the views of their owners and advertisers -- not those of the public and politicians. Rychetsky said this situation necessitated the existence of publicly funded radio and television stations, so that what he termed "objective news" could be transmitted from the government to the people, in regulated form: "Politicians have almost no other way to communicate with the public, with voters, with citizens, than through the media. The media cannot be unregulated." Rychetsky argued that since politicians in power were democratically elected by the majority of the population, their unadulterated views should dominate the coverage by public media.
Rychetsky's speech was met with disbelief and condemnation from all conference participants. Hans-Ulrich Jorges, editor in chief of the German weekly "Die Woche," said he had never heard a mainstream European politician express "such a brutal and Leninist vision." Jorges said Rychetsky's belief that the media should act as a mere conveyor belt, delivering so-called "objective news" directly from the mouths of politicians, showed the Czech Republic was still grappling with the basics of how the media should work in a democratic society.
Conservative British MP David Curry, who spent the first half of his career as a journalist, said the idea that there existed "objective news" or "objective reporting" was as false as the idea that there existed "objective history." All is subject to interpretation, Curry noted. He used the example of a politician making a speech with three key points: "It is a matter of perception for the journalist which of those three [points] matters. If a journalist then chooses to take one of those points and contrasts that with something said by one of my colleagues -- so that the journalist then says: 'Curry is in conflict with somebody else' -- that's not the interpretation I wanted, but it's a perfectly legitimate extrapolation." Curry said the key to preserving democracy was to have diverse media expressing a multiplicity of views. Politicians striving for one set of neutral news stories were pursuing a false goal, he stressed: "Politicians must expect and indeed welcome that the media have an agenda. I don't want a lot of neutral newspapers. That would be extraordinarily boring and there would be very little choice. I want my newspapers to have a view and to have an attitude. And in my country, they do."
Curry said that in many respects, the media were self-regulating and tended to follow the public, not the other way around, as Rychetsky suggested: "The press reflects society and the press follows, by and large, its readership. I don't believe in the theory that the press stakes a heroic flag and the public flocks behind that standard. By and large, the public buys the papers which it agrees with and the press is quite intuitive in knowing what its readership is feeling." As a case in point, Curry said cited the current U.S.-led campaign against targets in Afghanistan. He said that two major British dailies which have taken a more skeptical attitude toward the campaign, "The Guardian" and "The Independent," have seen a recent increase in readers as people of various political persuasions seek alternative interpretations of events.
Most participants agreed that a far greater problem than unregulated criticism of politicians from the media is when journalists get too cozy with politicians. The often symbiotic relationship both sides enjoy can influence how the news is presented. In Western Europe and North America, politicians constantly attempt to manipulate how journalists cover the news. And sometimes, in return for continued access to information and other rewards, journalists agree to that manipulation.
In this respect, Quebec journalist Christian Rioux contrasted what he termed the aggressive "no holds barred" approach of North American and British journalism with the more deferential approach of European and especially French journalists. He noted that it was mostly the foreign press that had broken details of the corruption allegations involving French President Jacques Chirac and his entourage. And he said French journalists' fear of upsetting some "sacred cows" was having a corrosive effect on society, breeding discontent and cynicism: "How do you reproach disadvantaged youth for setting cars on fire or disrupting a football match while political leaders still have the right not to answer questions from the press about their use of public funds? Europe, and especially France, in my opinion, is living through a serious crisis of authority. It is a crisis in which relations between journalists and politicians play a major role." In David Curry's words, "Deferential journalism is a recipe for a corrupt and inefficient state."
But as professor Leonard Steinhorn of Washington's American University noted, even in the United States -- with its broad interpretation of free speech guaranteed by the constitution and aggressive style of journalism -- all is far from well with the media. Steinhorn said the business conglomerates that control the bulk of newspapers and television stations in the United States are demanding ever-increasing profitability from their investment. This means newspapers and television stations must increase advertising revenues, which they do by striving to obtain an ever-larger readership or audience share. That large audience share is obtained by blending news and entertainment into an attractive package, which has come to be dubbed "infotainment." To make it onto a newspaper's front page or a station's evening broadcast, news must be dramatic, full of images and sensation, and short on analysis.
In the competition for dramatic images, of course, television beats the printed media hands down, meaning most people now get their news solely from television. Steinhorn said: "If you look at the typical half-hour news broadcast in the United States -- Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings -- and if you counted out the total number of words in that broadcast, you know how many pages of a newspaper that would be? Half a page of a newspaper. That's it. Half a page of a newspaper is the functional equivalent of the words that people are getting their information from in the United States. So how are we getting our information? We're getting our information through images." While a picture speaks a thousand words it is also subject to easy manipulation. Steinhorn cited the case of famed CBS television news reporter Leslie Stahl, who in the 1980s prepared a report contrasting then-President Ronald Reagan's series of appearances at old people's homes and sports events for the disabled with his administration's funding cuts to the elderly and handicapped. Stahl intended her report to be a commentary on the hypocrisy of Reagan's policies. But as soon as the broadcast was aired, she received a congratulatory telephone call from the White House. Surprised, she asked why the administration was in such a good mood. A presidential adviser told Stahl that thanks to her report, CBS had once again broadcast images of a smiling President Reagan visiting the old and the handicapped. Never mind the words, who could hope for better free advertising? Focus polls confirmed that most people who had seen the program came away with a positive impression of the president.
As conference participants noted, democracy rests on having a broad range of media presenting a multiplicity of opinions and interpretations, which educated individuals can then interpret through their own particular prism. But awareness and education are key to making those choices and not allowing oneself to be manipulated. By the age of 15, however, a typical American teenager will have spent only 11,000 hours in school as opposed to 18,000 hours watching entertainment and infotainment on television. If that trend continues and spreads globally, then it may pose the greatest threat to democracy -- greater than attempts by politicians in some countries to crudely interfere with the media.
Jeremy Bransten is a RFE/RL correspondent.