Friday, December 2, 2011

Journalists unanimous that conflict coverage is less than optimal in South Asia... Observations from Media Summit

Another South Asian Media Summit was held in Goa Nov 23-25, 2011, sponsored by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German government funded organisation. The theme of this year's summit was 'Inter-State Conflict and the role of the media'.

I was a bit disheartened that more than two-thirds of experienced journalists from almost all South Asian countries (except Bangladesh and the Maldives) were male, as compared to last year's summit which had more women journalists attending, predictably because the theme was 'gender'.

Nonetheless, very insightful experiences were shared and impassioned arguments made, which prompted me to share my thoughts (in no particular order) in this blog post...

- The first session implied that South Asia has the most protracted inter-state conflicts and this made me curious. Do we know which region of the world has had the most conflicts within its own peoples? Might be a good research topic...

- Mohsin Babbar, a journalist and one of the few experts on the Indus water dispute in Pakistan, mentioned that the Aman ki Asha program was a good India-Pak peace initiative.

- Have you heard the term proxy war? I never really understood what it meant until someone at the summit explained it as militant groups that fight each other on behalf of governments so that actual governments don't look bad. What a sham!

- How do you see the link between politics and media? Do you think the media is politicised or do you think there is a mediaisation of politics? I guess both are true today...

- It was suggested to watch the Wikileaks video of the journalist being gunned down by a helicopter pilot in Iraq to hamper his coverage of the conflict. An act that proves the US is embarrassed about their bloody activities in Iraq?

- A Sri Lankan academic at the University of Peredeniya 'Carmen Wickramagamage' astutely pointed to Louis Althuser, a French Marxist's observation years ago that the State perpetuates dominant ideology through the media. I'm sure the same can be argued for the corporate world.

- She also pointed out an unfortunate editorial about a Lesbian conference in Colombo, which incited rape to 'show them the right way'. When a gay rights organisation complained to the press council, they responded that the newspaper was right to publish the offensive editorial because lesbians are 'sadistic'.

- Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, a reporter who spent several years telling the story of the people of Lalgarh said 'One percent of Jharkhand rule and one percent of the state's population engage in armed conflict. Reporters need to represent the remaining 98%. Reporters need to be activists representing the people's voices'. Bravo!

- Vipul Mudgal presented an 'inclusive media for change' website that provides analysis the press can use to better cover development issues.

Also here are some of my suggestions that came out of the summit, do comment if you agree or disagree...

- It struck me when someone mentioned how it was perhaps difficult to find sources willing to speak on the record while reporting about conflict issues, that we need to have a witness protection program in India and the media needs to be a vociferous watchdog when it comes to protecting whistle-blowers. That would encourage more people to speak out for justice.

- Media literacy needs to be popularised in South Asia so that ordinary viewers understand how the media can be manipulated and so they don't take everything as gospel truth. This will also lead to greater public demands for an accountable media.

- Advocate Ashraj Wani from Kashmir also argued for a journalists code of ethics and I agree. I was surprised that the body language of most of the senior reporters in the room implied there was no code of ethics being mandated in their newsrooms! I hope all the journalism curricula in India/ South Asia have ethics as a required course, as I know is required to study in a Master's degree syllabus in the U.S.

- I think the media also needs to elucidate audiences about their country's legal obligations under the UN's human rights framework as this is a good way to hold the State accountable for their human rights record. The public should be made aware of which international covenants have been ratified and concluding observations should be tracked.

- Sustainability is a huge obstacle for citizen journalism models, which are needed so that alternative information and marginalised voices are allowed to bubble up to the surface. This will ensure a healthy democracy, for if marginalised voices are not heard, then revolution brews. We also need alternative media to balance the mainstream hegemonic view of society.

- Women can support solutions-oriented reporting. In my experience, this garners more eyeballs.

- We need to organise a conference on online journalism/ new media in India.

- Journalists need to be trained in critical analyses so that they are making more than mundane observations. This may sound oversimplified but if you were watching the news around 26/11, you would agree that we never heard any discussion about 'why they want to attack us', only when/ where/ how. I was really interested in hearing people's thoughts on what perceptions are floating around in Pakistan that are being used to conjure up hatred for India, to provoke young boys to heinous crimes?

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