The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
A popular melody has joined the reggae rhythms in Jamaican nightclubs; it is a song called, "The Foreign Press." In rich island dialect, the song accuses correspondents of besmirching Jamaica's good name with false reports throughout the world. It says that, between dispatches, reporters manage to frolic on the beach and in the nightspots, adding: "Why don't they write about that in the foreign press?"
It is no light-hearted calypso spoof. The wife of a prominent Jamaican cabinet minister told an American correspondent, with no trace of mirth: "You [reporters] don't know how you make us suffer with all your lies about communism and violence . . . and if you keep it up, the day will come that you will not be able to come here any more or you'll have your throat cut." Already Jamaica, like scores of developing countries, is loath to grant entry to foreign correspondents.
Leaders in the Third World, with new and growing confidence, are translating into action their frustration with international news coverage. Government criticism of the press is hardly new, but only recently have leaders acted so harshly on such a large scale. Reporters are banned, jailed, and, in some instances, tortured or shot. Dispatches are censored, and news sources are stringently muzzled. International news agency reports are controlled and foreign publications are seized. India, which prided itself on having a free press in the world's largest democracy, expelled five Americans and two British correspondents as part of a series of press restrictions which began in June 1975 and did not end until Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was voted out of office in March 1977. In Nigeria, where newsmen worked with relative freedom during the Biafra war, the only Western reporter still residing in the country is a cautious correspondent for Agence France-Presse. The last Reuters correspondent was put in a dugout canoe, without his passport, and headed toward neighboring Benin. The Ethiopian government recently expelled all three Western correspondents based in Addis Ababa, accusing them of "bias and distortion." In Argentina, when an Italian reporter told military government authorities that a mysterious security force commando appeared to be after him, the official advice was: "Try to stay away from your home."
An Associated Press censorship study for 1976, while giving no overall totals, describes a steady pattern of pressure on correspondents in many parts of the world. New measures have been taken to ban, censor or intimidate foreign reporters in many countries of the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as in several countries of Latin America.
This trend is the tip of a political ice floe which shows every sign of resisting efforts to melt it. It reflects not merely a lack of mutual understanding but rather fundamental conflicts among differing concepts of a government's role in society and of a people's right to be informed. While Western newsmen generally act on the assumption that a free press is vital to a well-governed nation, many Third World leaders maintain that the greater goal of national development requires them to subordinate the ideal of free expression. Development of their countries requires unity, they say, and the press focuses on divisions. The Soviet philosophy of a controlled press supports their position and thus complicates efforts to seek common ground.
Third World concern appears to have focused on two principal complaints, articulated in conference after conference:
- The Western press gives inadequate and superficial attention to the realities of developing countries, often infusing coverage with cultural bias. The traditional emphasis on the dramatic, the emotional and the amusing - the "coups and earthquakes" syndrome - is seen not only as unbalanced but also as detrimental to the development process.
- The Western monopoly on the distribution of news - whereby even stories written about one Third World country for distribution in another are reported and transmitted by international news agencies based in New York, London and Paris - amounts to neocolonialism and cultural domination.
There is certainly some justification for these complaints. Yet it is also true, as Western newsmen argue, that the methods by which many Third World governments now seek redress cause serious distortions in the news. In addition, current efforts to form alternative Third World press agencies could further interfere with the free flow of accurate news. On both sides, storms of rhetoric have confused the picture. Some of the most vehement detractors of Western reporting are themselves responsible for the imbalances they decry. And some Western news executives who protest the loudest commit the most blatant misrepresentations of Third World attitudes. Many on both sides, purposely or unwittingly, do not recognize how the problems of one are closely related to those of the other. Although it will not eliminate the real differences in interest, an increased and sincere attempt to achieve cooperation rather than conflict could help to lessen cultural misperceptions which serve neither the Western press nor the Third World.
In understanding the problems of Western coverage of the Third World, it is important to recognize that the international newsgathering system has severe limitations. What is commonly referred to as the world flow of information is more a series of trickles and spurts. News is moved across borders by surprisingly thin networks of correspondents for various types of news organizations with widely disparate purposes. Some correspondents, such as those working for television and most newspapers, report back to media in their own countries, and they approach the news from the viewpoint of specific readers and viewers. Others report to agencies which distribute their dispatches regionally or globally, or to internationally circulated magazines, and they attempt to achieve a more universal outlook, including details of interest to readers from many countries.
By far the largest distributors of information are the four Western-based global news agencies which provide separate reports for their home markets and for various regions in the rest of the world. The largest of these is The Associated Press, based in New York, with an annual budget of $100 million and a history dating back to 1848. The AP is a nonprofit cooperative owned by 1,350 member newspapers in the United States, with 3,500 subscribing radio and television stations. It sells its international news and photo services on a contract teleprinter basis to foreign newspapers and broadcasters with an estimated total audience of one billion people and deploys its staff and resources within the limits of its budget and according to the needs of its members. It has about 80 U.S.-based correspondents and bureau chiefs who are rotated among its overseas offices; it also has another 750 locally hired support personnel who assist the correspondents or who operate on their own in foreign bureaus unassisted by correspondents assigned from New York. Additionally, there are scores of "stringers," part-time reporters with other jobs, who might contribute fewer than a half-dozen stories a year from the smaller capitals and cities. Dispatches from all these reporters are handled in two ways: one department in New York edits and sometimes rewrites stories that might be of interest to domestic members, and another department edits and relays stories destined for foreign subscribers. Separate overseas wires, in a variety of languages, carry the major international stories as well as minor stories of interest to the particular regions served by the individual wire.
The other three global agencies work similarly, but each has its own characteristics. United Press International, which also has headquarters in New York, is commercially organized and must bring in enough income to cover its costs. World news coverage is expensive, UPI executives say, and occasional profits are hardly excessive. Reuters, based in London, is owned by British and some Commonwealth newspapers. It operates somewhat like the AP, but its home market is much smaller, and it has specially tailored regional services. For example, about 30,000 words daily are sent to Africa, designed for African media. Reuters' worldwide news operations are partly financed by earnings from a separate economic news service and from income earned by sharing its communications facilities with other news organizations. The fourth major global agency, Agence France-Presse, has extensive regional coverage, with 790 Paris-based and national newsmen outside of France. Directly and through contracts with national news agencies, AFP dispatches reach 12,000 newspapers. AFP, although officially autonomous, receives large government subscription payments, which allow it to maintain uneconomical bureaus and to provide its services cheaply throughout the Third World. However, some editors say they prefer to rely on the other three main agencies in some cases, particularly when French interests are involved.
All four major news agencies have a stated goal of objectivity, which is harmonious with their practical considerations. Thousands of newspapers and broadcasters with positions ranging from the radical Left to the extreme Right receive each of the four services. Neighboring countries with centuries of enmity all rely on them for world news. For example, their subscribers include government-controlled Arab media and conservative Israeli dailies. Each subscriber demands immediate rectification if it feels a story has been distorted.
Apart from the main agencies, there are more than 90 regional and national news agencies which operate in a variety of ways. TASS of the Soviet Union and Hsinhua of China distribute highly politicized reports to a large number of developed and developing countries. Agencies like West Germany's Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA), Italy's Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA) and Japan's Kyoto compete with the four main agencies in many areas. And many national agencies of Third World countries maintain correspondents in neighboring and in European capitals. The largest of these is Tanjug of Yugoslavia which has 47 correspondents abroad, mostly in industrialized countries. Samachar of India also keeps a large international staff overseas. Some agencies, such as ARNA of Libya and MENA of Egypt, cover contiguous geopolitical regions. And some of the smaller ones, such as the Gabonese News Agency, do little more than distribute officially sanctioned information within a country of 500,000 inhabitants.
Besides the news agencies, some large newspapers and newspaper chains syndicate their correspondents' work. The New York Times News Service carries stories from The Times of London and the London Observer as well as dispatches from New York Times reporters. It has more than 450 subscribers - about five percent of the AP's total but a select group of influential papers - more than 250 of them in the United States. Among others, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times also offer a combined service drawing on their foreign correspondents.
While a number of Western papers, magazines and broadcast organizations also maintain correspondents abroad, the total is steadily dropping. Including salary, expenses and communications, the costs of maintaining a single reporter overseas for a year can be well over $100,000. Provisions of the Tax Reform Act of 1976 lowering the income tax exemptions for U.S. citizens living abroad have increased the costs: The Chicago Daily News, which for years had kept a permanent staff of resident and roving correspondents overseas, disbanded its foreign service at the end of 1976, attributing its action at least in part to the new law.
Accurate statistics on reporters abroad are not available, but a good indication of the decrease is found in comparing the Overseas Press Club (of New York) directory of correspondents for 1975 with that of previous years. It listed 429 full-time American correspondents abroad compared to 563 in 1969. Foreign national employees of U.S. media were listed at 247 compared to 366 in 1969. (Of the 1975 total, 54 percent were based in 19 European countries.) Even those totals are misleadingly high, since they include writers for specialized publications and some expatriates who retain accreditation from small newspapers for prestige purposes. Some areas are almost completely written off. The AP and UPI each has a single full-time correspondent, based in Nairobi, to cover all of black Africa north of Rhodesia; roving correspondents based elsewhere add to the news reports. Their stringers in other African capitals send little, and most are closely watched by their governments. Only a few news organizations keep correspondents in East or West Africa.
Some papers with few correspondents living abroad regularly send out reporters who travel. They vary widely in scope, and some of the best, like The Christian Science Monitor, have circulations which are small in relation to national readership. A number of major European and Japanese newspapers operate similarly, keeping a small group of correspondents based abroad with a regular staff of specialized reporters who make periodic visits to developing areas.
The larger newsmagazines also maintain their own foreign staffs overseas to send lengthy dispatches which are distilled by staff writers at home, combining correspondent reports with news agency material, information on file and domestic sources. In early 1977, Time listed 36 staff members in 17 foreign bureaus; Newsweek, 22 correspondents in 11 bureaus; and U.S. News and World Report, eight editors abroad. Additionally, each uses regular stringers who are paid according to their contribution.
The three U.S. television networks provide wide foreign coverage not only from crews based abroad but also from correspondents sent out from U.S. bureaus. Yet notwithstanding the enormous impact of television on the American public, Third World leaders seldom take into account television coverage because they do not normally see it. And few understand its import. Their quarrel is with the agencies, newspapers and magazines.
Whatever the talents of the men and women involved, a press corps of this size can only sample the news. Even The New York Times, with 33 of its own full-time correspondents and a wide range of news agencies to draw on, runs only about 14,000 words a day from all over the world. That is much more than the half-dozen foreign stories carried in most newspapers, but it involves careful selection and editing.
As a general rule, newspaper reporters, particularly the European ones, have greater leeway to interpret news events than do news agency correspondents. At the same time, newspaper correspondents normally have more space in which to discuss opposing sides of a sensitive issue. Both, however, are under great pressure to rush around covering major political events and disaster stories, whereas stories on development trends and social changes are regularly subject to delay. Because newspapers have only so much space and broadcasters have only so much air time, editors feel they must select what their audiences want, or they will lose the readers and viewers who keep them in business. News judgment rests on the potential impact and interest of stories rather than on any sense of international fair play. Even in the newspapers of most Third World countries, news items are predominantly from industrialized countries of the West and East, and stories from other developing countries often conflict.
Sometimes the process itself causes imbalances. Correspondents knew the military was planning to overthrow Isabel Perón in Argentina six months before the actual coup; the date was revised repeatedly. Many were afraid to leave Argentina to cover less dramatic stories for fear of missing the coup and finding the border closed. One newsmagazine reporter postponed a trip to Brazil a half-dozen times. "My boss thinks he's got the village idiot down here," he told friends. "But if I take off and the coup happens while I'm on the plane, I'll be looking for a job."
The smaller countries are squeezed into rapid trips during lulls between major stories in the larger countries. One Latin American scholar comments wryly: "I'm always amazed to see how news breaks in South America along the direct lines of the Braniff route." An assistant foreign editor of a major newspaper makes a similar point: "I am disturbed by the hit-and-miss technique which we must use . . . almost at the correspondent's whim. A reporter finally gets to a place and reports things as new. . . . I'm always reminded of the stars - the light left some years ago and we're just getting around to seeing it. It's misleading and I don't know what to do about it."
Because reporters tend to travel in packs, circumstances can focus far more attention on a particular event than it might ordinarily receive. Riots in Jamaica happened to coincide with a major International Monetary Fund meeting there in early 1975, so scores of foreign reporters were on hand to report them in chilling detail. Had there been no visiting correspondents, the local Jamaican stringers might not have seen fit to write, and the disturbance might have been a tree falling unheard in a forest.
The situation is similar, or worse, in Africa and Asia. A crisis in southern Africa (or a war in Vietnam) draws correspondents in droves, while the rest of the continent is neglected. Today, wide areas in both are rarely visited; for example, the small island nations of the Pacific and Indian Oceans are all but completely forgotten.
A series of other difficulties and limitations affect foreign reporting. News organizations tend to send young inexperienced reporters to the Third World, transferring them to larger bureaus in industrialized countries as they gain seasoning. Correspondents frequently cannot speak the language of the country they are covering, and translators, if available, are rarely adequate. Unfamiliarity with baffling local customs and thought processes can be dangerously misleading. Under such circumstances, even the best have difficulty, and some reporters working abroad are simply not capable of untangling complicated situations and presenting them clearly to faraway readers. Correspondents are seldom specialists, and a reporter may write about politics, table tennis, budget deficits and traffic accidents in the same afternoon.
Inadvertent mistakes are also made in editing, rewriting, translating and transmitting. Last year a young Chilean trainee at UPI was practicing on a teletype machine in Bogotá, and he made up an urgent story that President Alfonso López Michelsen had been assassinated. Through a technical error, the message went to New York and was relayed on the news wire in English and Spanish. The Spanish news agency, EFE, which has an accord with UPI to use its dispatches, relayed the story under its own logotype, without checking it. Although the story was eliminated quickly and UPI officials immediately apologized and explained what had happened, the President charged that he was a victim of an international plot.
Local stringers are generally poorly paid and have little motivation to provide more than a perfunctory relay of local newspaper reports. Because they may also be government employees, they are sometimes subject to extreme pressures, which often means one-sided or distorted dispatches. In addition, the scarcity of space in print or on the air provides a constant goad to reporters to portray the stories they are covering in the most dramatic light possible. This is particularly true with newsmagazines and television networks. Generally, foreign correspondents are responsible, with a keen sense of professional ethics, but there have been cases where some have exaggerated and even invented facts in order to lend strength to their dispatches.
Space limitations have another distorting effect. Correspondents often must use such shorthand terms as "right-wing dictatorship" and "pro-Peking" without further explanation, raising more questions then they answer. To the informed, and to many readers in the countries from which they are reporting, such meaningless labels and glib generalities may be seen as superficial and even insulting.
Finally, however hard a correspondent may try to exercise balance and objectivity, he is the prisoner of his own value system in judging a situation. Narinder Aggarwala, an Indian journalist working with the United Nations, made this point in the January issue of The Interdependent, published by the United Nations Association:
When Third World leaders criticize the Western press for biased and distorted reporting, they are not, generally speaking, questioning the factual accuracy of Western news agencies or their correspondents. What they feel chagrined about is the lack of a Third World perspective, as well as an appreciation of Third World information needs, in the news disseminated by the Western agencies.
The efforts of many Third World governments to inject their perspectives into Western press coverage have in most cases compounded the problem. Many of them treat the Western press as a monolithic and hostile entity which, if properly controlled or cajoled, can be induced to act in a certain way. This philosophy normally leads to frustration and increased bitterness. The sectors of the press which were hostile to these regimes at the outset simply grow more hostile, and have more to criticize, when controls are imposed. And the sympathetic sectors are either prevented from saying anything - or are converted to hostility because of the measures taken.
Methods used to pressure correspondents vary widely. John Saar of The Washington Post made a trip to South Korea without difficulty, but no one would talk to him, at any level, because the Post had broken the story about questionable Korean lobbying in the United States. India cut the telephone and teleprinter lines of several foreign agencies in New Delhi but allowed them to use their neighbors' communications to send their material. Sometimes reporters are chided gently by low-level officials; sometimes they are obliquely threatened with death.
One common practice has been to expel a free-lance reporter with no major backing as an example to regular staff correspondents. However, after several countries recently expelled correspondents of major news organizations with only lukewarm response, there appeared to be a growing awareness that it is not so difficult to push around the foreign press. Organizations are often reluctant to ask the State Department to join in protesting expulsions because they want to keep themselves separate from government. In some cases, news executives want to keep peace with the government which expelled their correspondent, to make it easier to send a new one. Others, from inertia or lack of a guiding policy, just let the incident go.
The easiest way for a country to control coverage, of course, is simply to deny access. Ronald Koven, foreign editor of The Washington Post, negotiated for almost a year to get correspondent David Ottaway into Somalia. "We have the feeling that the Third World is closing down on us, little by little, almost on a monthly basis," Koven said in one of a series of personal interviews I conducted on this subject. "Visas for countries at peace with the United States are sometimes very difficult to get." The Post's widely respected Africa staff is a good example of the problem. Ottaway, along with other reporters, was expelled from Ethiopia, where he had gone when barred from Kenya. Like others, he had serious difficulty obtaining visas to a number of countries. The Post's Robin Wright avoids Angola because she was accused of links with the mercenaries, but few reporters get into Angola anyway. Koven says he does not send reporters to Uganda, even if permitted, for fear of their safety. (The problem is not limited to black Africa. It took years for Jim Hoagland of the Post to be allowed back into South Africa after doing his series from there, which won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize.)
When newsmen cannot get into a country, they must write about it from the outside, often relying on questionable dissident sources with little chance to balance their reports with remarks from authorized spokesmen, and the result is likely to cause even more bitterness from the leaders of that country.
The general condition of misunderstanding can increase particular difficulties. The New York Times was allowed to send a correspondent, John Burns, into Mozambique for a balanced appraisal of the newly independent country. But officials of another branch of government arrested him and held him for several days. As a Times editor explained it, the officials had never heard of The New York Times; they thought Burns worked for Time magazine, with which they had a quarrel. (In fact, newsmagazines usually come under heavier fire than newspapers because they are often circulated in the countries they cover. The tight format, with emphasis on the more dramatic details which are of particular interest to a foreign reader, often upsets Third World authorities.)
As noted, government manipulation often backfires - but not always. For dramatic examples of how different types of manipulation, combined with the traditional limitations of international reporting, can result in grave distortions for the reader, compare the coverage of the 1973 military takeover in Chile and the 1976 coup d'état against Isabel Perón in neighboring Argentina. In both instances, a well-prepared, professional press corps sought to convey realities to American readers. Yet reporting from the two countries was so shaped by differing government strictures that it is still extremely difficult to make judgments about one in the light of the other.
Although there were fundamental political differences between the two coups, the basic facts were the same - a military junta overturned a civilian president amid expectations of some internal and international resistance. In the process, Chile - where the new rulers restricted coverage and exerted tight control over reporters - emerged with a much harsher image than Argentina, where the coup leaders kept good relations with the press but still controlled the flow of information by covering up their involvement rather than placing fetters on reporters.
The coup against Salvador Allende was forceful and bloody, masked by secrecy and launched by surprise. The junta's plan was to restore quickly what officers considered to be a normal balance, eliminating entrenched leftist control, before facing the world. They shut down communications, imposed curfews and controls, and refused entry to reporters - and almost everyone else - for nearly two weeks. The executions and widespread repression were neither admitted nor convincingly denied, so that the atmosphere was perfect for the inevitable rumors which follow any such upheaval. The few correspondents in Santiago at the time managed to send only brief dispatches under a severe after-the-fact censorship which some called the "file now, die later" plan. Meanwhile, scores of correspondents hovered at the borders in Argentina, interviewing everyone in sight who might have an inkling about what was going on. Although many exercised careful judgment and balance, others relayed far-fetched rumors of resistance columns and acts of mass genocide.
The true picture was bad enough, but in addition, wildly exaggerated death figures were published around the world. The new government gained an immediate and lasting reputation for butchery; tales of martyrs and archvillains passed into history. By the time the borders opened, and reporters could see for themselves what was happening, most of the world had made up its mind about Chile.
At the same time, Chilean exiles and sympathizers around the world pressed intense campaigns against the military government, and their charges could not easily be refuted by independent newsmen because few were allowed in. As it turned out, much of the human rights reporting from inside Chile - little as there was - was basically solid because the junta allowed two major sources to operate with some freedom: the Church and the courts. High-level Church leaders substantiated individual charges of disappearance, torture and execution. They made case studies and assembled overall statistics, making both available to newsmen. Also, Chilean courts accepted habeas corpus writs from relatives of missing persons and, because court records were public, reporters could find well-documented direct accounts of alleged abuses.
When the Argentine military decided to act almost three years later, planners studied the Chilean experience carefully. Selected correspondents and local reporters were kept informed on the progress of coup plans to an almost ludicrous degree. Officers assured the press that the transition would be smooth, bloodless and fast. Privately, however, several generals were more candid. "There'll be killing, all right - you just won't see it . . . ," one told friends. "Bodies will turn up, but they won't be linked to us. We learned that from Chile."
The coup, as promised, went off without a hitch. Communications were not disturbed, and correspondents were not censored. The airport was closed briefly for security reasons, but there had been so much warning that most correspondents were already in anyway. The immediate image of the new government was one of moderation and restraint. That a large number of leftists were abducted, tortured and executed was something reporters did not learn about until later. And when they did, they could not prove that those responsible were directly linked to the government, however obvious the connection. Correspondents also knew that, although there were no official curbs, they might fall victim to the same mysterious right-wing death squads blamed for the widespread killings of leftists.
Since readers in the United States assumed that correspondents were working freely, and they were not told of massacres by the government, they assumed that the government was indeed moderate. Thus, as in Chile, though with quite a different result, the world swiftly made up its mind about the Argentine junta. By the time desperate relatives told of missing persons, and qualified sources described how bodies were being dumped at sea from helicopters, interest in the story had waned.
In Argentina, the government saw to it that sources were few. Contrary to the Chilean situation, Church officials said little or nothing, and some Church sources admitted intimidation. Court records were closed. Local newspapers were under strict military control. "Sure, I feel guilty, but what could we do?" asked one senior correspondent of a major news agency at the end of 1976. "We say that 12 guerrillas were killed while raiding a police post. That's the police version, and it's all we have. We can't say that's obvious bull even if we think it is. And then when some mother calls up and says, 'How could my son have attacked a police station on Tuesday when police arrested him on Monday night?' what do you do?"
Viewed from a longer perspective, there were strong similarities in the way security forces in the government's pay dealt with suspected left-wing activists in Chile and Argentina. Both used widespread murder, torture and arbitrary arrest. However, in Argentina, where reporters were allowed to operate as freely as their courage allowed, but with few available sources, no direct link was established to the government. In Chile, where correspondents were barred and then controlled, but where information could be found, a clear-cut policy of government involvement in human rights abuses was reported from the first days of the coup.
"We applied the same skills and energy toward reporting Chile and Argentina," remarks one well-known correspondent for a major U.S. organization, "and Chile came out much worse. It may be Chile's fault, and it may be because the Argentines were clever. But the reader can't be expected to know the background. He is counting on us to tell it straight, no matter what."
In addition to individual efforts on the part of Third World governments to manipulate the Western press, Third World leaders have been planning concerted strategies to increase their control over the flow of information.
An extreme move toward press restriction was put forward in a Soviet-sponsored draft resolution at the biennial UNESCO conference late last year in Nairobi. The key sentence in the proposed text - "States are responsible for the activities in the international sphere of all mass media under their jurisdiction" - would have endorsed measures taken against correspondents not only for their own actions inside a given country but also for the actions of their organizations elsewhere. Where authorities have been reluctant to expel reporters or to institute press controls for fear of damaging their international reputation, the sanction of an international body like UNESCO could make a significant difference.
At Nairobi, the resolution was tabled by a vote of 78 to 15, with six abstentions, after active campaigning by Western officials and news executives. But the Soviet Union is expected to continue pushing the issue, and there are varying forms of support from a wide sector of the nonaligned nations. Indeed, while debate was focused on this article, the conference passed without comment several measures which constitute a UNESCO blessing for increased state control of media and the movement of news.
At an April meeting in Florence, convened to further the Nairobi discussions, exchanges were sometimes heated and bitter. UNESCO's Assistant Director-General, Jacques Rigaud, identified a major point of contention: "Decolonization must be carried to its conclusion in the minds of men. It is uncomfortable to have to admit that supposedly universal values sometimes conceal a hard core of self-interest." He added later that values that had "for so long given a certain part of the world a clear conscience look different and are different if one is oppressed or well-endowed, developed or developing, or in danger of never developing."
The new feeling was evident in recent remarks by President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, where until recent years the press was extraordinarily free. Marcos told the Philippine Broadcasters Association that there was freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the Philippines just as there was in the Western countries. "The only difference is . . . our policy requires that the media wholly participate in the government . . . as committed agents of the government . . . for development."
The Indonesian press director, Soekarno, was more specific in an interview with The Washington Post in March: "These critical reports you've all been making lately hamper our speed of development. They draw the attention of the people away from development to other issues which creates frustration. . . . if they [Western reporters] employ the Western tradition of hitting issues face-on, they will not achieve their mission [of creating better government]. They must follow the slower, more indirect Indonesian way, or else our government will ban foreign journalists and will ignore their reports." Indonesian Attorney General Ali Said earlier told local editors to stop printing Western news reports on the country. "Let them go to hell," he said.
Leonard Sussman of Freedom House in New York has labeled this concept "developmental journalism." Its thesis is that control of news is not only defensible but essential. Information itself and the means to transmit it are tools of development. Since governments must direct all resources toward the principal goal of development, any reporting that is critical or disruptive might hamper their progress. Governments, it is maintained, must focus attention on their achievements and protect their developing economies from the exposure of weaknesses; critical press coverage might dampen their people's spirits and lessen their chances for world sympathy.
Proponents of a more positive type of developmental journalism say that it is necessary for countries to share useful experiences and ideas which are not now adequately covered. Some liken this kind of journalism to the sort of reporting found in feature sections of Western papers, where readers in Dallas can learn how troublesome community problems were solved in Seattle or Miami. A low-cost housing program in Singapore could be a valuable model for dozens of other nations.
In order to share this sort of information, and to eliminate what many consider to be a Western bias in the information now available, a large number of Third World countries support expanding their own news facilities. The most significant steps in this direction were taken in mid-1976 with a ministerial meeting of 58 nonaligned nations in New Delhi, followed by a summit in Colombo. The summit approved a resolution establishing a Third World news pool as a mechanism to centralize and distribute news items from developing countries around the world.
The then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi set the tone for the meetings, saying:
The media of the powerful countries want to depict the governments of their erstwhile colonies as inept and corrupt and their people as yearning for the good old days. Leaders who uphold their national interests and resist the blandishments of multinational corporations and agencies are denigrated and their images falsified in every conceivable way. . . . We want to hear Africans on events in Africa. You should similarly be able to get an Indian explanation of events in India.
The pool is already functioning, to a certain extent, with main relay points in Yugoslavia and India. (The new Indian government is taking a less militant stance, but there are other active supporters.) Under its constitution, any nonaligned nation can volunteer to collect and disseminate news from and to other countries provided it pays all reception and relay costs and does not interfere with the content of the incoming dispatches. Tanjug of Yugoslavia has been doing this on its own since January 1975, using four 38,000-watt transmitters outside of Belgrade which were reported to be part of a $13-million expansion program. Similarly, any nation can transmit its news for relay, and can receive relayed news, provided it pays all of its own costs. The framers of the pool arrangement encouraged countries to form national news agencies, if they had not already done so, to facilitate the exchange of news.
The Nairobi UNESCO conference later in 1976 endorsed the pool idea as part of a compromise agreement to defeat the Soviet proposal. It was also agreed that $130,000 would be spent to study means of efficient pool operation. Apart from the plan approved at Colombo, a number of countries are working toward regional pools, such as a Pan African news agency advocated by Zaïre.
At each international conference when news pools are discussed, numerous speakers repeatedly declare that their aim is not to supplant the major global agencies but rather to supplement them. According to this widely held moderate position, Western correspondents would not be affected by the changes developing countries advocate. However, an African ambassador to UNESCO bluntly expressed a more radical view: "We don't want Western journalists in our countries. They should take their news from us." The difference is crucial.
Western responses to Third World complaints and controls range from defensive antagonism to efforts at expanding cooperation. While there is some sympathy for the benign type of comparative developmental journalism, the more radical variant is rejected out of hand by most Western journalists.
"In part the attacks [on the Western press] are justified because attention to events is spasmodic and inadequate," observes Harvey Stockwin, a veteran correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. "But they stem in large part from the fact that the Western press is the only one telling leaders what they don't want to hear." Western hostility to Third World positions revolves around that basic point: many leaders use such devices as news pools and developmental journalism as a convenient means to muzzle criticism and hide their own shortcomings.
Actual practice has shown this to be a justifiable concern. Where countries have refused access to correspondents but have provided a steady stream of government-vetted information by radio and by national news agencies, coverage has tended to be relatively uncritical and, by lack of balance, misleadingly favorable. This is particularly true in countries where there is not sufficient interest for reporters to seek out exiled opponents or neutral travelers to provide the needed balance.
Since there is some form of government control, subsidy or guidance in almost every national news agency of the Third World, it would hardly be reasonable to expect completely balanced reporting on a voluntary basis. No government anywhere enjoys energetic probing by the press. Doubtless, Ron Zeigler would have been delighted to have had the final word when pronouncing the Watergate break-in a "third-rate burglary." Simple human nature makes it very difficult for any person to provide an accurate picture of himself. As a retired UPI executive, Roger Tatarian, noted (in a conference paper for the Edward R. Murrow Center at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy), according to Mrs. Gandhi's definition, the Third World would have had to rely on a national agency controlled by Idi Amin Dada for facts about the Israeli Entebbe raid.
At the UNESCO conference, Western newsmen were vehement in their opposition to the Soviet proposal. George Beebe of The Miami Herald, chairman of the World Press Freedom Committee, told reporters in Nairobi that such curbs as the Soviet proposal would be "tragic." He said: "It is essential that we keep communication lines open in this rapidly changing world."
After the April conference in Florence, Beebe took a harder stance in a column for the Herald. He wrote: "The UNESCO colloquium . . . convinced delegates from the West that we are fast losing the global war in the field of communications. What was billed as a conference on the 'Free and Balanced Flow of Information,' largely was a series of attacks on the U.S. news agencies and the Western media. This was led by the communists and leftists who exert a great influence on UNESCO." Beebe then added: "There were few newspapermen of stature from over the world. Instead there was a surplus of government officials, news agency representatives and several young radicals . . . . It was the consensus of the Western delegates that the most appropriate word for summarizing the future media outlook is 'frightening'."
Some contend that obstructing the flow of information violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Speaking for their Western readership, the newsmen make the point that if developed nations are to work cooperatively with developing nations in a new international economic order, they cannot do so in ignorance. As Philip M. Foisie of The Washington Post puts it: "We feel it is very important that the American reader and voter is informed by professionals about what is going on in other countries. As one example, if American voters are to spend tax dollars, they have a right to know what is going on."
While most admit inadequacies in their reportage, Western journalists also defend the job they are able to do under the circumstances. Executives emphatically deny any intentional bias or any form of conspiracy against anyone. Gerald Long, managing director of Reuters, noted in an interview that complaints often are made as a result of mistaken information about how news organizations work. He gave the example of an unnamed American ambassador in Africa who once charged that Reuters was guilty of worse distortion than TASS in reporting news from the United States because it transmitted only stories about racial strife. The ambassador was seeing only those few dispatches selected for publication by the local newspapers, a fraction of the complete Reuters report from the United States.
On the general subject, Long commented:
We are sometimes accused of not doing what we have not set out to do. How can you give a complete picture of India, in, say, 3,000 words a day? No, we're not and we can't. . . . We must operate on the principle of news as exception. Reuters tries to give a fair picture, a rounded picture, but we can only send a limited amount, and we must be selective.
With regard to cultural bias, Westerners also point out that most agencies employ nationals to write about their own countries, working in their own languages from the point of view of their own culture. Although most of what Uruguayans read about neighboring Argentina is from the global agencies, for example, the dispatches are almost all written originally in Spanish by Argentines with the idea in mind that they would be read largely by other Latin Americans.
The idea that a Third World news pool might solve some of these problems has been greeted by Western newsmen with a mixture of wariness, sympathy and skepticism. Most global news agency executives say they have no objection to a Third World pool if the idea is only to supplement the existing reports and not to hamper correspondents' work or to close off markets. Stanley M. Swinton, Vice President and Director of World Services for the AP, phrased his personal view this way:
My basic theory is the more news the better so long as news from one source is not permitted to squeeze out news from international agencies in a twisted Gresham's Law way. . . . For the international news agencies, it is self-defeating to declare war on the Third World's efforts to intramurally distribute more information.
And according to a disinterested observer, Dr. Jacques Freymond, the Swiss Director of the Geneva Institute for Graduate Studies and former Vice President of the International Committee of the Red Cross:
This is a normal process of evolution of the Third World. We have been too ethnocentric in our reporting of things. Just as in early France all roads led to the capital in spoke and hub patterns with no connecting links, so it is with the patterns of reporting from these countries. If we resist their doing this [forming a pool], we will force them into an either/or situation; we will force the opposite of what we would want. At the same time, we should try to maintain our world agencies to offer the presence of a pluralistic solution.
Some agencies have offered advice and equipment to new nonaligned agencies, and some retired executives have said they might be available as consultants. In private, however, Western experts generally agree that internal ideological differences, political rivalries and technical difficulties make it unlikely that any wide-based Third World pool would be functioning effectively soon. In fact, a number of eminent Third World journalists express similar skepticism.
For many, the limited response to Tanjug's efforts has shown that even sympathetic government-controlled papers do not want unwieldy streams of government press releases from other Third World countries unless there is some actual news value. Tanjug relays several hours of pool material daily, but little is used. And if the dispatches touch on the sort of sensitive political and economic issues that are of interest beyond national borders, they are often incomplete and unreliable. Also, many Third World leaders are reluctant to exchange domination by the international agencies for domination by a Third World agency. Already a rivalry has developed between Tanjug and Samachar of India for leadership in the pool, and this is widely seen as evidence that some larger Third World countries want to use the pool as a means to exert their own political influence.
"In a river, there are big fish and small fish, and the small fish must beware," observes Elebe Ma Ekonzo, director general of the Zaïre Press Agency and former ambassador to Belgium. Elebe prefers smaller regional groupings such as the Pan African agency, but even that, he said in an interview, could take years to organize because of the divisive factors at work.
Obviously, there are no simple solutions to the basic conflicts underlying the Western and Third World approaches to the role of the press. Extremists on both sides must realize that some positions are virtually irreconcilable, and if they are concerned with an improvement they must seek some form of constructive compromise. This is complicated by the character of opposing forces. "Third World" is a convenient term, but it describes little. It covers scores of countries, each with its own national interests and policies. Similarly, there is no common position among news organizations of a single country, much less among all Western countries. Individual editors may become more sensitive, but they are not likely to subscribe to any overall code. With this in mind, there are specific areas where progress might be made.
- Both sides should drop politicized hyperbole and take a reasoned look at realities. At the working level, many of the goals passionately espoused at international meetings were realized long ago. Some are preposterously expensive and impractical. Disinterested experts could compile basic data showing how national and international agencies are already exchanging news, how correspondents operate and what they write, what the news media in developed and developing countries actually use, and what technical and organizational difficulties need to be overcome for further cooperation. A country-by-country survey could detail working conditions of correspondents and the flow of information, including visa restrictions and censorship rules. International discussion should include professional journalists as well as - or instead of - ideology-minded civil servants. Criticisms should be specific, citing particularly objectionable dispatches rather than merely putting forth general ideological condemnations.
- On the basis of realistic information, proponents of the various viewpoints should discuss means of accord and cooperation in private meetings. Such working level sessions as the Tunis conference in November 1976 between European and Arab agencies can provide the means for exchanging criticism and suggestions while preventing frustrations from turning into hostility. There are already scores of joint accords among large and small agencies to share their reporting, and these could be built into a more complete and workable international network.
- A significant Western contribution could be made in several areas. A number of leading American publishers and broadcasters have organized the World Press Freedom Development Committee - which plans to take in news executives from elsewhere in the world - to encourage constructive cooperation. The initial proposal is to raise $1 million for several programs, including training seminars to acquaint Third World journalists with Western methods, visits by foreign journalists to American professional meetings, and trips by Western experts to provide technical assistance. The Committee can also help send Third World journalists to Western universities. There are other possibilities. Although no agency or news organization has funds for widescale training, governments could contribute jointly to an organization which could administer transnational training programs. Cross-cultural training, it should be noted, has limitations and dangers. Sometimes journalists may be frustrated in trying to apply the techniques of a free press in countries where there is government control of information. But a higher level of competence across borders can contribute significantly to future understanding.
- Finally, Third World authorities must be persuaded to see for themselves that their interests are enhanced more by cooperating with the Western press than by fighting it. Editors and officials should use every opportunity to demonstrate that Western reporting practices do not automatically mean hostility and conspiracy. And, in cases where pressure is applied, they should protest vigorously at every possible level. News organizations can use more imagination to find alternative sources of information when borders are closed. If Third World leaders can be shown that access to news will be defended - and that all countries will be covered whether or not reporters are allowed to enter - they are likely to be more reluctant to attempt to manage news. Although much can be gained by improving Western reporting and paying more attention to Third World viewpoints, Western editors must defend the right to report.
These measures are at least a beginning. Practical cooperation and Western defense of free-flowing information may not resolve the basic conflict, but they will go a long way toward ensuring that Americans, Argentines, and Angolans alike will be more accurately informed about what is happening in their world.