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close this bookGlobal Awareness Raising Project for Eastern Europe (North South Centre, 1994)
close this folderPrague workshop
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentEvaluation
View the documentIntroductory speeches
View the documentPlenary session - Presentation
View the documentPlenary session - Discussions
View the documentPresentations on ''Practical aspects of awareness-raising activities''
View the documentPanel discussion: "The Role of the media in influencing public opinion"
View the documentPlenary debate: ''The role of the media in influencing public opinion''
View the documentWorking group conclusions and recommendations

Plenary debate: ''The role of the media in influencing public opinion''

Chairperson: Ms Fionnuala Brennan

Ms Fionnuala Brennan: To briefly summarise these presentations, Josef Vesely talked about what he hopes will happen in the Czech and Slovak Republics in the reporting of Third World issues which his paper will cover realistically. Daniel Nelson gave many pointers on how NGOs can influence the media. Slavomir Hajet is very concerned about the difficult times ahead and the superficiality of images and approaches to global issues and the "inorganic" transplantation of ideologies, including Western civilisation. He calls for analyses of the complexity and gravity of the situation. Federico Nier-Fischer has focused on the distortion of information and how it has come about, and also on the need for the democratisation of national and international communication processes. I would now like to open the discussion to the floor.

Mr Josef Chromec, Opus Arabicum, Prague, OSFR: The situation in Western countries is that people do not get their picture of society from the mass media. Specifically in our society, during the totalitarian regime when one official position was stressed, the whole nation used to read the paper carefully in between the lines. So now people read all the newspapers and whatever the journalists says forms people's outlook. I heard this was not the same in the West. Journalists are responsible and, Unfortunately, they tend to keep to the principle of position. We need some independent views as well. People prefer to be entertained by the press, but they are also eager to get political news.

Mr Daniel Nelson: Everyone, everywhere, ought to read all newspapers in between the lines. People may be keen to get information, but the industry as a whole, this may also be true here in five years, wants to entertain because it has to deliver readers.

Mr Frantisek Vychodil, Kontinenty, Prague, CSFR: As a question directed to Mr Nier-Fischer, how, in relation to the monopolisation of information, do you evaluate the activities of the non-aligned countries with respect to the building up of information structures, information pools, etc.? Do you see any prospects for the International Information Order as it used to be discussed in the past? Will it have the same fate as the New International Economic Order (NIEO)?

Mr Nelson Agyemang, Youth for Population Information and Communication, Kumasi, Ghana: What the media has done is the commercialisation of negative images of the Third World, what, in part, Daniel Nelson has attributed to the NGOs. The issue is that the Eastern media should try to counter balance this. It may have had propaganda motives before, but it can focus on the more positive things. What is the trend now? Is there a tendency towards the monopolisation of the press or will the trend change in terms of genuine reporting on the South, highlighting also positive aspects. Is the media in the East joining the West? However motivated they may be, the pictures of Somalia are a snare to me and I hate it as much as you might. Most of Africa, and Somalia itself, is not like the images of the photographs.

Chairperson: First, please address the questions of the monopolisation of the press trends vis-à-vis more positive views of the South.

Mr Federico Nier-Fischer: The problem with the UN is that only governments are represented there. Governments are always trying to influence the information flow. The fight for independent journalists has to take place in every society. In Western countries, even in the UK which in a way has been a model for journalism in terms of style and format, this fight is still continuing. Democratisation will allow more voices to be heard. This does mean the use of governments. It can involve governments, but journalists need to be trained to act independently, consulting governments and NGOs and others, and to provide a fair range of views and panorama of the process. This is determined by a demand from a market which is emerging and growing. In Eastern Europe there is a demand for coverage on the transformation of these societies and there is a need to reflect the social transition and global issue as conceived by humanity today. The issue of women's rights is very important. A regression of these rights can presently be noticed. Also environmental issues, relations with the South, minority rights, etc. Many global dimensions should be reflected in coverage from Eastern Europe, instead of seeing where business can be done. This is very important for understanding what is happening in developing societies, the implementation of new emerging values of democracy which are presently not transmitted. This causes much misunderstanding and fighting and is systematically preventing co-operation. It is even an obstacle in East-South trade.

Chairperson: The next question was how the Eastern press will report news from the South. Will they follow Western images which are largely negative?

Mr Daniel Nelson: Alternative media is one of the great hopes that exists. It is really growing and IPS is just one example, others include Gemini, that I used to work for, APS in East Africa, Depth News in Asia. Many NGOs have good publications, Third World Features from Malaysia for instance, computer networks are beginning to run really well and there is a small agency in Switzerland financed by NGOs. There are a lot of good things happening which, in a small way, are quite influential. NGOs really have to use these as a stepping stone to the mainstream media, as well as creating a genuine alternative. I am not qualified to speak on the situation in Eastern Europe, but in the West things have improved quite considerably in terms of reporting the South amongst certain parts of the media, yet not among the very popular parts. As far as the New International Information Order is concerned, it is as dead as the NIEO, but the issues behind both of them still remain to be tackled. They have to be returned to in another way, but not under those same names.

Chairperson: Can I ask a reply to the question of whether the Eastern media is going to follow the same line as the Western media in negative reporting?

Mr Josef Vesely: On my computer, I am able to compare the Associated Press with our press agency and the reports by our correspondents. This is a big advantage as every day I have the possibility of making comparisons. After several months of carefully studying reports of the Associated Press, I do have the impression that it has a pluralistic view of the situation in Third World countries. There are, of course, several levels of AP reporting. The first level consists of short news flashes which are mentioned on the television or radio. These are more or less extremes, as they mainly focus on the State Secretary or on the Head of Government. But they also publish dozens of features and stories, including information on the former Yugoslavia and Somalia. Quite recently, we had five colleagues in the former Yugoslavia, some of whom went into Sarajevo to write in-depth articles on the situation there. We printed an AP story by a US colleague who showed the situation in a highly professional manner. As an editor, I have to decide who writes the best story. If the US colleague is, because he/she was in a better position and saw more details or from an angle which allowed him/her to obtain a more exact description of the situation, I will print it together with a view from my colleagues. The largest change in our work is that we now have an enormous number of resources. Apart from magazines, we can use satellites, etc. It is up to us what to use. I would like to ask you not to create any international orders because then we would need a big "hands man" who would tell us what and what not to print. As a professional journalist, I need maximum free information without any limitations so I can give my readers the best possible information. This is my opinion concerning the situation with our paper today.

Chairperson: Do you have a comment on the views from the East on the South?

Mr Slavomir Hayet: I can endorse what has just been said by my colleague in so far as that I also have access to information. I also do not find the information of the large agencies to be very defective. However, there is some deficiency in the analytical approach, in the sense that too little analysis is done and it sometimes tends to be superficial. The point made by Mr Nelson that the media does not report processes but events, is largely substantiated. I am, more or less, in the middle of the two extreme views.

Mr Jan Pakulski, North-South Centre, Lisbon, Portugal and Youth for Development and Co operation, Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Related to what was said earlier and my observation of East European countries, I can see two substantial differences when compared to mainstream Western television and newspaper coverage. On the one hand, it is quite striking that there is a strong tendency to rely on picking information from the large mainstream agencies. This is probably also related to the fact that many Central and East European newspapers have a limited number of correspondents and many need to rely on news agencies. IPS is an important initiative but still has a rather marginal share in this part of the world. The consequence is that people see surprisingly few features in the press, compared to the Western press. When talking about processes versus events, journalists do have certain responsibilities. If a racial attack takes place and all you report on it is that it is a sad and deplorable event, you might actually encourage similar actions by spreading the message that these things happen. If, however, you have an opportunity to do a feature on this, giving background information and elaborating on the dangers involved, you act out your responsibility. The other trend is the euphoria about Europe. Of the international coverage, 90% is related to Europe. An editor of a Hungarian newspaper told me that the paper was instructed to have the word "Europe'' on the front page of every issue, because it sells better. That is dangerous. In our discussion we seem to have run over the very important issue of the media's coverage on development and the Third World. I would actually like to take a step backwards and talk about the general coverage of international events and include on the agenda issues like the environment and human rights which, of course, also relate to developing countries.

Chaiperson: Jan Pakulski has raised three issues. First of all, the responsibility of the media, particularly regarding the question of racism and how you can deal with the situation when there are few features and you are reliant on the mainstream press for the reporting of facts and events. Secondly, the euphoria about Europe in the press and, thirdly, the general coverage of international events, human rights, etc. Can I ask the panel to react to any of these issues?

Mr Josef Vesely: The question of media responsibility is a very topical issue in our country. We are going through a period of transition and rebirth at the moment and it seems that it is more important that we establish the general framework of the rule of law and pluralistic democracy. To be frank, the main priority is the responsibility of the members of Parliament. We freely elected our representatives for the first time and we are in a different position from our colleagues in traditional democracies.

Mr Jana Ondrackova, Czech and Slovak National Committee for UNICEF, Prague, CSFR: I used to be a journalist until 1970 when I was thrown out after the invasion. I am now a freelance journalist, so maybe I have a very personal attitude to this issue. I do not believe that you can divide the responsibility and the moral attitude of a journalist. The journalist has exactly the same responsibility whether he/she is reporting on the home front, on international events or on events in general. If he/she exaggerates on a point, it can be seen as a mistake and you can accept his/her apologies, unless you want to destroy the journalist's reputation and life. It is a very difficult matter. I find it totally unacceptable for any divisions to be made whatsoever and to separate in any way a journalist's, and anybody's responsibility towards people here and abroad, towards nations, races, ethnic minorities, etc.

Mr Josef Chromec: The journalists in our country look at events from the point of view of what they want to see, instead of what they really see, in order to attract readers. You get the idea that there are only terrorists down in the South whose only meaning of life is to shed blood, etc. When the liberation of Kuwait started, our paper immediately began to write about possible bomb attacks on Prague. This is what I mean with journalistic responsibility.

Mr Pavel Kaplicky, Jiri z Podebrad Foundation for European Integration, Prague, CSFR: Another thing is that from the mass media we mainly learn that the picture of the Cold War has changed into local, hot and bloody conflicts in these former territories of the Eastern bloc.

Mr Josef Vesely: I do not like to speak for all journalists, but I will speak for myself and my colleagues. I agree that there are many short-comings. I am often outraged by many commentaries and articles in the papers. On the other hand, I am very happy as a journalist that we finally do have a plurality of opinion. Until '89, we spoke about what the Czech and Slovak press reported. Now, with a few exceptions, we talk about different people. This is such progress. I never thought our generation would live long enough to experience this. That is why journalists should be given more freedom.

Mr Daniel Nelson: There is a tension between editorial and commercial interests, that is to say "ownership". This is the reality, especially when we introduce words like "responsibility". Generally speaking, certainly in Britain and among some other journalists from abroad whom I know, they would say that their responsibility is to report and that is where it stops. They will not take responsibility for anything else, not for the possible effects of a certain style of reporting, as commented Upon by Jan. Journalists will not take it on themselves to take responsibility if a riot is started when something is reported in a particular way. It is not clear who decides what should be given attention. There are news values, but they are never stated. They are something journalists carry around or they are occasionally stated by the management, but usually in very general terms. In terms of Europe, for instance, there is this old joke in the British newspaper that one Britain equals five French, equals 50 Czechs, equals a 1000 Chinese. That is broadly true on every paper I have worked on. If 300 Chinese are killed in an accident it will not rate as highly as some incident involving a Briton. This also happens vice versa. I was a correspondent for a Nigerian newspaper in London for several years and, basically, they wanted to hear if a Nigerian got into trouble, etc., and so be more concerned about the Nigerian community. There are rules which journalists do not tend to speak out loud, but they are there. When I was sub-editing on the Financial Times, which I think the best national newspaper in Britain, we had two stories on consecutive days on Bangladesh. I was editing a third one, there was a series of coups taking place, when the editor came in and said: "Not another story about Bangladesh, this paper is not about poor people." And, in a sense, he was right. YOU identify your readers and you write for them. There is no objective news. If I am at a press conference and I am reporting for the Financial Times, I pick Up certain information and discard the rest. It depends on your readers and on your editor, who is the number one person you have to get past. A newspaper is a business as well. What will be interesting in Eastern Europe, is what sort of responsibility will the journalists manage to capture vis-à-vis the management, given that market pressure and the management will, perhaps, change and whether they can hold on to it in a different way, as it is not something which is prescribed. In the United Kingdom, the journalists have, in some way, lost out to the management whereas in the Netherlands they do not seem to have. It will be an interesting struggle here.

Mr Federico Nier-Fischer: Referring to the question of an artificial New Information Order, I had not said that I am in favour of making such an order, but outlined how the existing one works and its shortcomings. If you are happy to learn everything through AP, then you are free to do so. There is nothing wrong with that, but there are other angles, purposes and ethos in this world to learn about. In the German speaking area, IPS provides another copy of the news which is not contradictory, but is the contextualisation of processes which are not covered by other news agencies. This is legitimate. I do not believe in objectivity as a certain perspective is always taken on reality. The more images we get together, the better we are informed. We are not informed by a flood of information and hearing the same news four times. So, one approach is to try and complement the existing coverage of events. This is valuable and we rely on these markets, not on governments.
A perfect scheme has developed for co-operation between NGOs and the media. NGOs in the North give another perspective on the North and it is nice that they are committed to bringing other articles into newspapers. Yet, I would also emphasise another basic question which is to get the media to also pay attention to the other flows coming from the South. Lobbying the media involves the consideration of other flows, trying to find columnists and experts who let their voice be heard. Not just the interpretation of our problems, but also the involvement in our problems and the actors expressing themselves. NGOs should also look into this, as it helps the professionalisation of organisations in lobbying, projects and writing articles in the professional world. Basically, it consists of educating editorial desks, just by looking at what others consider to be the main problems. The pressing problems felt by the population in the South is different from what people feel is important here. Information flows have to complemented. There are actors and creditors and there are different perspectives.

Ms Nadja Andaslova: I come from the Ecumenical Council of Churches in the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic and would like to make a few general comments. I believe we are moving, in a way, in high spirits and I would like to concentrate on each of us personally. We in Central and Eastern Europe are experiencing a great change. Our friends from Western countries appear to ask us to share our experience with them. We would be happy to do so, but, on the other hand, we also have to realise that we have to answer to how we lived during those past years and in what ways we failed. We have often asked ourselves those questions. I attended a symposium in a foreign country quite recently where I presented the following issue. Even though you have not experienced these changes, you also have to evaluate your past. How did you approach the problems of the oppressed world and how do you approach it now in the Third World? And we should all answer this question, whether in the liberated Central and Eastern Europe or in the traditionally free world or in the Southern hemisphere of the planet and whether we had the courage to do this. Speaking on behalf of the Ecumenical Council of Churches, we want to do this from the position of faith. We are responsible for this world and for those who suffer. I should also recommend to you to turn to your conscience. A conscience we all have, which we often used to lose in Eastern Europe and which we are rediscovering. We should analyse our conscience, whether from the point of view of Christianity or from conscience and I believe this is something which unites us and which is our common objective.

Chairperson: We have now come to the end of our session. Thank you all very much for your contributions.