Category Archives: IJ reading response

Radio, Free Us?

As a journalism student who had a certain wariness of media agendas beaten into her for the past four years, I cannot help but approach the idea of public diplomacy with caution.  In light of the rough U.S. approach to foreign policy during the last eight years–oh, heck, the last fifty years–anything that rings of “diplomacy” initially piques my interest. I’m disgusted by the history of wars (legal, proxy and otherwise) and subversive military funding.  I am young, and I want another way.

However, words can be just as dangerous as weapons.

Public diplomacy, through the form of radio broadcasts, carries the potential for peacefully winning the respect, if not the acceptance, of populations beyond our borders.  A 2005 article in the Columbia Journalism Review–as well as our class discussion last week–indicates that  Voice of America may come as close to careful journalism as a public diplomacy program possibly can.  In the CJR article, Corey Pein writes,

The thousand-strong staff of the Voice includes serious journalists who are emphatic about the agency’s code, which mandates editorial independence and fair treatment for all points of view. Its advocates see a straightforward journalistic approach as the best possible demonstration of American values in a time when the nation’s popularity is slipping around the world.

On some level, the extent of VOA’s objectivity and story variability must be questioned.  After all, public diplomacy is a euphemism for propaganda. However, Pein also argues that VOA is better than the strain of public diplomacy emerging under the Bush administration.  Even as the VOA English and Arabic programs are being cut, new programs are garnering support from government funding. In particular, Pein focuses on Radio Sawa and Al Hurra. According to critics, the programming of these two stations relies heavily on pop music and shameless propaganda.  While Arab listeners certainly understood the source of VOA’s Arabic program, CJR reports that they find the two new stations unbearably obvious in their propaganda:

Six months after [Al Hurra’s] launch, Tariq Al Humayd, the editor of the pan-Arab paper Asharq al-Awsat, which has shown more sympathy to America’s presence in the region than others, lamented Al Hurra’s sorry state: “We hoped that Al Hurra would emerge as the voice of reason and a source of information and investigative reports at the level of those produced by the U.S. media. The last thing we expected was that the United States would try to sell us its bad goods.” Mamoun Fandy argues that Al Hurra undercuts America’s proclaimed hopes for the Middle East by failing to promote free speech and women’s rights.

This type of public diplomacy will get us nowhere if it continues to be a major part of foreign policy during the next four years. It will only emphasis the perception of the U.S. as a hypocritical occupier, which uses free speech and democracy as a guise for imperialism. That won’t win us any international buddies.

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And now a brief divergence to Russia and the media

It’s said that when you learn something new, you suddenly find it everywhere.

I recently finished reading A Russian Diary by Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was shot and killed at the entrance to her apartment in 2006. The book documents in great detail the erosion of Russia’s young democracy under Putin. Politkovskaya knew that the book would never be published within Russia, yet her tone within the pages is certainly not a plea for foreign help. It is an account of what the Russian press ignores, an expression of frustration with the Russian people.

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an article that also discussed some of the issues outlined in Politkovskaya’s book: political bullying, oppression of the media, and manipulation of the polls. The article was then posted in Russian on a livejournal page called The New York Times in Moscow, which provides space for readers to comment. The comments are being translated to English and posted to the original New York Times page.

The comments cover a wide range of opinions, from outrage at the article’s “propaganda” to affirmation of the article’s accuracy. However, among the posts I’ve read online and the snippets that initially caught my attention in the print edition, one common sentiment reigns supreme. The problems in Russia are problems for the Russians to solve, not for the U.S. to analyze.

One person with the username trzp succinctly wrote, “All of this is true, though why are we being taught democracy by those who are fighting in Iraq and maintaining a concentration camp in Guantanamo?”

A strained relationship between the United States and Russia still remains from the Cold War era. That’s nothing new. Politkovskaya’s book and the online feature of the New York Times article come very close to creating a dialog between the citizens of the two countries separated by distance and reality. Most importantly, both serve as a reminder to ourselves to know the realities of the world we live in. We must refuse to take things on face value. Politkovskaya wrote what she needed to. Who is writing about the erosion of human rights in the U.S.? What are we willing to accept at face value in our own communities? Where and how must we question?

Oh, technology

So, WordPress has been driving me up the wall the past few days. Not only does my new layout not display correctly, but also the WordPress.com homepage frequently refuses to load, making it impossible for me to sign in and post.

Rather frustrating, especially when I’m actually on a roll with my project.

Anyway, I’ve doing research for the final project in International Journalism, because I need to start thinking about how the information I cover there will apply to my independent study. In class today, Vadim presented a list of media elements we should consider while working on our projects. So far, I can think of a general skeleton for those elements in Mexico:

  • Cultural characteristics – languages include Spanish as well as various Mayan and other regional indigenous languages
  • Cultural policy is a term that appears frequently in articles about Mexican mass media. After the 1994 implementation of NAFTA, scholars and nationalists rose concerns about an increase in U.S. media and, therefore, a loss of Mexican culture. This argument takes on different shapes in each article.
  • Telenovelas very popular for TV entertainment; radio and Internet have played a huge role in the Zapatista and APPO movements
  • Somewhat worldcentric in its media flow; i.e., Televisa and TV Azteca export to the U.S. and other Latin American countries at the same time that Mexico imports U.S. news, movies, and music
  • According to Internet World Stats, 23,7000,000 of Mexico’s nearly 109 million people (21.8%) use the Internet. Of course, this does not distinguish between people who have Internet access in their homes and those who pay at widely popular Internet cafés.

Also, before Mexico signed onto NAFTA, the state government ran its own television network, Imevisión. It attempted to compete with privately-owned Televisa, but struggled “due to an inflated payroll, revolving-door leadership, feeble programming, and a notoriously small prime-time audience” (Wilkinson, “Cultural Policy in a Free-Trade Environment”). It was privatized and renamed Televisión Azteca.

I’ve found other articles on the regulation of radio in Mexico, which is probably what I’ll end up focusing on. It seems as if Mexican television is dominated by market forces, while the radio is repeatedly used by social movements to promote their cause.  More to come on that later.

Quick update

I’ve fallen a bit behind on both my blog and my research journal. That should be remedied by the end of the weekend.

Until then, I’d like to note something that’s been on my mind for a while:

Three days after the New York Times runs the story on Abdul Razzaq Hekmati’s death in Guantanamo, military prosecutors announce that six Guantanamo detainees may finally be put on trial for 9/11.

It’s as if they’re saying, “No, wait! These people are all bad guys, remember? We’re gonna take care of ’em, don’t worry.”

Then, in the New York Times yesterday:

“WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to limit judges’ authority to scrutinize evidence against detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The administration said the court could still add the issue to its calendar this year and hear arguments in a rare May session, then render a decision by late June.

The case is linked to another dispute already at the high court in which detainees are asking the justices to rule that they can use the U.S. civilian courts to challenge their indefinite imprisonment.

Another option for the court is to take no action on the new case until it decides on the extent of the detainees’ legal rights.

In the new case, the administration is asking the court to undo a federal appeals court ruling that broadens its authority to look at evidence about whether detainees have been properly characterized as enemy combatants.”

Also, this kind of enraged me:

Time Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S. (New York Times)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Abdul Razzaq Hekmati was regarded here as a war hero, famous for his resistance to the Russian occupation in the 1980s and later for a daring prison break he organized for three opponents of the Taliban government in 1999.

But in 2003, Mr. Hekmati was arrested by American forces in southern Afghanistan when, senior Afghan officials here contend, he was falsely accused by his enemies of being a Taliban commander himself. For the next five years he was held at the American military base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he died of cancer on Dec. 30. ”

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What’s that, Ching Cheong? Did you say something?

My international journalism class today focused the flow of information in the media. The fundamental concepts, based on our readings in Global Communication by Thomas McPhail, established that a Western perspective dominates international media and portrays the developing world as “coups and earthquakes.”

This analysis of international media first emerged in the 1960s, under the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO).

The current debate evolves around developing journalism, in which the governments of developing journalism would limit free-speech in favor of stability. In other words, reports from developing countries would focus on pro-government news in the hopes of deflecting destructive criticism and continuing with national development programs.

However, allowing only government-sponsored media for the sake of stability means much more than sacrificing freedom of speech. The approach begs the question, What criticisms are being suppressed, and from whom?

Now, I’m making two broad assumptions here, so correct me if I’m using faulty logic:

  1. Developing nations have large poor populations who may be unhappy with the status quo (i.e. current regime), and,
  2. Stabilizing the country either means improving the situation of those large poor populations or suppressing them so they cannot rebel.

Now, if stabilizing the country means improving the situation of the poor, then what criticisms would need to be suppressed by pro-government news? Improving the quality of life for the majority often means making sacrifices at the expense of the elite. The elite certainly won’t buy into the limited news perspective, especially if they’re conveniently tied to the interests of pushy international corporations  and U.S. diplomats.

Therefore, limiting freedom of speech in favor of stabilization must mean something else. And when stabilizing the country means suppressing the poor and eliminating their will to resist (see Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Mexico, and Myanmar, among others), then the limits on free speech only represent the the tip of an iceberg of potential human rights abuses. Why insist on only pro-government media if the government is acting with a clear conscious?  Not to mention that these restrictions on the press must be enforced, and who’s there to monitor the means of enforcement with no one allowed to blow the whistle? Who will complain about arrests, torture, disappearances or property seizures? Oh, that’s right — no one.

As Emily said in class, developmental journalism is not the only alternative to the one-way flow of information from the West to the periphery nations.  One option, Emily went on to say, may include the growth of indigenous media, as people in developing nations gain greater access to the Internet.

Ultimately, what distresses me the most is that I find myself stuck in a debate as circular as the chicken-or-egg puzzle.  Indigenous media is limited by resources, which are affected by global structural inequalities, which are perpetuated by ignorance and stagnation on the part of Western citizens, which is fueled by the limitations of indigenous media…

International Journalism reading response

Fukuyama’s “End of History?” and Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations?”

Fukuyama’s main argument is that the modern liberal democracy is the culmination of human history. In class, it was argued that democracy is such a new concept that we cannot tell how long it will last. However, this argument forgets that a form of democracy actually existed thousands of years ago in Athens. At the time, democracy consisted of a city-state that granted governmental privileges to elite men. Modern democracy of the Western world extended political rights — albeit reluctantly — to non-white men, the poor, and women. Today, democracy also attempts to hold together large nation-states in the form of either representative or parliamentary democracy.

What we experience as modern liberal democracy is really one of many manifestations of the democratic concept. Fukuyama refers to the United States’ form of representative democracy and consumer culture as an “offshoot” of European civilization (final paragraph). However, I do find it problematic when Fukuyama summarizes “the context of the universal homogenous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic” (part II, final paragraph). Our easy access to consumer goods frequently means devastatingly low wages for someone else on the production end. When this is the case, it is no wonder that “liberal democracies” with free economies have been toppled across Central and South America in favor of regimes with more populist agendas. Fukuyama is wise to note that liberal democracies are plagued by racism, poverty, and other forms of social injustice. On the other hand, claiming one form of political organization to be correct ignores the reality for many minority and/or indigenous communities who simply want autonomy. How would that fit into the picture of the liberal democratic nation-state?

Huntington does more to address the very real tensions between cultures. He describes conflicts between civilizations (West vs. Islam, for example) as well as conflicts within civilizations (Mexico’s attempt to become a North American country, while its indigenous peoples lose their cultures and their livelihoods). It it important to recognize this phenomenon, for the world does yet consist of Fukuyama’s universal homogeneous states. Theories, politics and morals are not universal; rather they are relative to the context of any group of people. However, as Prof. Isakov pointed out in his presentation, we must not allow “conflict of civilizations” concept to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Expecting other cultures to come into conflict with “us” (whoever “we” are) may arguably make us good on the defense, but it could also risk a trigger-happy approach to a rapidly shrinking world.