Fri, 28 Mar 2003

The press must focus on humanity in war coverage

One week into the Iraq war and everyday, scores of people tune into the news for the latest developments. Amid the "information bombardment" and allegations of unbalanced coverage, The Jakarta Post's Ati Nurbaiti talked to Chairman of the Press Council Atmakusumah Astraatmadja on the issue. Excerpts of the interview follow:

Question: Which media do you prefer for coverage on the war? How do you view reports from mainstream American media for instance, compared to BBC or Al Jazeera television networks?

Answer: I don't follow all the details that much, I think there's been quite enough information prior to the war. I'm just astonished that in this day and age when people could conduct dialog and debates, it (the war) happened anyway.

I've been more intensely following the statements of leaders -- made through CNN, Fox News, BBC, ABC and Deutsche Welle -- on what has been at the back of their minds regarding the planning of the war. In the United Kingdom-based Socialist Worker weekly, there are very critical articles which are not neutral, but oppose Tony Blair's Labor Party, and are antiviolence and antiwar.

I get what I'm looking for -- (as to) why the U.S. is so intent on taking over Iraq and earlier, Afghanistan -- it's related to the survival of Americans decades ahead, while we can only think of planning for tomorrow.

I don't quite like (the arguments) but they have their own reasons, not just to hit at suggested terrorists.

Regarding the war coverage, I pay attention when it comes to civilian casualties.

In times of war, the media often echoes the interests of its government. How do you view this "patriotic" tendency?

It would be better to focus coverage on the aspect of humanity. Any media could take up a political stance, but if they empathize with humanity, they wouldn't like the policies of President Saddam Hussein nor, for that matter, those of the Taliban.

How would one remain objective?

That depends in large part on the historical tradition of a nation's press. The history of the American press is largely patriotic, tending to see its government's policies as good; coverage after Sept. 11 was quite patriotic. The Japanese press has a tradition of being very negative toward its government leaders and politicians.

It's hard to expect a neutral press -- although Britain has a fairly strong tradition of an independent press.

What about the tradition of Middle Eastern press?

There is no free press in the Middle East, not even in Egypt -- I heard that journalists in the region last year demanded for more elbowroom. But Al Jazeera is considerably good and it's been criticized by some Middle Eastern countries.

What about the press here in their coverage regarding the war so far?

The media needs to continually stress that this is not a war about religion; there is considerable support for the war from Middle Eastern countries -- if they're neutral, I consider them supportive of the war -- and rallies across the world have included millions of people from many non-Muslim countries.

So what kind of media would you advise people to follow?

Those that try to be as neutral as possible and which pay a lot of attention to humanitarian aspects.

Observers say the only hope of stopping the war lies in American public opinion. But what if they're not getting such coverage as you described?

We see that public support for President George W. Bush is on the rise, which seems ironic given the worldwide protests -- I don't know if this is a result of "patriotic" coverage or whether Americans are not well-informed of international developments ... the protests in other countries reportedly did not get all that much coverage.

Hasn't that "insular" attitude changed after Sept. 11?

I fear their knowledge only expanded a little with information about the Muslim world ... Anyway, what's important for the press is to stress humanity and so far, the war coverage by our press has not been bad. Even in so-called Islamic media, the tendency has largely been toward not portraying this war as a religious one. Iraqis have been fleeing to Indonesia for years, and refugees usually flee countries with oppressive policies.

It is indeed difficult to be objective. How do you see our former coverage on East Timor, for instance?

After the secession (the September 1999 referendum), coverage has become more factual, describing that what happened was the joint fault of the military and the government -- compared to coverage during the New Order. We don't see, for instance, coverage which tends to be strongly "negative" about the ad-hoc human rights tribunal on atrocities in East Timor.

Likewise regarding Aceh -- coverage is comparatively better.

This shows that our press now has more empathy, which is the benefit of the freedom of expression and press freedom -- this brings awareness that (the media) does not always have to echo the views of those in power; even those who are powerless now have considerable space in the media (to express their views).