Report from a seminar 21. January 2002
Organized by Norwegian PEN in cooperation with the Norwegian Union of Journalists, Norwegian Non-fiction Writers and Translators Association, The Department of Media and Communications – University of Oslo. Supported financially by Fritt Ord.
About the speakers:
Arne Ruth is the former editor of the Swedish daily “Dagens Nyheter” and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Oslo, Department of Media and Communications. Jonathan Steele is a former war correspondent for The Guardian. He has been covering a number of wars and conflicts all over the world, among others in the Balkans and in Afganisan. Jan Guillou is a noted Swedish journalist, publisher, author and public figure, notorious for his anti-authoritian views and his crime-novels. Andrew Puddiphatt is a British civil rights activist and is currently the executive director of ARTICLE 19. Rune Ottosen is professor at the Journalism Programme, Faculty of Journalism, Library and Information Science at the Oslo College as well as president of the Norwegian Non-fiction Writers and Translators Association. Kjell Olaf Jensen is a translator and critic and president of Norwegian PEN.
About this report:
This is the report from the first part of the seminar on Freedom of Expression and Media Self-Censorship, focusing on the situation after 11. September 2001. The second part of the seminar focused on self-censorship in a more local, Norwegian setting. There were no manuscrips and so the whole seminar was recorded. The tapes have been transcribed by Eirik Welo at the Human Rights House in Oslo. The manuscript was then edited and the most obvious, oral inaccuracies and repetitions were corrected or rewritten by Kjell Olaf Jensen and Carl Morten Iversen of Norwegian PEN. In essence, though, this report is more or less a word-by-word account of the short lectures and the discussions at the seminar. We have taken the liberty of issuing this report without asking each and every participant to comment on or to correct what they actually said. So please bear with us if minor mistakes are still to be found – those would be the responsibility of Norwegian PEN.
Oslo, June 2002
Kjell Olaf Jensen:
I am very proud to be able to organize this seminar on self-censorship in the media but also most grateful towards our partners without whom we would not have been able to organize this, first of all the University of Oslo, represented by professor Arne Ruth, the Institute of Media and Communication. Arne is also the leader of the Swedish P.E.N., our sister organization, but he is on loan to the University of Oslo for one year, and we are very happy to be able to make use of Arne’s knowledge, kindness and working capacity during the year when he is here. We also want to thank the Norwegian Association of Non-fiction Writers and Translators, represented by its president, Rune Ottosen, and also the Norwegian Association of Journalists, who have all contributed to make this seminar possible. And we are especially greatful to our guests: Jonathan Steele, from the newspaper the Guardian in Manchester, Jan Guillou, – it would be an insult to pretend that it would be necessary to introduce him and Andrew Puddephatt from the freedom of expression organization Article 19 in London. We are very happy that you could all be here and to avoid using more time than necessary I just give the floor to you Arne, please.
Well I will just give a few brief reflections on the theme and why it is relevant to discuss media self-censorship, and it can be found in various manners, the point of defining it is that whenever journalists, who proclaim to be the purveyors of relevant information in a democracy fail to do so due to circumstances which are not registered or told, the audience, the readers or the viewers of the electronic media, is misled, because they are still in official terms told that they should rely on the fairness and the critical attitude of the media, which is supposed to be the self-evident definition of the journalistic profession. Open self-censorship is rarely discussed among journalists as an item, and I think that is partly due to the fact that sometimes it is the most devious and dangerous form of self-censorship because we do not even admit to ourselves that at some points we do suppress information due to various reasons. One of the rare cases where it has been openly discussed is in relation to the Finnish situation. Simo Pekka Nortemo, chief editor of Helsingin Sanomat, the largest Finnish newspaper, in the early nineties published an essay in the Journal of Nordic Communication Research, where he very openly and in detail discussed the mechanisms of Finnish self-censorship during the Cold War. And in a way, the reason why I think it is possible, and has been possible in Finland to do such an open discussion, is that it was admitted among Finnish journalists that they had to take some precautionary measures. There was an accord struck in Finland of the limits of for example criticizing the Soviet Union. Actually, in a way journalists were more honest about this than in other countries. And I will just give a summary in English:
It is a fact that both politicians and especially the official public service radio and several of the printed media tended to print or broadcast rather idyllic descriptions of matters related to the Soviet Union, while they were more profoundly and openly critical to western issues. The professor of mass communication at the University of Tammerfors was also chairman of the Journalist organization of the Socialist Countries. The official Finnish Journalist organization had an association agreement with this organization while it was also a member of the Western international organization of journalists. However, it is rather easy in the aftermath of the Cold War for a, for instance, Swedish journalist to almost laugh at the Finnish colleagues because in my opinion the problem with a country like Sweden is the strange definition of objectivity, the fact that Sweden had in many senses double standards when it comes to this, and I do not have to tell you that among the members of this panel is Jan Guillou, who published together with his colleague Peter Bratt for the first time the truth about Swedish intelligence in the after-war period, the fact that the Swedish government did not even tell its citizens that there was an organization which did among other things secret surveillance of Swedish citizens, the Information Bureau (IB), whereas in other Western countries, there was at least an officially registered secret organization, even if people did not know what it did. In Sweden the double standard was so profound that people did not even know that it existed until this truth was told to the Swedish people. As a result the journalists who did this investigation and published their results, and their main source were sentenced to one year in prison as a result, and that was not revoked. There has never been an official excuse, which I think is terribly shameful for my country, despite the fact that in all senses the truth told at that time has been confirmed and very much deepened after that period, and I think the question we will have to ask now is: why was it possible to keep this matter secret for decades after the war? I am pretty sure that some of my colleagues at that time actually knew that there existed such an organization. That goes to one aspect of self-censorship which I think we will have to reflect upon. During the Cold War, to an extent which I do not think we can judge anywhere, journalists were also active as informers to various secret services, not only in the sense of being spies for foreign countries, but in the sense of being spies for their own country. If I compare the Norwegian and the Swedish discussion of such matters, I would say that the Norwegian discussion has been much more open. The so-called “Lundkommisjon” is in my opinion a model of how such things should be handled. The fact that there were open, public discussions about it, that politicians who were involved in secret surveillance had to give testimony under oath, in full public view, whereas in Sweden, where we are now trying to deal with this, there is a group of three people who are supposed to deal with this, certainly not in public view, and it is attracting very little interest in comparison to the interest drawn by the “Lundkommisjon”. And also in terms of literature dealing with this: I have done some research on books published on the subject, including the involvement of journalists in intelligence operations, where I must say also in that sense the work of journalists trying to delineate and describe this in Norway is better than in my country, Sweden. This problem of journalists being active in a secret fashion is, I think, one aspect of very much influencing the credibility of journalism as a profession. The fact that some journalist have been willing to act in this fashion without openly proclaiming it, is in my opinion one of the major dangers of the long term credibility of this profession, but it is simply in my opinion a reflection of the psychology of our profession in the sense that we are dependent on relationships, we need sources of all sorts, and you do not get anything for free. You enter a relationship with someone who can provide you with information, which means that you barter: you give something and you get something. And that in my opinion is one of the unofficial levels of self-censorship. For instance, when I started my journalistic career as a police reporter in Gothenburg, I got some insides to the mechanisms: Which colleagues got the information, got the stories of drama from the police department in Gothenburg, and which did not. Those who had built strong personal relationship with specific police officers got the stories, and in order to make a career in that field you had to develop such relationships. Actually, only by establishing friendships can the media have access to police records, and when that friendship is strained, those records are suddenly no longer available. And that is the truth of the matter, and that goes for government sources, it goes for all sorts of power holder sources, and I think it is far too rarely discussed. That is also one of the reasons why journalist have, to some extent, tended to act as informal informers for intelligence services, and that is certainly an aspect which does influence also the way things are told and reported.
Norway has one event which is very much an illustration of this strange distortion of information due to these informal relationships, and that is the so-called police-violence discussion in Bergen. I know some aspects of it because I commissioned an in-depth report about it when I was editor of Dagens Nyheter. We published a full page story about it, but since I came to Norway I have learned more about it, because I have read due to the help of Rune Ottosen, who has been deeply involved in dealing with that matter, some of the essays and other pieces of discussion which have been issued in relation to that. It seems to me to be an extremely valid, solid documentation of the dangers of these informal relationships between journalists and officials, where those officials of a different kind than the police, who confronted the issue were branded as traitors. They were actually attacked by some of the journalists who were involved in this very corrupt way of dealing with things: The fact that there was an extensive use of violence towards people arrested in Bergen at the police head quarters. The fact that it has been raised, that it eventually also became a matter of public awareness is, I think, the way these things have to be handled. Citizens have to react against the corruption of journalists in exactly the same manner as they should react against the corruption of officials. Whenever journalists misuse their power, they should be confronted in exactly the same manner, because they act under the pretence of being the servers of the public interest, and when they are not they would have to be confronted.
Now, as to 11th of September issues, which are the main issues for the morning session, it also has something to do with the American climate, and I am not going to comment on the current situation, I hope that will be done in the course of this discussion. I will just give some brief reminders relating to problems of democracy in the United States, because in my opinion this country is a paradox. There is on the one hand a Constitution which gives far greater and more solid definitions of freedom of speech than any European country has, and I do not have to remind our British members that the British case when it comes to constitutional guarantees for the freedom of speech and freedom of information is in my opinion laughable. The fact that instead of making official documents public, they are secret until they are decided to be public. The way the Northern Ireland conflict has been defined in relation to journalistic report in the electronic media, where for a long time no one was allowed to interview members or affiliates of the IRA, is in my opinion something which should have been confronted at the European level.
The point, however, is that in the United States you have had a history of confrontation, trying to limit freedom of speech, which has then been followed by a revulsion against that where some of the terrible acts have been made public. The McCarthy history is perhaps the best known, but for a while it was absolutely terrible. I do not have to remind you of that. During the Vietnam [war] period, among the national political leaders who were put under surveillance, not only by the FBI, but by the army intelligence service, were George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, Edmund Musky, Judy Ann McCarthy and also various – Adelaide Stevenson was also among these – very prominent, liberal politicians who were put under extensive surveillance and registered in detail. Organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization of Martin Luther King, and of course Martin Luther King himself, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Organization for Women, Operation Breadbasket, Young Americans for Freedom, American Friends Service Committee, these are just a few of the organizations which were put under extensive surveillance in that period. By the way, in all such periods of surveillance, the records have been kept, even after the matter was discovered and confronted. That is one of the problems of this, that whenever surveillance is made, usually the records are kept and can be used for future purposes, as there are very few people with an insight into what is actually in the FBI or the CIA archives when it comes to personal surveillance.
But of course the most terrible illustration, in my opinion, of what can happen in a country like United States, and where one can learn something, is what happened during the first World War, because there was an element of mass hysteria in that period where the question of loyalty was the crucial issue. That is my last point, the fact that whenever something can be defined in terms of national security, the term ‘loyalty’ becomes the crucial issue. You can brand some people as traitors, as people who are disloyal to national unity, and they can be targeted in many ways like under the McCarthy period, also in other manners, also judicially and also in terms of getting all sorts of disadvantages in their civil and professional lives. That is not just an American issue, but I think whenever people in power need to define their power in solid terms, whenever there is an uncertainty about political power, the tendency to brand some people as traitors, as disloyal, is present in any country, and thus part of the problem, also in democracies, is that democracies are built on the idea of majority will, and majorities can be branded, they can be nurtured in order also to distinguish the majority from various minorities. The main case of a solid democratic, public discussion is that minority issues, even if we dislike them thoroughly, are able to appear in public, and I think that holds true also of the situation after the 11th of September. That takes public commitment from journalists as citizens, not as professionals, because if we journalists do not realize that we are citizens first, and that we are not better or in any sense supposed to have privileges different from other citizens, then the entrapment of becoming part of a power structure where we start acting as self-censors in accordance with other powers which we only know ourselves, that is then the end of our credibility as journalists. Thank you.
And with that I give the floor to Mr. Jonathan Steele who is associate editor of The Guardian in London, and who has been, among many other things, Moscow correspondent for The Guardian during the crucial, historic period of the Gorbachev era. He was there during that era and for a while after Gorbachev was toppled from power. But he has also been dealing with other issues related for instance to Afghanistan, he visited Afghanistan as a journalist in November, that is after the 11th of September, and he is a person who has reflected much on the professional criteria of foreign reporting.
Well, it is a great pleasure to be here in Oslo. First of all, just a brief point about The Guardian. The Guardian began in Manchester, but is now of course in London, and I am one of the last surviving people who did begin in Manchester. We lost a lot of our readers in Manchester when we moved our headquarters to London because they felt that our regional roots had been pulled up, and that we had become just another national paper.
Now I want to begin with a tale of two cities, and two different approaches to a similar drama. The first city is called Chaman and it is a remote frontier town in Pakistan, it is in fact on the Afghan border, 80 kilometers from Kandahar, south of Kandahar. It is a very small town, little more than two streets, which cross at right angles, crowded with stores selling fruit and vegetables. Men sit on the pavement, drinking tea from tiny, charcoal-heated teapots. The pungent smell of hashish curls through the clear desert air. And towards sundown, the men kneel down in prayer. And incidently, you never see a woman under the age of about fifty on the street in public. Journalists, aid workers and foreigners of any kind are looked on with great suspicion verging on hostility in Chaman. So much so that the Pakistani authorities only allow you to travel there if you have police permission, you have to get a peculiar piece of paper which probably in origin dates back to the British colonial times, called a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC), meaning the police have no objection to your going there. But this requires joining a convoy of vehicles to go up to Chaman, and then leaving again before sundown, before sunset, and going back to the nearest large town which is called Quetta. Chaman is in the heart of the Pashtun belt, and even the Pakistani government’s means hardly operate after nightfall. The police retires to barracks, very armed barracks, and tribal units, also armed, take over the streets. I know that, because I illegally spent a night there, one time, I did not go back with the police convoy. Now in spite of these obvious difficulties in covering what was going on in Chaman, the town was worth visiting, not just once, but many times because, as I say, it was the nearest – it is the gateway from Kandahar, until of course the Taliban lost control of Kandahar, you could not get in, and so it was the nearest place you could get to. There were two huge refugee camps on the Pakistani side of the border, full of new arrivals from across, inside Afghanistan. They had grim personal stories to tell, and in an area where human interest, so-called “human interest stories”, is very strong, it was what you might have thought was a journalistic goldmine. It was the nearest place you could get to Afghanistan, and there were these thousands of people coming out.
Now the other city I want to talk about is called Kuches. You probably remember the name from three years ago, although in the meantime there has been no news about it at all. It is a town in northern Albania, also a remote frontier town, close to Kosovo. The athmosphere was certainly more friendly in Kuches than it was in Chaman, there was no special permission required to go there, but is was an extremely long way and on terrible roads, it took about six hours of bone-rattling nightmare to drive there from Tirana, the capital of Albania. Nevertheless, from April to June 1999, Kuches hosted literally dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists. They were covering the exodus of refugees from Kosovo. It was the nearest place, because obviously Kosovo was closed, just as Afghanistan was closed, during the war, during the NATO bombing. Nevertheless, journalists eagerly did interviews with refugees coming out of Kosovo, day after day. The desk editors in our newspapers and broadcast media never tired of new accounts of the horrors that the refugees had witnessed or suffered themselves directly inside Kosovo. But Chamnan, which I started with, inspired very little similar coverage. And the reporters who did go there, as I did, mainly, when we interviewed Afghans walking across the border into Pakistan, quizzed them for intelligence matters, if you like, about the war. Was Taliban morale slipping in Kandahar? Did they see any Arab fighters in the street? How far had the anti-Taliban forces got towards the city? Had they captured the Kandahar airport yet? Refugees tended to be sources rather than people.
Now what was the difference? What did the Albanian Kosovo refugees have that the Afghan refugees did not have? Well, I would suggest it was the status of being convenient victims. In Kosovo the man responsible for this huge flight of refugees out of the country was Slobodan Milosevic, who was the West’s enemy. Heart-rending pictures of refugee children, other people streaming in columns out of Kosovo were grist to NATOs propaganda mill. They kept public support in the West alive for the bombing campaign against Jugoslavia. Their stories, the refugees’ stories, were not only shocking, they were useful. In Afghanistan, by constrast, of course, it was “our side” which was causing the refugees. They were not fleeing the Taliban, after all the Taliban had been in power for six years, in Kandahar. They were fleeing American bombs, British bombs too. Now the bombing was accurate in large part, I am not trying to say there was carpet bombing of Kandahar or of Kabul. It was not. But the sound and fury of that incredible amount of heavy bombing that the Americans did, as the refugees told us when we asked them, was terrifying. And hundreds of thousands of Afghans were put to flight by the bombing. Now this was not comfortable or convenient news for Western governments. If there had been nightly interviews with the refugees coming out of Kandahar or of Kabul, in the earlier part of the war, I think Western support for the relentless American bombing would have been much less strong. In fact, why was the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan closed? Why was the border between Afghanistan and Iran closed? Because the Americans had asked the Iranian and Pakistani governments to close those borders. They did not say this publicly, but it seems very plausible, because the Bush administration did not want huge floods of refugees coming out into areas where the journalists might be able to see them. It is much better to have them wandering around, displaced inside Afghanistan, in the mountains, in the villages, away from the cities that were the main targets of the bombing campaign, out of sight, than to be filmed coming across into the arms of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ people or the Islamic Red Crescent who were looking after refugees in Iran. I think the Western media should have seen this as a challenge, demanding adequate coverage of the refugee crisis. Because obviously when your own government is involved in a military operation, the responsibility on journalists to ask questions, to cover the effect of the bombing that our governments are doing, is much, much greater than if you are covering a war in Sri Lanka or Rwanda. And the numbers were indeed huge, just the other day I saw a report from the UNHCR saying there are still a quarter of a million people in the four provinces around Kabul who are displaced. Not by a drought, which was an earlier phenomenon, not by fighting, but simply by the fact that they fled the bombing. A quarter of a million around Kabul. In Pakistan, in spite of the official closure of the border people did manage to come across, they smuggled themselves across by paying the border guards, and so on. And the estimated figure from the UNHCR is that 160.000 people came into Pakistan since September 11 as refugees. In Iran, where I also went to visit refugee camps on the border in the South-East part of Iran fronting on to Afghanistan, local Iranian officials said something like 60.000 people had come in illegally through smuggling. You add that together, that is almost another quarter of a million people. And probably, there were another 200.000 or so, at least, who never crossed any border, floating around in the Kandahar area. So you are talking about at least 600.000, maybe 700.000 people, not figures, not very different from the number of Kosovo refugees who were leaving Kosovo during the NATO bombing as a result of Milosevic’s deportations. But nevertheless, people did not interview these people on a regular basis, we did, I did two or three stories, I think, colleagues of mine did one or two stories, but there was not this daily coverage, that there had been during the Kosovo war, and I asked one colleague from the newspaper USA Today, why she was not doing more, and she said: “Oh, my desk editor’s eyes just glaze over if I suggest another refugee story.” And I think this was the reaction on all our desks, on mine too, to some extent, but perhaps more on other newspapers and broadcasting organizations. And this was a kind of self-censorship, I think if we had pushed harder to get refugees stories in, maybe we would have got more in. I am not sure the journalists really pushed hard enough. They somehow imbibed the ethos of this war without being asked to. They instinctively felt the refugees somehow did not matter, or that their plight was an acceptable price to pay for the necessity to conduct that air campaign. But either way, whatever the motives of individual journalists were, or desk editors, I think the issue raises serious questions about the media’s independence and impartiality, neutrality, in a war situation, especially when one’s own government is involved. There is also the question, obviously, of how many people were killed by the bombing. This became an issue that you could not were effectively deal with during the war due to lack of access to the area, but now it has been two months since Kabul fell, and over a month since Kandahar fell, but I see very few articles in any of the newspapers trying now to reconstruct exactly what happened under the American bombing, how many people were killed, it was a contentious issue at the time, but it tended to be put into terms as though it was another battle, between the United States and the Taliban. There were reports, I remember, in the American press, saying that the United States are opening a new front in the war on Afghanistan, the “public relations front”, because it has to confront the propaganda machine of the Taliban, in that there are high civilian casualties. And yet now, that we have the opportunity to investigate what really happened, and to talk to survivors, to walk around these villages and places where the bombs fell, and really try to pierce through the rubble and find out what happened, there is very little of such investigation going on.
Now, our subject today is self-censorship. And what I want to do is to try and suggest there is a sort of spectrum. On the most extreme end, is obviously direct censorship, when a government forbids a journalist to cover something. That did not happen very much in this war, except for one thing, where we know for sure it happened, and that was on pictures of wounded. Do you remember seeing ever any pictures of wounded American troops? I think there were none. The media were forbidden, given no access to any casualties. Even after the media were taken into Afghanistan, when the Americans put up this base in the desert near Kandahar, and a few selected journalists were flown in from the ships in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to be on those bases, when American wounded came in, the journalists were kept in closed buildings or hangars or tents, not allowed to film the wounded being taken on to the helicopters or planes to be treated in hospitals wherever they were. So there was direct censorship of the coverage of American wounded. But elsewhere there was none, as far as we can tell. There was direct conscious self-censorship, one of the most recent cases was last week, when these prisoners were taken to Guantanamo Bay. The first group of prisoners went through the same Kandahar base that I am talking about and the Pentagon told journalists that they could take pictures, but they must not be shown until the aircraft had taken off, citing security reasons: “We cannot have live pictures being transmitted of these prisoners being put on the planes”. And the planes took off, and then the Pentagon said, “well, we think, we don’t want any more pictures, any pictures at all anyway, even though it is no longer a security matter”, and most of the American network seemed to go along with that. I think CBS may have broken it, but others went along with that and that was a clear example of conscious self-censorship by journalists.
But I think the most normal kind of self-censorship is the one that I began with, where, if I try to keep it on the spectrum, I would call it semiconscious self-censorship, where you have a sort of sense that this probably is a news story, I might or might not suggest it to my desk, but it probably would get shot down, and so, I won’t push very hard, and maybe I won’t even suggest it at all. I think that is the kind of self-censorship that is semiconscious, you are not thinking all the time “am I censoring myself?”, you do it almost instinctively. And I think this happens a great deal. Another example, I think, of this semiconscious self-censorship was of course the questions of videos, you remember of course the Osama bin Laden-videos that came out at the beginning, put out by al-Jazeera, the Qatar television station. After the first one the Americans suddenly said “oh, Osama bin Laden could be making hidden signals, to people who watch these videos, and therefore it is much better if they are not shown, or only shown in edited forms.” And again the American media went along with that, a clear case of conscious self-censorship. But I think, as I said, the semiconscious thing was more common. Lack of reporting about refugees, and the lack of discussion of civilian casualties. But there were also examples of deception. Now, whether you call that self-censorship, I am not quite sure, but I think it comes into the category of things a journalist certainly should not do. And this was that, – it follows from what I said about the refugees -, the human side of this war was underplayed, and the military side was exaggerated.
I think this is a kind of “boys’ own paper”, as we call it, a philosophy in British journalism, there used to be something called “boys’ own paper”, I do not think it exists any more, but in imperial days it was the kind of thing that teenage boys read, that sort of taught you about some great frontier exploits of the British troops in South Africa or India or wherever it happened to be, so the “boys’ own paper”, a metaphor still used, and I think it was true, most of the reporters covering Afghanistan were men, most of them were relatively young, and many of them were in their first war, quite exciting. So this concept of the front line was shamelessly manipulated, I would say. There were a number of front lines, obviously, in Afghanistan, one of them was the most crucial one, just north of Kabul, about 40, 50 kilometers north of Kabul, but there were other ones, near Mazar-i Sharif, and there were pockets of Talibani Kundus right to the north, close to Tadjikistan, and clearly there was a frontline around them, but journalists would show footage, this was particularly true of the broadcast media, of TV, would show footage of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and then end their reports saying “from the front line, northern Afghanistan”. Now very often, the person who was reporting, and who then signed off by saying “from the frontline, northern Afghanistan”, would be telling the viewers something about Kabul, what they thought was happening near Kabul even though very often they were 150 or 200 kilometers away from Kabul. Because what happened, – ten minutes before you went on air you were speaking to your desk in London or Washington or New York, and they were telling you what was happening according to the news agency wires or other sources in other parts of the war. So you did a kind of rap, you rapped up the things that had happened in the last few hours in your report, which included mention of Kabul and Mazar-i Sharif, and so on, and then you would say “from Jonathan Steele, in the front line, northern Afghanistan”. As you see, this is a metaphoric example, as I was not in that part of the war. But in any case, it is the impression of 90 % of the viewers, who do not know how the media operates, that this chap was actually quite near Kabul.
Now that is one form of self-deception, what I call – I am sure you know the phrase – there must be an equivalent in Norwegian -, “mission creep”. You know, the Americans say “we mustn’t allow mission creep”, when there is a certain mission, the army is operating, trying to pursue and fullfil, and we must not allow it to extend and extend and extend, and it is called “mission creep”. Well, this phenomenon that I am talking about is called “dates line creep”. A lot of graphics were shown on television, “here is the Taliban, here is the Northern Alliance, here the American bombs are falling”. Well, I think in all of those graphics it would have been much more honest and much more revealing if we had had a graphic of where the journalists are. But in addition to this kind of deception, there was also impatience. As I say, you were on the front line, it is extremely cold and unpleasant, you are sharing a room with six other people in some appalling sort of broken-down house with no water, food is grim, clearly you want the war over quick. And so they hyped the imminence of breakthrough. I remember a headline in The Times in the middle of October, about five days after the bombing had started, saying “Battle for Kabul in days”. It took more than a month before Kabul fell. But this was the general tenor of the moment of reporting, they wanted to get on, and so they hyped the idea that the Northern Alliance was just about to make a breakthrough. And of course, they were not. Some of the footage of Mujahedin running up and down in trenches was probably staged. I say probably, because I wasn’t there directly, but I have seen this happening in other wars, camera men ask guerilla fighters, whether it is the Kosovo Liberation Army or the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, to run up and down their trenches so they can film it, instead of standing there, it is boring, and so again it gives the impression there is activity, which is deceitful, because the fact is in most guerilla wars, and the Afghan war has been a guerilla war until the American bombing came into it, there is actually very little fighting. There is often some exchange, well, not even exchange to talk about, one side fires some artillery, a few rockets, and ten minutes later the other side fires a few, that is just random untargeted firing. And it was very much like that in Afghanistan until the American bombing came into play. But this was not, I think, made clear at all to those TV viewers. So this also comes into the category of semiconscious self-censorship. Journalists knew perfectly well what they were doing, but they weren’t continuously thinking about it, that became the norm, that is how you cover this war.
Finally I want to come to what I would call unconscious self-censorship. I think I am stretching the term here, but our subject is meant to be self-censorship, I am trying to fit it into this paradigm, but it may be there is some legitimate sense in it. Unconscious self-censorship, which is perhaps a long, windy way of saying unprofessionalism: ignorance about the history of Afghanistan, ignorance about the politics of Afghanistan, added to laziness, failure to find out, to admit that you don’t know much about Afghanistan, and you therefore need to do better work to find out about it. But this was quite extraordinary, and I have actually been eight times to Afghanistan, the first time I went there was in 1981. I have been going back there continually, for various legs of time, so I have had the opportunity, the benefit, the advantage and the privilige of watching this country slide into horror and destruction over the last two decades. So I think I know a little bit about the politics and history of it. But even now, for example, I read a column in the Herald Tribune last week, taken from the New York Times, by Thomas Friedman, who is the sort of premier international affairs columnist, Tom Friedman, who was in Kabul, obviously the first trip he had ever made in his life to Kabul, and he talked about how there’s rubble everywhere, and he said, the result of twenty-two years of civil war. But to anyone who has been there more than once, throughout the Soviet period, and the three years that followed, when Najibullah was the president, Kabul was virtually untouched by war. The Mujahedin never got near the city, they occasionly would manage to fire some sort of rocket from a distance and a handful of people would be killed, but then three months would go past and nothing would happen. It was virtually untouched, in fact the problem when you went to Kabul, as I did in the eighties, when the Soviet war was at its height, was you almost felt there was no war going on, because it was so peaceful in Kabul. All the destruction was done by the Mujahedin, starting in 1992, so it is only in the last eight or nine years that Kabul has been destroyed, and not twenty-two years, as the New York Times man was saying.
But that was just one example, the most obvious example was of course this business of the burqas, you know, the full-length garment that Afghan women wear. The cliché was that the Taliban began this business with women wearing burqas. Well, I mean, obviously everyone who had been there in the pre-Taliban period had seen thousands of women in these burqas before, if you go to Quetta, or Chaman, the place I have been talking about in Pakistan, where the Taliban are not in power, never have been in power, you see women in burqas in the Afghan parts of that city, and yet this was the image, that the burqas are there because of the Taliban. That meant, the first day Kabul was taken over by the Northern Alliance, we had these stories saying “women were throwing off their burqas in liberated Kabul today”. I don’t know whether it is true, maybe one or two did, maybe they were asked to do it by those TV camera men who had earlier asked the Mujahedin to run up and down their trenches. The fact is that there was one BBC report on the BBC Ten O’clock News, about four days after Kabul changed hands, which showed women in burqas, – liberated Kabul, women in burqas -, something funny there, what did the reporter say? This is what he says: “Although it is already several days since the Taliban were driven out of Kabul, many women are still too frightened to show their faces.” It is just shameful, this basic question of the burqa, which people didn’t do any research on at all. In fact it was the Mujahedin who caused most of the destruction, 99 per cent of the destruction in Kabul after 1992. And it was also the Mujahedin who banned women in 1992 from wearing skirts, who insisted on the head scarf, the head being covered, they banned female singers from television, all done by the Mujahedin before the Taliban. They censored all films that showed any kind of male-female contact, including kissing, and in the later stages of the Mujahedin period, when Gulbadin Hekmatyar, one of the worst fundamendalists came to power, he was prime minister, he was the one who ordered all cinemas to close, he was the one who banned female news readers from television, and all music from radio and television. I remember after Kabul was perhaps liberated, there were these stories that a woman appeared on television last night reading the news, she hadn’t been stopped from doing that originally by the Taliban, although of course they continued the ban, originally it was a Mujahedin ban. This was never made clear in the Western media. It was part of what I would call the demonization of the Taliban. I am not trying to say the Taliban were a great regime, they were not, they were disgusting and in fact I was there, I covered the take-over of the Taliban in September-October 1996, and I saw them smashing the TV sets, I saw them telling women that they could no longer come to work and closing down the girls’ schools, so I have no delusions about the appaling nature of the Taliban regime, but it is nevertheless important to put the thing in some sort of historical context to point out that the Taliban are a kind of extreme form, a more extreme form of the Mujahedin. They are not different in kind, they are only different in degree.
But this was rather inconvenient. The United States and Britain, as always happens in war, try to demonize the enemy, make them out worse than they are, make them uniquely evil, and therefore try and justify the war on that basis. “These people have to be removed”. So the two things that governments are always wanting in a war is to make the civilians sort of faceless, turn them into statistics, not people who are suffering, but statistics and then do the same with leadership of the movement you are trying to demonize. I am afraid that is exactly what the Western media allowed itself to do, to fit into these two major war aims of the Western governments. The famous phrase, which I am sure you know, from the German theorist von Clausewitz, about war, a quotation that everybody knows, – probably the only quotation of von Clausewitz that anybody does know -, is that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Now, I always say to myself, or say to audiences that I am giving this kind of talks, being a war correspondent is being a political correspondent in a different context. Continuing to be a political correspondent in a different context, you still have to ask the same questions as you do when there is no war: what are the motives of these peoples, why are they doing it, what preceded it, what is likely to follow from it, what is the ideology of these people, what are the stresses and strains of their movement, you know, are there moderates, are there militants, what alliances are they trying to make with people outside their movement, and so on. You have to do the normal kind of political analysis, particularly when war heightens everything, it heightens the responsibility of journalists to report accurately, in a context, ask nuanced questions, not simple questions: Who are the good guys, who is wearing the white hat, you know, where are they? Nuanced, detailed questions, and to reflect them honestly in their reporting, and so, I think, whether you want to call that, this ignorance of history, this laziness, this unwillingness to ask the right questions, self-censorship or not, is a matter of taste, but I think that was real failure of the Western media, that we were sloppy, we were lazy, and we allowed ourselves to become the instruments of our governments. Thank you.
If there are any brief comments or questions at this point, we will certainly allow them to be uttered. We will have then eventually the panel discussion, but I think, if any of you have a wish for interaction at this point, please let me know.
I would like to ask you why the now more or less proven usage of depleted uranium has not been much of an issue in the press coverage of the Afghanistan war. My husband just leafed through one year old papers yesterday, and he found that there was an enormous debate in Norwegian media even on the usage of depleted uranium in Kosovo, and also one thought back to the Iraq war, where I know that your excellent correspondent Maggie O’Cane has covered the issue. So I am wondering why is this less of an issue now when it seems clear that it has been used in this war and may cause damage for decades to come?
Well, I think it may be because it is not proven. I remember covering the issue in the Kosovo war, going to Bosnia and so on, talking to people there, talking to doctors, including Serb doctors who had an interest in claiming that depleted uranium was a major problem, and you didn’t get very clear answers. I think the environmental people looked into it, and again, they didn’t come to very clear answers, so I think it may be the issue had been covered in Iraq, had been covered in Kosovo, you can’t clearly say how many people’s deaths have been caused as a result of it, how much damage has been caused to the country as a result of it. I think that may be the reason, I mean, I am only speculating. But I think cluster bombs, it is much more clear that they kill people, and there has been some coverage of that, not enough, I mean, I think Amnesty put out a statement condemning the use of cluster bombs, in Afghanistan, and the statement was almost unreported in the Western media, in the American media I think it got almost no report at all, because cluster bombs, they come in these yellow cannisters, exactly the same colour as the parcels of peanut butter and other goodies that the Americans were dropping in their so-called humanitarian food drops, so obviously children were running out to pick up those yellow things, thinking it was food, and in some cases it turned out to be a cluster bomb. And the Americans then said they had changed the colour of the food parcels. So I think that the cluster bomb issue has been relatively well covered, and I have seen one or two stories since, people have been able to move more freely around Afghanistan, reporters dealing with that issue.
The question of what happened to Americans involved in the fighting was a sensitive issue, but the media weren’t supposed to cover that in any detailed manner, which would affect attitudes. I think that fits into a pattern which became very evident in the Gulf war, which was also present in the Kosovo war, the fact that the Americans used high-altitude bombing, measures which meant that they were then also risking the lives at ground because precision of such bombing is much harder to achieve, whereas of course the planes were out of reach to the Serb artillery. That pattern of defining American lives as different from other lives, which influences also media coverage, should, I think, be the object of discussion among journalists, so my question is simply: from these experiences of the Gulf war, where the same pattern was very much present and which also has been seen afterwards as a well-staged media event, where the Americans had learned the hard lessons of the Vietnam War, where there was much more extensive detailed coverage of what was happening to human lives, both Americans and Vietnamese, my point is, have you in Britain or anywhere else had a discussion among colleagues of that aspect of coverage as a credibility problem among journalists, I mean, actually accepting such a definition of what one should cover, and what one shouldn’t?
Well, no, I don’t think people have accepted that definition. I think the difference with Vietnam is that in Vietnam it was actually easier to go to these places, because the war was all over the place, and it was harder for the Americans to bar people from going to that area. I think this whole question of people killed by the bombing is still contentious, we still don’t know, as I said in the talk, not many people have done any kind of investigation, but I would be more on the side of those people who say the bombing was accurate than on those who say it was wild and untargeted and caused thousands of deaths. I think the munitions that the Americans have are extremely accurate, of course there are mistakes, but that doesn’t prevent it being terror bombing, you can have accurate bombing that is terror bombing. I remember at one point we were taken into Kandahar, into Taliban-held areas, by the Taliban, about two weeks before Kandahar fell, they took a group of journalists to a place called Spin Buldak, it is just across the border from Chaman, and we were three days there, under very limited conditions, but one team from the British television station ITN, had a very good Pashtun Pakistani journalist, acting as their sort of translator. He stayed on, when we were all forced out and put in convoy by the Taliban and taken out again, he managed to sort of hang on and then took a taxi and spent about a week in Kandahar, I mean, I got to know him over the time we were together in this sort of camp, and he seemed to me an extremely reliable and accurate sort of journalist, and when he came back after five days in Kandahar, he said “actually, the city is largely undestroyed, Kandahar, but the Americans continually bomb the same four places, they bomb the foreign ministry, they bomb Mulla Omar’s compound, and two other sites”, and I said, “why do they always bomb those places?”, and he said, “well, because people know that is where they are going to bomb, and so they’re not going to hit civilians, because people won’t go to those four places, but they want to keep up this bombing night after night, to keep up the sense, “we are up in the sky above you, we can hit you at any time, this is unrelenting, we are not going to give up, there is not going to be a bombing pause”. The sheer sound and fury of this bombing was obviously enough to intimidate them, and in fact he said, “it is designed to terrorize people”, that was why people were fleeing, because you always think the next bomb will be an accurate one, they may have hit Mulla Omar’s compound twenty times, but the twenty-first time they may miss it, so you know, it is just terrifying, and the sound of these things, I mean, four times as many bombs were dropped on Afghanistan as on Yugoslavia three years ago, so you know, it was terror bombing, even if it was accurate, the two things are not a contradiction.
Thank you, Mr. Steele, and I will now give the floor to Jan Guillou, who is, besides being a journalist and a very successful writer, for example of thriller novels, spy novels, he is also chairing an institution in Sweden which is called “Publicistklubben”, the Club of Publicists, which is a rather nebulous organization, it is not a journalists’ organization, but an organization for people who are involved in various aspects of publishing, in various media, and it does have now a very interesting programme of seminars on ethical issues, matters of principle, relating to journalism, which are always chaired by Jan Guillou himself, and he will chair a meeting tonight, I guess, so please take the floor.
That is why I am slightly overdressed, dark shoes and so on, because I have to go directly from here to a meeting where I preside tonight. Excuse me for that. Now, all good reporters I know are opportunists, certainly all bad reporters, unfortunately many more, are also opportunists. Now, this might seem strange, but the explanation is quite simple: the word could mean two completely different things. The goose-hawk, for instance, is certainly an opportunist when he, or rather she, because the female is actually a much better hunter than the male, gets up in the morning, anything would be up for grabs, whether she would bring home a rabbit or a hare or a rat or a cat, it doesn’t matter. Any good opportunity should be grabbed. That is what good reporters do. Now, that is the good guy opportunist. The bad guy type opportunist we all know, I think Jonathan Steele has eloquently described some aspects of that matter, but both the good guys and the bad guys would have to operate within our system of self-censorship. One should then reflect a little on the related censorship, the real censorhip, for sometimes the differences are not as big as one would think in the first place. Real censorship is a different matter first of all in the sense that it is formal, you know the rules. Therefore it is also something that could be circumvented if you want to. And many journalists operating within systems of censorship do want to circumvent the system. I think you all know that newspaper readers in Eastern Europe during the Cold War were experts in reading between the lines. Therefore many of our colleague journalists would also have had to be experts in writing those messages between the lines. There was no synonymous idea in Eastern Europe that one should do this, of course journalists in undemocratic systems are usually part of the system, but some would be more or less secretly in opposition, and some not. In Czechoslovakia 1968, after the Russian invasion, this system became much of a laugh, because suddenly the censors were foreigners, they were Russians who did not know enough about Czech culture to be skilful censors. So, they tried every day to scrutinize political texts, then they said OK, the stuff was published, and the Czech audience roared with laughter about things that the Russians simply had not understood. So, that makes it easy. On the other hand, it was always, of course, much tougher for Palestinian writers, poets and journalists to try to fool the Israeli censors because they were much more educated in their culture. No Palestinian poet would even reflect on the possibility of using the word ‘horse’ in his poems, that would immediately be omitted, because anyone realizes, I think you too, what this ‘horse’ means, what kind of ‘horse’ are we talking about? We are talking about an Arab thorough-bred, stallion, dashing across the desert, and now, what does that symbolize? Freedom and independence, of course, so no horse to be mentioned in Palestinian poems. Quite simple as a rule, easy to understand. In Baghdad, where I spent some hard time, the system is different because most of the journalists would agree with it. The Iraqi censorship rules are simple: one, the leader is handsome, intelligent and always splendid; two, certain countries are always bad, and then again, certain countries are always good; and three, no sex and no religion. Easy rules, and most of the journalists would certainly sympathize with them, because they are part of the system, part of a system where you couldn’t tell the difference between an editor-in-chief and a bartender. They build their careers on that. So, in such a system there is little enthusiasm for circumvention of the system. That would, if you would even reflect on it, actively shorten your career if nothing else, nothing worse. It is not a perfect system, though, because, for instance when there was this peace agreement between Iran and Iraq, from one day to another it was decided that the Iranians are now good guys. Quite a shock, I suppose, to the Iraqi audience, because that was certainly not what they were used to, from day A to day B they were good guys. And everything operated very fine for two or three days until the party’s organ “Al-thaura”, “The Revolution”, came out with its Friday colour edition, that had been printed a few days before the peace agreement. You can imagine what kind of presentation of Iranians would be in the colour section. Now, the Iranians were furious, of course, a few journalists were sacked. The Iranians were not furious because of the slander, because that they had seen before, but simply because of the breach of an agreement. And the journalists of “Al-thaura”, who did this, – it was a mistake of course, they all realized what had happened -, they were devastated, and dashed.
So, real censorship is quite seldom a problem, because reporters support the regime, they are part of it, much more so than when we are operating within a system of self-censorship because that is a much more tricky business. It is rather a matter for the bad guy type of opportunist than for the good guy type of opportunist, of course, and on my mind today is of course constantly the established media of the United States and of the United Kingdom because they participate more or less openly in the war effort. Because these aspects of the Anglo-American system will have to be more or less dominating our discussions today, I will rapidly go back to Finland, which Arne Ruth mentioned in his opening here. In Finland there was no formal censorship during the Cold War, but it was understood what should be and what should not be written. Certain things simply were not done. There were good guys and bad guys in Finland, though, as everywhere, and the good guys in Finland rapidly invented a system that was referred to as the “table tennis technique”, to go around the system. That works so that you tell your Swedish colleague, for instance, the Swedish correspondent of the Dagens Nyheter at Helsinki, about this and that that you couldn’t publish yourself. He would of course publish that, and then you could immediately quote the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter. Many Finnish journalists in those days wanted to deal with self-censorship as many journalists operating within a system of real censorship actually want to deal with the problem. But if you don’t want to, then the situation becomes much more complicated. Israeli assassinations are always on Swedish TV referred to as executions, and the Israelis always retaliate, certainly not revenge, they retaliate terrorist attacks, even if this war between Israelis and Palestinians goes round the clock all the time, week after week, month after month, it is always the Israelis that retaliate. This is the language that has to be used on Swedish TV and radio. There are no formal rules for that, there is certainly no political censorship in Sweden, and yet it would be unthinkable that any decent Swedish television journalist would refer to assassinations or Israeli state terrorism, or something like that. Not because such statements would be factually ill-founded. With facts you could surely defend such statements, or definitions, but because that would brand the reporter as some sort of leftist, partisan extremist, and that is no good for your career, especially if you are on Swedish TV, radio or some of the establishment morning papers.
I am quite confident that the system operates in the same way in Norway, almost in detail in the same way in Norway as in Sweden, in these aspects. At the executive stratas of Radio Sweden or Swedish Television, or in the so-called daily morning press, and the leading liberal establishment morning press, you wouldn’t find one person who ever did something bold, or worth remembering in journalism, not one. And what influence, one must ask, does such people have on their reporters? When they are all rotten opportunists themselves, how can they inspire their younger reporters to do a better job? Well, I suppose they cannot. The very hard alternative, now, working in that kind of system that most of you will have to face, is either you go along with these bad guy opportunists, or you take some time, and you do become some kind of John Pilger. Now, that takes not only a certain amount of dedication, certain amount of risk, but before anything it takes very hard work for a long time. And I am afraid very few reporters are prepared to face such efforts. I think, which is of course a pessimistic aspect, that this kind of opportunism is so deeply rooted in our civilization that nothing really could be done about it, we will always have those rather uninteresting people leading Swedish television, radio and the daily papers.
There is another aspect, I found, when I reflected on the matter, preparing this meeting on self-censorship. One would think self-censorship is basically a technique not to write, for this or that reason you do not go into that story, your desk wouldn’t like the idea, it wouldn’t be good for you for whatever reason, but recently, I think there is a new type of self-censorship that operates in absolutely the adverse direction. It is self-censorship by writing a lot, provided of course that what you write is not true. We have, now, in both Sweden and Norway, a number of foreign correspondents for our media, and in both our countries there have been cut-downs all over the world, so that there wouldn’t be many people reporting from Asia and Africa, and Latin America, but we all have correspondents in London, Washington and New York. And these guys are busy bees, rewriting all day, never having a chance to leave their office because there is so much television to watch, and so many papers to rewrite. So from their stations, their rather limited view of a desk in New York, or Washington, they produce endless information on what goes on, for instance, in Afghanistan. “The war is going fine in Afghanistan. All bombs are very accurate. Civilians are all happy, and there are almost no burqas left to be seen, and people are crowded in the barbershops. All women are now very emancipated, and the weather is fine.” Or: “Saddam Hussein is actually the mastermind behind the anthrax letters in the United States, one of his close collaborators is a female scientist by the name of Hocus Pocus, often referred to as Doctor Death.” Everything of this nature, that is, propaganda or lies, could easily be confirmed by very willing experts at home, especially television has a great need for such experts because they need ‘talking heads’ all the time. In Sweden we have the two Magnuses, one is a Magnus Ransthorp, I think, said to be a terrorist expert employed by the University of St. Andrews. The other Magnus, I have forgotten his family name, but he is some researcher-something at the Swedish Institute for Military Research. Now these two Magnuses pop up all the time, and confirm everything, not to say anything. The reporters have suddenly this information that there were great terrorist acts to take place in Europe, but some valliant prosecutors and European Union attorneys by very smart methods, we don’t know exactly what kind of smart methods, but they did sort of, one way or the other, prevent this disaster from happening in Europe. Nobody has been arrested, it is very unclear what it was all about, but now the two Magnuses come into operation. On TV, live, they could confirm everything, because they have had indications for a long time, and they know that there are links of this and that kind, and intelligence sources report about links and indications. None of these experts would have had the idea to produce this knowledge voluntarily beforehand, but anything a reporter throws at them will in this way be confirmed. No journalists are so stupid that they believe this, I mean, journalists are basically of normal intelligence in my experience. No one could believe these experts, but they come in very handy in our operation, and it is a kind a hypocricy or self-censorship or both, that has been tried before, many times.
In Sweden we have had a long tradition for a certain “table tennis technique”, between the secret police and some selected papers. The secret police would tell its favourite paper about this or that Arab conspiracy going on, somewhere in our nice society, and the paper would immediately publish this story of the Arab conspiracy. Now this is what the Romans would have referred to as a pactum turpe, an agreement without honour, because the paper who gets the privilege to be first on this information, they know that if they don’t publish it the way their source, the secret police, wants it, somebody else might be the favourite next time. On the other hand, the reporter who writes this, that is, things that he has no idea if they are true or not, also knows that no one is going to deny this. Should the Arabs deny this? Welcome, please, do that, that’s fine if you do that. Should any other paper deny it, how could they? So, on the international field, with the two Magnuses, we now actually only improved a system that we had for a long time, publishing official lies that could not be denied. This is propaganda of course, but for the time being, and I think it must always operate that way, it is politically correct propaganda, it is in line with our foreign policy. The risk of being exposed is of course minimal. And this, I mean, is quite a surprising aspect of the topic of self-censorship. It is writing like hell every day about things of which you have absolutely no knowledge. It is some sort of political entertainment, one could say, and how could you deny that something that did not happen actually was not even about to happen? You can’t, so no one can oppose these techniques. Then, if you are in such a bad situation, one must of course ask oneself, what should be done? Lenin asked that question in 1906, and his way of answering it has unfortunately had devastating effects on journalism for almost a hundred years now. Most people who follow Lenin’s principles don’t even know from where they got them, because they are basically two: one, you should idealize the good things about our system; two, you should not tell the audience about the bad aspects of our system because the audience would misunderstand that, the readers are not mature enough to deal with such problems, so show pictures of the nice, very strong workers, standing side by side with the farmers, and don’t tell them about any concentration camps. That is Lenin’s principles. They have been tried, they are still being tried, I would say that some American journalists today, who have never heard about Lenin, even less his work from 1906, do follow his principles.
I would suggest two other ways to fight the system. I don’t think debate and seminars could help a lot. We would all leave this room feeling great, and then we would go back doing the same shit as we did before, so seminars may not be the most effective method. I think doing the scoop is of course the easiest way, in theory, to beat the system. The scoop beats the silence of the old mainstream journalists, they can’t resist the commercial powers, if nothing else, in the scoop. And I don’t have to develop on that subject, everyone in this room would know what I am talking about. But there is another method, which I am trying today, and that is the provocation. Not today when speaking, I am trying to be polite and nice here, but in today’s Aftonbladet, which is the biggest Swedish daily, where I am a columnist, I published a certain provocation, I instigate the Swedish public to go criminal on a massive scale and in large numbers. That is against the law, you are not allowed to instigate people accordingly that way. The background is of course that the US administration, via the United Nations and the European Union, branded three Swedish citizens as terrorist suspects. Grisly rules then come into operation. We have seen the new principle of starvation to death. Because, since there are no proofs against these people, they cannot be tried in a court as ordinary criminals, you can’t take innocent people to court, and they are innocent since there are no proofs against them. So other techniques will then have to be used, and this is banning them from all economic resources. These three citizens have no bank services, they cannot get any support from the Social Welfare, it is against the law to lend them money, if you do that, you commit a crime. If we would be an entirely law-abiding nation, they would starve to death, it is as simple as that. Now, this is worth discussing, this would be worth a lot to journalists, and this is what the so-called leading Swedish daily, their entire work on this story from last week: two little paragraphs. In one they also censored the meaning of this, because they have obviously read the latest Security Counsil statement, and so they realised that, OK, these three suspects are now restricted from travelling also, which is the new thing, but if they read that resolution, which I have here, they should also have seen that the United Nation Security Counsil asked any nation to go hard on those who violate those rules, to start persecuting immediately anyone, institution or private person, who tries to help these people. Now, this is a good story, so why the reluctance? How come a paper that considers itself the nation’s journalistic leader would make only this kind of self-censorship rubbish of it? This story has drama, human touch, world politics, Osama bin Laden, and the works. Anything is in this story. It has commercial value also. And, if you are the opposition press, you could certainly put pressure on the government that has accepted these very draconic rules to be put in operation in Sweden.
So there should be nothing in the way of doing great journalism on this subject. But they don’t. The reason, in my understanding, can only be that the establishment media are in favour of the present Swedish foreign policy. They are no different in this aspect than American and British journalists. They take part in the war effort, and therefore, according to some Leninist principles, actually, the audience should not be told of the real aspects of this. So that is why I created a little provocation. No scoop could do the trick here, the scoop is there, up for grabs for anyone, and still they don’t touch it, Swedish Radio wouldn’t touch this story. They have mentioned it just as little as the Dagens Nyheter. Television doesn’t find this interesting, and so on. So, my instigation is this: I have suggested that one should collect money for these people, to give them money, to give them food. And this is of course criminal. Not only to do it, but also the instigation as such is criminal. There is a tricky part in this matter, because my instigation has been done in written form. This means that nobody can touch me. I said this before and I went to jail anyway, but it was a long time ago, but, anyway, nobody can touch me, they have to go for the editor responsible. And that means, – it is a serious matter -, so the government’s own prosecutor, the prosecutor-general, would in an hour or so have on his desk the problem, should he prosecute the biggest paper in Sweden, because they said that people should not starve to death in our country. Will it take Aftonbladet to trial for this? If it does, other papers, I can promise you that, will follow immediately. In my present position as chairman of the publicists, I could more or less order them. So, if Aftonbladet is not charged, their system turns ridiculous, and if the outburst of massive crime wave in Sweden, which I expect to start within the next hour or so, and the police does nothing about that, the system is ridiculous again. This is fun, it includes many people, it is drama, it is commercial, even Dagens Nyheter will have to start writing about these things. The serious aspect is of course that such large parts of the Swedish establishment media did not do this, without being severely provoked as they are from today on. So why didn’t they, in a system where there is no censorship? What do you risk by writing this very, very good story, that contains everything a good opportunist, the goose-hawk type of reporter, would just love to start dealing with? What is preventing it? In a broad sense, some feeling of political correctness. They will not risk their careers, they want to be one of those ridiculous people soon leading the Radio Sweden, the Swedish Television, or in charge of any big paper where you can’t get if you are a good reporter because no good reporter ever got there. I don’t know the answer to this any better than you do, but I know that Lenin’s principles wouldn’t work very well to fight the system, one would basically have to try to use two techniques, one is scooping him, and the other is provoke him, dead or alive. Thank you.
Any questions or comments on this? Please?
My name is Tove Gravdal and I am a journalist. I have a question to the three speakers. I am wondering if it is a part of the self-censorship that keeps going on in the Western media when most observers and analysts who are interviewed by different media claim now that the war in Afghanistan was very succesful. And I am wondering, Osama bin Laden, we don’t even know if he is dead or alive, and some observers say that the United States proved itself to be so strong by its military power in Afghanistan, and what 11th of September proved was that even this military power was not able to protect itself against really simple means of using power. So I am wondering, are we fooling ourselves, or are all our observers fooling us, or is it true that this military operation in Afghanistan was so succesful? I would like to have your comments on whether this is a continuation of the self-censorship.
Well, I would agree with you one hundred per cent, I think the war has not been a great succes, because as you said, Osama bin Laden has not been found. I think that the trick that the British and the Americans did was to add together two quite separate things. One was toppling the Taliban regime, the other was dealing with al-Qaeda. Obviously there are links between Taliban and al-Qaeda, but they were not totally inseparable, and the very fact that the Taliban regime has collapsed, and the al-Qaeda leader has not been found, raises the question, why was is necessary to topple the Taliban, because it hasn’t achieved anything in terms of al-Qaeda. It may be much better for the people of Afghanistan not to have the Taliban there, but that was not the original war aim. I was always against military force from day one. I wrote an article in the Guardian, saying “force is not the answer”. We should use diplomatic, political, economic, police, intelligence methods, and all kinds of other things to protect ourselves against further terrorist attacks, but not the use of force. But, of course, that was just my political position, but I think the Western governments, the United States and Britain, after a certain amount of time began to realize they weren’t going to find Osama bin Laden, or that it would be very difficult, and so they added on, as one of their war aims, toppling the Taliban, because, you know, there are not going to be many people that are going to come up to defend the Taliban, and obviously, among a huge section of the electorate, and particularly among the women, the fact that the Taliban had been removed, and there was all this rather simplistic stuff about the burqa that I talked about in my speech, would make people feel there had been a great achievement reached in Afghanistan. But the anti-terrorist objectives, as we quite clearly see, have not been achieved, and that was the main objective, and I think you are quite right. There is an unwillingness by journalists to even raise the question, let alone to answer it: “Has this war been won?”
I couldn’t but agree, of course, and I would just like to add one aspect. It struck me the other day that I have been a reporter for almost thirty-five years now, and for the first time in my life, I do not believe almost anything I read in the paper. And that is quite an astonishing experience after such a long time on the job. I do not believe one word that those correspondents tell me from London, Washington and New York. So, in my view, we won’t know anything about this war until perhaps ten years´ time or so, but don’t believe anything you read today.
More questions? Please?
Aud Jorunn Aano:
My name is Aud Jorunn Aamo, and I am the leader of an NGO organizing friendship cities between Norway and Palestine. And I had a very strong experience. In 1990 I lived in Bethlehem in Palestine, and I was not an activist, I was a wife, and for the first time in my life, just a wife, I had nothing to say about the Palestinian situation at all. But it took me two weeks, and I was completely “saved”, I was totally on the Palestinian side. After that, they can do anything, I will always support them. But the most, the strongest experience was the media’s impact on me, or on my family, because we stayed there just two weeks before the Gulf War started, and we looked at Libanese media, we looked at Syrian media, we looked at media from Jordan, Palestinian news, and of course our opinion was totally different from the Norwegian opinion when we came home. We came home thinking that Saddam was not so bad, actually, he tried to do something for the Palestinian people, and he paid a lot of money for his people, for school, and you know, all those things. And of course, we know that Saddam is a bad guy, he is a dictator, but it is an example of the Western need to demonize some of the Arab, especially now, the Arab leaders. And when I started at my work after a year gone, as a librarian, I said to the people, you know, I said “ Go on, Saddam! Take those people!”, and I had to hide in the toilet, because they were so mad at me. It was an extremely strong experience how important the media is, not only censorship, but what the different countries are showing you, and of course it is a kind of censorship. And also Hamas, we all know Hamas is not so good in many ways, but in other ways, they are…, they pay for kindergardens, they pay for dentists, they pay for social security, they pay for widows who have lost their husbands in Palestine, so they are not just demons, they are also well-doers in the Palestinian society. But what do we know? They are devils, they are demons, here in Norway. And also, I am a great reader, I am a great lover of thrillers, spy novels, and there is only one novel I have read where the Palestinians are the heroes, and the Israelis are the bad guys, and that is Jan Guilou´s Coq Rouge, and for that I will always be grateful.
Well, my dear, as one activist in the Palestinian solidarity movement, which I have been since the sixties, to another: I would strongly recommend you not to describe Saddam Hussein as a nice guy, because he is not, basically, I promise you that. Otherwise, what you tell me, I think I have heard from hundreds of people throughout Europe who are living at home, and for one or another reason start working in the Middle East. And they always come back like you, with these aspects on our medias. The reality down there is something never presented in our medias, we get a distorted picture here, and that is a very common experience that you share with many, many people.
Please, one last remark, and then we make a short coffee-break, and then we will have the concluding panel discussion.
In the talk here about self-censorship in Scandinavia, you have mainly concentrated on censorship in Finland and to a different degree in Sweden, but a very important form of self-censorship that has not been mentioned, is the self-censorship of Swedish media during the first part of the Second World War, up to Stalingrad. Then, there was a very extensive Swedish self-censorship, also an official one, which prevented certain stories to be told, like the situation in Norwegian concentration camps, for instance Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning was forbidden to print such stories. And the last speaker also spoke about the establishment in the Swedish media, and he seemed tacitly to think that they really belonged to the Right, but in Norway it is so, that most media workers and journalists belong to the parties on the Left, from the Social-Democrats and the Socialist People’s Party and so on. The Socialist People’s Party has the double amount of percentage of support among media workers than they have in the population, and thus this means that if you define establishment papers as belonging to the Right, then how do you fit that in with [the fact that] the majority of the media workers belong to parties on the Left?
That is a great question, yes. The statistics are true, like you told us. There is a definite overrepresentation of leftists in the media world. And you see very little result of this. I would say that, if you take this paper Dagens Nyheter, that I was trying to scorn and mock earlier, I don’t think it is too daring a guess to say that the majority of the people employed at the Dagens Nyheter would be to the left of the Swedish standards. Now, Arne is an old editor-in-chief there, he would know.
One of the criminals.
One of the criminals, yes. So, these statistics are being presented every now and then, often in a context, a very political context, because centre parties are worried that there are too many leftists around on radio and television, for instance. But we don’t see any results of this, but the statistics. If one could relate to the fact that Swedish television has been much more anti-American than any other European television over the last five years, or prove anything like that, then this hidden criticism of yours would come better into operation, I suppose.
Well, I think we could to some extent deal with that question in the panel discussion, I would just like to make two brief comments on two of the issues here. One is the question of what happened in Sweden, especially in the first part of the Second World War. That is in my opinion one of the most interesting and intriguing cases of self-censorship, because it was officially instituted self-censorship. I mean, the Swedish government at the beginning of the war had the choice of whether to institute formal censorship, a formal censorship body, or to ask the leading media figures to act as censors in relation to their colleagues, which was a sort of collective self-censorship. They instituted a body called the Information Bureau, which was led by the then editor of the Dagens Nyheter, who was very much the core figure in these discussions. He was not only half-official, he was in reality very much an official in relation to this. Another very prominent figure was the editor of Göteborgsposten , the main competitor of this most strident anti-nazi paper, Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning, so actually he was able to issue rules and recommendations for his main competitor through this body, but the interesting thing about this, the reporting about what happened in Norway, was that the crucial event, which destroyed this whole structure, was the fact that at one point in time, when there was ample evidence of what happened in Norway, at Grini and other places, they made very solid investigations into it, twelve editors met in secret, and decided to publish exactly the same story, on the very same day, without telling the Information Bureau about it. The idea was that if all the twelve papers published the same story on the same day, the bureaucracy wouldn’t be able to confiscate all the copies of the papers, and it would reach the public anyway, and that is exactly what they did, and it worked like that. Part of the papers were confiscated, but a lot of them reached the audience, and of course the very thing that they were confiscated and yet reached the audience, made it a very noted public issue. After that, the Information Bureau collapsed in reality, I mean, it lost its self confidence. This happened in 1942, and in 1943 it was cancelled. That was after Stalingrad. Anyway, it was a very interesting case of trying to implement self-censorship among journalists, and another conclusion which I draw from this is that Jan has a very good point in pointing to the lapse in attention to what has been happening to these three Somalians. Because it proves in a way that the definition of liberalism, Dagens Nyheter is a liberal paper, is a total failure unless one upholds civic liberties which are applied to anyone, regardless of background, where there has to be issued proofs before one revokes the civic liberties of anyone. I mean, then the system of democracy collapses. And I think that is just one instance. Last Friday, two lawyers who have specialized in dealing with asylum cases, – and Sweden now has had a very shameful change in its asylum policy in the last couple of years -, they pointed to the fact that one of their clients, an Egyptian who wants asylum in Sweden, has been deported to Egypt by a decision in the Swedish government. As a result of the 11th of September definition of issues. In my opinion, we have to start working against these tendencies, and that certainly does not only concern Sweden. It is true, I think, that the same tendencies are apparent in Norway as well, and certainly in Britain, I mean, people being arrested, being handled in different manners without any involvement of a judicial body. And that, in my opinion, shows the extremism of the bureaucracy in this, and they are doing it under the command of the United Nations. But that is only a shield for the United States’ interests in this, so in a way even the concept of sovereignty has been given up. The fact is that judicial systems should be sovereign under the supervision of some international judicial bodies, like the European Court, but the procedure should be followed, whenever there are things like this. So I think that aspect also should be part of our discussion, because it is a revision of our citizens´ rights, and this happens, there has to be, now, acts, actions of civil disobedience, and I fully support Jan’s activity in this.
Now we will start the concluding part of the morning session. I now announce the opening of the final round of discussion, where Mr Andrew Puddephatt will be the first speaker. Mr Puddephatt is a civil rights activist in Britain, with a long experience, who is now executive director of Article 19, which is an organization dealing with questions of freedom of expression, in relation to the United Nations Declaration, article 19, that is the symbolic name of the group. Article 19 was instrumental in running the Rushdie campaign, and for that I think they should be given great recognition, greater than they have actually had so far. Because without the efforts of Article 19 to break the silence of politicians in the Rushdie case, the fact that neither the then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, nor any other leader of a European government was willing to stand, or officially to appear at the side of Rushdie for the first couple of years, until two Norwegian ministers broke that, Kleveland and Hernes. Anyway, Article 19 is certainly not only related to the Rushdie case, that was just an exception. The very interesting aspect of the work of Article 19, is that it deals extensively with freedom of expression matters, often defined in relation to constitutions, the principles and also the practice of freedom of expression in Third World countries, not in the sense of sitting in London, telling people how they should act, but they act in accordance and communion with groups in Third World countries, which are fighting for these elementary rights, making extensive investigations into the subject, related to particular countries, and then publishing the results. There is in the library of Article 19 a vast number of such reports, and if anyone wanted to know anything about the freedom of expression situation in various parts of Africa, he should first start at the office of Article 19. So they are very much involved in practical help at the ground level with these, rather than simply acting in terms of abstract statements. With that I give the floor to Andrew Puddephatt.
Thank you very much, Arne. I have been asked to reflect on what we have heard so far this morning, on the subject of self-censorship, particularly in the light of the events of September 11, and the subsequent conflict which is increasingly spreading throughout the globe. First of all, on self-censorship, I think there are four agents that promote self-censorship in the modern world. The first is governments. When governments summon journalists to their headquarters to discuss with them how they intend to cover an event, as the US State Departement did with American broadcasters, and as the British government did with British broadcasters, that clearly has an inhibiting effect on journalists in the way they choose to cover those events. A second factor is civil society, the pressure of your peers, the pressure of organizations in civil society, and certainly with our human rights and secular contacts in the Middle East, one of the primary sources of pressure on them is religious groups and religious foundations of various kinds, who issue fatwas and attacks upon them because of their work. That has an inhibiting effect on what they are willing or able to say. I think a third factor in a time of conflict is patriotic identification, the way in which people like to line up with their side, get on side with the conflict. We have seen that for example in the US throughout the current of events since September 11. CNN actually begins its coverage of the conflict with a strap line behind the newsreaders that says “Strike against terror!” or “War against terror”. Once you have actually framed the news in that way, it is impossible to convey dispassionate, independent journalism, you have simply ruled yourself out of the frame. Equally I have to say I have never, – and I would be interested in people who have lived in Palestine correcting me -, I have never seen the Palestinian media or Palestinian human rights groups condemn any atrocities against Israelis, the murder of the children settlers, for example, the atrocities of suicide bombers, on Israeli civilians, because it is part of the conflict and these people see themselves as part of the Intifada against Israel, not as independent journalists in a genuine sense, or as independent human rights activists. So everybody likes to line up and take sides in a conflict. And the fourth force that drives self-censorship, is professional esteem. Professional advancement, that is “I am not to rock the boat with the editor”, because you want to get on, and the competitive pressure from other journalists. Journalists are always competing with each other in a modern news environment, and journalists who step out of line can come under attack and criticism, for that work. The Guardian, for example, is regularly and famously attacked in Britain because it choose to carry views that are critical of the conduct of the war. Most recently, and I think rather wittily, one should say, it was called the Baader-Meinhof gang because of its failure to be enthusiastically in support of the conflict.
So those are four pressures that I think drive journalists to take a very simple and not, I think, a very free view in dealing with conflict. It is exacerbated by the inevitable drive in the modern media, which apparently dates back to Lenin, I had not realized that, to tell simple stories about good guys and bad guys, about right versus wrong. And that means the media find it very hard to handle complexity, and to handle shades of grey, and to handle a point of view where in a sense one isn’t identified with either side, but there are vices and virtues in both camps. And again, that is a universal phenomenon, we see it in the inability of the US media to seriously examine the consequences of the military campaign in Afghanistan, or have a serious interrogation about whether that makes it easier to deal with al-Qaeda or harder to deal with al-Qaeda. The US media have simply not discussed that, because it is not a simple good-bad issue, and if one wants to look at the Pakistan media in the early part of the conflict, they basically reproduced in whole sections uncritically Taliban press releases, which often made wild allegations about the nature of American bombing, or the nature of US casualties, equally useless as analysis or a form of information. But I suppose the challenge of September 11 is first of all, as a journalist and as a human rights activist, how do you deal with the sheer drama of the event that took place on that day? When three thousand, I think three-four thousand people, were murdered at a stroke by planes crashing into what was probably among the most famous buildings in the world, buildings which most of the people in the world would have recognized. In a media-saturated society like the United States, fairly quickly we knew who were killed, we knew the kinds of people, we often knew the faces, we often knew their histories, within a very short space of time. Now, most victims of mass murder are not known. It is one of the characteristics of genocide or crimes against humanity that the victims are generally invisible, their identities and stories and histories aren’t known, and so it is easier to be dispassionate, even indifferent towards them. In the case of September 11, that simply wasn’t possible. And in my own opinion, the best thing to do when faced with a dramatic event is to say nothing for a week. Because nothing sensible is said in the first week on either side of an event of that magnitude and that horror. One needs time to allow the emotions to settle down, and to come to grip, as one would do with any grief and any loss before thinking more clearly about it.
In recent years, civil society, armed groups, paramilitary groups, have also practised terrorist acts. And they are a terrible problem, in Northern Ireland last week the Ulster Defence Organization killed a catholic postman because he was a catholic and because they wanted to intimidate catholics in North Belfast, where there is a serious sectarian conflict developing between the two communities. Three years ago, the Real IRA killed about 30 people and wounded nine hundred more when they blew up the centre of Oma. Now, this conflict, that continues to go on between our government and two communities in Northern Ireland, is seriously destabilizing the region as a whole, seriously destabilizing the peace and the political process, and it is a real physical threat to ordinary people living on the ground in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland. So, it is not a phantasy, it exists, it is a problem. You’ve got to deal with it, and an organization like al-Qaeda, which has the, how should one call it, the imagination and will to stare people in the eyes on an aeroplane, as I am looking on you, knowing that I am going to kill all of you, in about twenty minutes´ time, and if I can kill thousands of other people as well, that is serious, that is something that introduces a new dimension to the kind of threat and risk that we have to live with in our society. And an organization which is actively seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, which elements of it appear to have been doing, from all the information that one can tell, clearly is something we must think about and respond to. So governments are not wrong to worry about terrorism. They are not wrong to talk about it, they are not wrong to take measures to deal with it. Because the state’s primary obligation is to secure the security of its citizens and protect their human right to life, which is the most fundamental human right of all, the right to life, and we expect our governments to protect our right to life.
The key issue, of course, is whether the governments’ response is, in the phrase of the European Convention on Human Rights, “necessary in a democratic society”. Is it proportionate, is it appropriate, is it, if you like, in tune with the importance of the threat, or is it simply an indiscriminate response that could make things worse, or violate other human rights in turn? And it is that kind of nuanced analysis of what out governments do, that is so absent from most of the Western media. They simply don’t seem capable of acknowledging that the state has to make some response, while at the same time examining whether the response that the state makes is appropriate, is proportionate, and is consistent with human rights values. That is why, as Jonathan said, we have heard nothing really about the consequences that follow from the military venture that is taking place in Afghanistan. We have media that do seem capable of dealing with that kind of issue. And on a more profound level, freedom of expression matters, because it is through a culture of freedom of expression that we can understand and deal with the nature of terrorism and terrorist acts themselves. Mary Robinson called the attack on the World Trade Center a crime against humanity, she said that on September 12, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, I think she was right to do so. It is also a fact that that crime against humanity was celebrated in many parts of the world and seen as a moral victory over the dominant powers that rule this globe. That is a challenge for us, to understand why people would feel that, to understand why the poor and the oppressed of the world would sometimes celebrate the deaths, not of the rich elite, but of Puerto Ricans, Pakistanis, Africans, you know the whole multi-national complex of people, that worked in the World Trade Center, who were far from the masters of the universe, but who were simply employees of the master of the universe, like most of us. It is very important that we try and understand that. The problem, I think, in the Western media, is primarily that inability to understand the complex histories of societies that we deal with, the capricious nature of Western intervention, and Western memory, which Jonathan pointed out, with the example of Thomas Friedman, who is not an insignificant figure, he is the chief voice of the New York Times´ foreign policy, and for him to get some basic facts like that wrong about Afghanistan, says something very serious about the way we cover these events. The fact that I have never seen a serious discussion in the Western media in recent months of the way that fundamentalism is funded principally by the West and encouraged by the West as a force that would undermine Nasserite socialism in the Middle East, the way that Hamas and Hizbollah were surreptitiously encouraged for whole periods by the West, including by the Israelis, as a force that would undermine Fatah and Arafat. As one Pakistani human rights activist whom I have been working with, said to me, what enrages them is that the demons of Islamic fundamentalism, who are now tormenting Pakistan, were actually fostered and paid for and encouraged and often trained by Western governments for geo-political reasons. And it is that inability to kind of understand history and the complexity of history, that so limits our ability to understand the nature of the phenomenon that comes back at us in attacks like September 11.
But equally, if one looks at the Islamic media, the problem there is a different one. In most of the Islamic world, the governments hold a very strict control over most of the media, and in the Arab world, no criticism of the government is allowed. So Arab governments sanction and allow what is often rabid anti-Semitism, that is not just anti-Israeli sentiments, but rabid anti-Semitism which conditions the whole mindset of any political discussions in the Middle East. It leads to a politics based almost entirely on rumour and conspiracy, a belief that princess Diana was murdered by MI6, for example, in Paris, because she was going out with an Egyptian, which is almost universially believed on the streets of Cairo, and many other Middle Eastern cities. Or the kind of stories that circulated after September 11, that said that Mossad were responsible for flying the planes into the World Trade Center as part of some complex and devious plot. What you have with a politicy of rumour and conspiracy, is an inability in those communities to have serious grown-up politics which are engaged with serious political options. And that is why, when Afghan muslims slaughter Arab and Pakistani muslims most of the Middle East media simply don’t know what to say about it, simply cannot comprehend it, because in the accepted paradigms of those media, these kinds of options aren’t allowed. So modern journalism faces a big challenge if it is to grapple with the events of the modern world, and grapple with forces of terrorism, and I think it has to do four things, and I will finish with them. First of all, any modern journalist has to engage with the complexity of events, secondly, any serious journalist has to try and explain histories, thirdly, they have to reject simple political positions, and simple political identification, so it is not your job as a journalist to be on anybody’s side, it is not your job to be on the side of the Israelis, and it is not your job to be on the side of the Palestinians. It is your job to try and understand the nature of the conflict between them. And fourthly, therefore your primary job as a journalist is to go behind the positions of the parties to analyze their real interests. Because it is only when we go behind the positions to analyze the interests, that we can understand the real basis for an enduring and peaceful settlement to these conflicts, whatever that might be.
Thank you, Andrew, and I now give the floor to Rune Ottosen, who is, as most of you will know, professor of journalism at the School of Journalism at Oslo College, but who is also in this field a scientist who has dealt extensively with the question of war reporting and the way reporting from international conflict areas is part of the globalization aspects affecting us all. I mean, how actually globalization in terms of coverage is also part of the problem, and he has written extensively on the Gulf War, starting when it developed and doing more work along these lines since. Please.
Thank you. I must also mention that I am the president of the Organization of Non-fiction Writers and Translators, and I mention this because as part of the organizers of this seminar, I would like to apologize for the male dominance in this panel, which is not an intention. We have contacted several excellent women speakers, but they all, for different reasons, sent their excuses, so actually I am replacing the last one we lost yesterday night. So, I would just like you to know that this is not our fault. OK.
Speaking generally of the issue of self-censorship, I would like to draw your attention to a survey that was published in Columbian Journalism Review, one and a half years ago. It was a representative study among American journalists and it revealed that 25 % of the interviewed openly admitted that they had stopped some of their stories, not following traces of stories because of fear of the consequences, for themselves and their personal career, one point being offending the owners of their media. And in this respect, I think this is interesting, because this was before September 11. After that, we of course have seen several worrying [cases of] interference from owners, which is totally unacceptable within journalism. The freedom of the editor has been violated in several cases, and several of those examples were revealed by a fact-finding mission from the Paris-based NGO “Reporters sans frontiers” (RSF), who had a mission in the United States from September 26 to October 2. They set up this mission because they saw some worrying tendencies, and they collected evidence. Their report is quite disturbing, actually. Some of those examples are of course known already, one could mention what was mentioned earlier here, that several of the leading media admitted that they would not publish live from al-Jazeera. What is more appalling, I think, is that the chairman of CNN, who, among other editors, instructed the journalists that whenever they mentioned the issue of civilian casualties, at the same time should remind the audience who were really responsible for this, namely the terrorists. This kind of direct interference in the journalistic work is quite disturbing. I wrote an article about this in the Norwegian media, remembering back to the Second World War, when the German occupants based the media activity on this principle, that they every day issued instructions to mention certain things, and not to mention other things, and if you mention this, you have to mention that, I mean, these kinds of things are really not worthy of journalism. There is other evidence in this report as well, violating for example the confidentiality of Internet users, and there are issues where some media were not allowed to interview Taliban spokesmen. In Britain I think the BBC has similar instructions not allowing interviews of the IRA, those kinds of interference in the direct journalistic work. And the most interesting issue of self-censorship was when the nineteen biggest owners of media corporations were informed by the Pentagon, two days before the bombing started, the exact details of the date, and so forth, on the condition that they did not publish this. This was a major news story, and thinking that all those news agencies and media concerns accepted those conditions, is also very troublesome, since some of those, I believe all of them, were among those media corporations protesting after the Gulf War about the restrictions of the US government at that time. So, I think this proves what dramatic interference has been experienced in the American media, and it is quite interesting that the delegation from RSF also interviewed some media critics, among those the organization “Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting”, the New York-based organization which is a media critical NGO. Their spokesman, Steve Rundell, made the observation that he was actually quite positively surprised the first few days after September 11 because the media then being quite in shock really wrote some interesting stories, but he mentioned the change in the athmosphere after September 20, when George Bush, the President, held his speech to the Congress. And in this speech, – I am sure you all remember some of the quotations; either you are for us, or you are for the terrorists -, this very dichotomy that was the basis for this speech, which is of course a very known thing in propaganda, you have two parties, only two parties, and no position in between, and this very kind of analysis is promoting intolerance and avoiding public discussion, which was also what happened. All those critics who still went on, were in different ways punished, by labels, some were sacked.
I think if you have a global perspective on this, there are even some more troublesome examples. For the US government to try and really have a global control of the media situation, one point being buying up all the commercial pictures from satellites, they control of course the military satellites, but buying up all the pictures from the commercial satellites, they really are able to stop any media who might like to check if their story of what was going on inside of Afghanistan was true. The other point is of course the attempts to stop al-Jazeera. I am sure that most you had not heard of al-Jazeera before these events on September 11, but to put a point from the last speaker’s introduction, al-Jazeera has meant a difference in Middle East media and offended a lot of totalitarian regimes in the region because they actually accepted critical journalism. And it is quite interesting that when the US government tried to make the government of Qatar, where al-Jazeera is based, to interfere, it also was an interference in the competition between CNN and the other satellite-based channels. Because this is also a commercial issue. The Gulf War was of course a tremendous business success for CNN, and it was through the Gulf War that they won their monopoly, for a while, on the concept of 24 hours´ direct broadcasting. Since then, they have had competition from BBC World, Fox Television, and others, but the interesting thing about al-Jazeera is that is was a regional competitor to CNN, and actually taking some of the market from CNN, and in this respect, having an Arab view of the events competing with the Anglo-Saxon view of the events. When hearing about the American government trying to stop al-Jazeera, through the government of Qatar, I got connotations to the Cold War when Soviet and Chinese governments complained to the US government about what they wrote in their press about communism and China and Soviet Union, and US government always said: “Oh, it is not for us to control the media. They write whatever they want.” And of course, the most disturbing thing, very little mentioned in the Western press, was that al-Jazeera’s Kabul office was actually also hit, and Pentagon denied that this was a conscious move, but al-Jazeera did not believe that, because they found it very interesting that their office was bombed the same day that BBC’s office in Kabul reopened. So, you can draw your own conclusions from this, of course, and I think that this point about making a military target of media facilities, is also quite disturbing, like when the Israelis two days ago bombed and ruined the Palestinian radio. Of course, this was also experienced during the Kosovo bombing, when the Serb television was targeted, and I was on a seminar with Jamie Shea, the NATO spokesman, and he said that the propaganda mistake that NATO did in that respect, was that they had two different explanations for it. One, the correct one, was that they bombed it because it also included some military facilities, and listening devices, that was the correct one. The wrong one was that it represented Serb propaganda, because if you go into that line of arguing, you get into difficulties. Who has the right to define what is propaganda? What is a legal target? What is not a legal target in propaganda terms? So therefore, in an article for the Norwegian Review for Human Rights, I have suggested that the journalists´ organizations should go into this, and seek more legal protection through the Geneva Convention for journalists and media corporations. So, there are lots of things to follow up here, but I think I will stop here for a while.
Thank you, Rune. I have no idea to what extent there are variations in positions among the panelists here, I mean, there seems to be general agreement on some general points, but I hope we will also, perhaps, have some areas where there is a certain disagreement, simply in order to make the discussion lively. So, Jan, if you can find some such points, you are welcome to utter them.
There is an obvious risk that we produce a number of big words that we believe in, but which of course put us in a situation where it would be difficult to produce any objections. I think Andrew Puddephatt said something very sound, a really good piece of advice that unfortunately is difficult for most journalists to follow. When something as astonishing, incomprehensible, as the September 11 attack occurs, one should keep quiet for a week before saying anything. I did that in my capacity as a columnist. However, at the paper where I write, Aftonbladet, all the columnists were ordered, – I refused -, to write something for the next day. And you can imagine what that looked like. The best quotation, – or worst -, is from one of my colleagues, who described his enemy with the following words: “A damned medieval ape, with toilet paper around his head.” So, one should keep quiet, if possible, for a week, before writing that kind of shit.
Now, in Andrew Puddephatt’s other listing of important points, one should always agree on the complexity of things, yes, history is important, sure, a good reporter should be against everybody. I once met a Washington Post senior editor, who told me: “Jan, it is very simple, it is us against all them assholes”. I sympathize with that attitude, although I have not, I must admit, always found it easy to follow this sound principle. One should ask oneself, surely, as the Romans already did: in whose interest? One of these four aspects has been of particular interest for me, through the last decade, and that is the historical aspect. Because many times it is easier for us to analyze medieval history than contemporary history. Anything, not to say everything, that took place during the era of the military dictatorships in Sweden during the 17th century, is known and analyzed to the detail, but what actually happened during the last ten years is always, I believe, harder to see. This war that goes on now started around 1990, because when the Evil Empire, the Soviet Union, much to everybody’s astonishment, especially to CIA’s astonishment, suddenly collapsed, there was this obvious question to be put forward, in Washington, London, and of course, Bruxelles, that is the city of the NATO headquarters, if the Evil Empire is gone, who is now the enemy? And the answer in all these major cities was the same: It is Islam, a religion, not a state, but a religion. At the time, around 1990, this may have seemed a rather theoretical think-tank kind of analysis, not likely to be put into formal practice, but it was there, it did not raise much attention, at least not in the Scandinavian countries, but the analysis was there.
Only a few years later, I noticed that there was this debate in the British Parliament, over the issue of whether Great Britain should or should not keep the Trident system. A Trident submarine is, you know, the Harmageddon sort of vessel, Her Majesty’s ship “Harmageddon”, the end of the world kind of a thing. And apart from the apocalypse aspects, it is also something very expensive. So, should the British taxpayers now still pay for this very expensive thing when there was no Soviet Union to destroy? And the answer in the Parliament was “yes”, because of the danger of Islam. So, at this very moment, those British Trident submarines are still out there, prepared at any moment, from any spot of the world to destroy half the world or something. Because of the danger of Islam.
Now, a few years later, in 1996, I was isolated in a little hotel room in Kazakhstan, such things which do happen to journalists, transport didn’t come, so I am in a hotel room, I have to watch my telephone for the next ten hours, 48 hours, or whatever. On the TV they had just been banning the Russian language. So, I had four alternatives, three were in Kazakh, which I didn’t understand a word of, and the fourth alternative was CNN. So, I had to watch CNN perpetually for about 48 hours, which is a very hard thing for a decent journalist to do. To make time go by in some way, I took a sheet of paper and divided it into two halves, and I wrote the two headlines “good guys” and “bad guys”, and every time throughout the next 48 hours. When I saw a muslim from one country or the other, I made a marking in the appropriate column. And when the telephone finally rang, when those 48 hours had passed, I had 57 markings, and they were all, with no exception whatsoever, in the column for “bad guys”. What I had seen, was people who threw stones, shot in the air with automatic carbines, burned flags, Israeli and American flags, dragged dead people behind jeeps. Females were only shooting with pistols, Iranian females, obviously, or whipping themselves bloody. There is a small Shia-muslims sect in Southern Lebanon doing this once a year, about two thousand people, but they are surely among the most photographed muslims in modern history. Now, not once did I see any person, male or female, in ordinary clothes, producing some kind of line of thought, not once, so, my conclusion was quite simple: this is the war. This is what the war looks like on TV. This is how it started, for instance in the year 1096, when the pope Urban the Second decided we should start the Crusades, a holy war. The propaganda that went on for the next couple of years looked like CNN 1996, you demonize the enemy, that is how you start. And my point now is that this has been going on in front of our eyes for a decade, and it has been very difficult to discover even so. Slowly, this mentality slips into our mind, and into all decent television reporters’ minds. They are going on with little thought, I think, to keep on producing these demons for their audience. So when president George Bush pronounced his words after September 11, this is our crusade, something like that. I think that fell perfectly in line with what had been going on for almost a decade. We don’t see the history that is close to us, only what went on in the 17th century. So, I couldn’t agree more, Andrew, with your point that history is important. But by this I would like to point out how difficult it is to see the history that is close to us. Thank you.
I think one can add an aspect to what you have been stating about this undeclared war and about creating fear for muslims, because of the fact that the new Danish government last Friday issued a totally new definition of immigration laws, which in my opinion are racist in their implications. Certainly the Danish commentators, who were trying to analyze the reasons for this, have got one point among several, and that is the tension which has increased after September 11 relating to fear of muslims. So, the point is that when we deal with these issues, it is not just a question of what is happening far away, in foreign countries like Afghanistan, or somewhere else. It is a question of what happens at the home front. The rules of behaviour, civil liberties, at close range, become affected by these kinds of attitudes unless we discuss them very openly and then we also will have to consider the real aspects of fear. The fact that, as Andrew pointed to, the very presence of a thing like the attack on the World Trade Center, of course is something that affects the minds of people and the symbolism of that is hard to withstand, because I think we must certainly fear that there might be new attacks of this kind, and how do we react if there are, at close range? Is it possible then to keep a sane and rational discussion about these issues present? I think there certainly are aspects of this development which no one can predict, and where no one can be absolutely certain of how we are going to react ourselves. Jan may be right, that this started in the 1990s, but it is a totally new predicament, which has similiarities to earlier predicaments, but it is unprognosticated, there is no way of dealing with it in a known way, because it is unchartered territory. Andrew, short comment?
Sure. One of the big problems that we face is that if you take human rights abuse on the mass scale we are talking about, up until a few years ago these were primarily the responsibility of governments and states. One of the big new developments is the way that much the overwhelming human rights abuses in the world, whether in the region of the Great Lakes, or perpetrated by organizations like al-Qaeda, or it comes from the Tamils or anyone else, is being perpetrated by non-state organizations, who don’t obey, in a sense, to the same rules, or whose bad behaviour, I should say, can’t be predicted with the same certainty that the bad behaviour of governments can be predicted. And that, I think, is what is, if you like, scary and destabilizing and it is a challenge for our understanding, [because as] always with these things, events challenge understanding, and it seems to me that the primary job of the journalist is to aid and assist understanding, not to become a prisoner of the emotions of events.
There are already hands raised in the audience to comment on this, but I think we should first give the floor to Jonathan.
Oh no, I would rather hear the questions.
Kjell Olaf Jensen:
There is one essential topic, which has just merely been touched upon in the discussion yet, and that is the efficiency of self-censorship. I mean, to be a real danger towards an open society, self-censorship has to be efficient, which is enormously difficult. Censorship may be efficient because it is an institution, but self-censorship is not. One instance is what Jan Guillou told us about the Bureau of Information during the Second World War, another very peculiar case is what happened in the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11 when several of the largest newspapers and media groups publicly declared that from now on and for a certain time, we are going to practice self-censorship in all our reporting concerning terrorism. Well, ok, they are doing it, but they are warning the public. Don’t take our reporting at face value. At the same time, the rather small, but still influential newspaper, Frankfurter Rundschau, the liberal, leftist newspaper in Frankfurt, every day, all through the second half of September, October, November, carried on its foreign pages, the same little framed notice: “Please be aware, dear reader, that all our reporting about terrorism during these times is biased. We have no access to reliable sources, and we have to report on these affairs, so we just report the news we get, because we are not able to confirm them”. Which is the same thing, and all these things, I suppose, taken together, result in Jan Guillou’s standing here and saying that “I do not trust a single word of what I read from the foreign correspondents in the newspapers”, with good reason, of course, you are right. But how can you be able to say that, how can you know that the articles are not reliable? Partly because of things you have seen in the media, I suppose, which has sieved through, so self-censorship can almost never be efficient, like formal censorship, and that is a very interesting point, I think. Maybe the conclusion then should be that we go back to the good, old, very simple manuals for foreign correspondents, I mean, every journalist with more than fifteen years´ experience, knows that when you see in the newspapers or hear on the radio that according to reliable sources this is so-and-so, this means that the journalist has spoken to a taxi driver, and when you hear that according to confirmed reports…, then he has been at the hairdresser’s. You will find that in every good old journalist’s manual, maybe we should go back to that system, it would make self-censorship very, very difficult. Thank you.
I think we will have another few questions before I turn to the panelists. Please.
Since there are no women in the panel, I feel free to speak. But I want to comment on what Jan Guillou was saying because it is dangerous sympathizing either way. I lived in Paris in 1995/1996 when there was terrorist bombing in the Metro, and I have to admit that when I was sitting in the metro, looking around, “is there any potential bombers here?”, of course I spotted, I looked for dark-haired, young men of North African origin, of course I did. And we have to face reality, – of course I also know that there is less than 0.001% of the people of North African origin living in France who are potential terrorists, I knew that, but if there were any terrorists in the metro, they would most probably, according to statistics, look that way. So of course, – maybe I behaved like a racist, but I mean, face reality, I then have to say that I have always seen extensively in the French press, a willingness among Arab muslims to admit that “we have a problem here. There must be some reason for young Arabs becoming terrorists. Why is that so? Why is our cultural frame nourishing terrorists?” And this stigmatized debate that I feel particularly here in Scandinavia, because we don’t have a long experience with a multi-cultural society, in France they have a lot longer tradition for that, and seeing, – I mean, the debate is interesting, when you get to the point where you are discussing why is this a problem? And I don’t think it has that much to do with religion, it has more to do with identity, and what you have mentioned, a lack of participation in Arab countries, and a frustration created by that. So I think that is stigmatizing the other way, stigmatizing Western thinking, that we are so racist because we fear North Africans, I don’t know, there are reasons for that, and we have to be honest about it. The second point I want to make, is that none of you have mentioned the threat against freedom of speech which is money. The media have one concern today, making money. So the death of a princess is of course much more interesting than any serious war coverage. And that, I feel, is really, really a danger for the freedom of speech in the whole world, not only in the Western world.
I ask the panelists that they remember the questions, and in some way respond to whatever you feel is pertinent to discuss and eventually I will have a couple of more questions, at the backside, and then Elisabeth Eide.
Yes, Andrew said that journalists should not take side for or against, but I believe that in this situation, as the rest of the contributors said, in this situation you don’t have a chance to take side. You get forced in a way to take side for USA, and in this special situation I think journalists should oppose that. What do you think about “Media Workers against War” in England, an organization of media workers who are against the war? I think it is good that journalists take side and say “I don’t want to follow this. I want to be against it, I want to express myself – freely”. Because, how can we have a democracy if it is like: you shouldn’t take side, you shouldn’t speak about what you feel about this, I mean, we have to, – journalists are part of developing the democracy.
Well, I think that is certainly a relevant point for discussion. John Pilger was named by Jan here earlier, he is very much a journalist who takes sides, but who tries to support his positions by extensive research, and that is a different role than the more normal role among journalists, which is to be unbiased, critical only in the sense that they will target anyone who breaks the rules of the game, but they are not supposed to have political positions themselves, which are apparent in what they are writing. The question is: these are two rather different definitions of the roles of journalism, and I would tend to class Jan as one John Pilger type, although he has also done other kinds of journalism, but he has certainly taken positions in his life as a journalist. So some reflection on this is also relevant. Please, Elisabeth.
First, I am glad Tove Gravdal mentioned the death of a princess, but I was thinking of another death of a princess, namely a film that came, I think it was in the early eighties, when a princess in Saudi Arabia was executed, and that brings another question to the fore, concerning this debate about media coverage, namely: what about out moderate state friend, Saudi Arabia, which I think was very little of an issue in the coverage. It was labeled moderate by many a journalist without any observation, well, I won’t dwell on that, I think you can elaborate in your minds. The other thing was to comment on your question on taking sides. In my own research, I have found that the journalist codeworks, the journalist honour, the journalist mission, is complicated, because it is both taking sides and not taking sides. We are supposed to mirror society, and we are supposed to be non-partisan, but at the same time we are there to defend the little man, and we are to defend victims wherever they are, and also to be the fourth power of state, or as the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique says, “the second estate, nowadays”, we have moved upwards. So I think we have to live with these conflicting ideas, and each one has to create a position for herself. I think they also do, when you hear them commenting on the journalist mission, they do emphasise in a bit eclectic way, which ideas they think are appropriate to their work.
Finally I want to comment on something Mr. Puddephatt said, because he said he was trying to put everything under the umbrella of censorship, and it isn’t always so easy, maybe some of it isn’t, maybe some of it has to do with the inherent properties of journalism itself, I think, and I want to quote a political journalist in Norway, Aslak Bonde, who said at a press conference about media power, that an overwhelming majority of Norwegian journalists are left-inclined, still we have a feeling they serve the Party of Progress (FrP), the most right wing party in Norway, and how can that be? He didn’t answer his own question, nobody else did, really, but I think it is important, because the inherent properties of journalism have to do with sensationalism, conflict, and special dramaturgical needs coming more and more to the forefront, due to commercialization, and this has to do with the conflict coverage of Taliban versus US again. The Taliban fell, you could say, very easily. Large parts of the Taliban just vanished, so to say, and might this tell us that a more peaceful solution would have been possible? I think so, through negotiations and clever interference and with some powerful Pashtun commanders coming into this conflict, on the other side, I think something else could have been done, but that is not a very sexy thing to write about. So it wasn’t much written about. And secondly, also the depleted uranium issue, I insist that this is an important issue, but it doesn’t kill fast enough for the media to grasp, and it is invisible for most, so it is als very difficult to write about.
One last question and then we will make a final round. Please.
Well, I think, – my name is Erik Hoyer and I am working at the Department of Media and Communication. About the coverage of CNN, we have all been brainwashed, but lately at least, there has been a ray of sunshine in Norwegian media. They have been more critical of Israel than they have been recently, and a former resepected prime minister has even been more critical about Israel’s history and current attitudes and actions than I have seen in this panel today. About journalists also being critical, yes, they are in Norwegian media. You have a big news story, and you have a column written by a journalist. They have their forum, more than outside it.
With that, I now give the word to Jonathan, you have slightly more time than the rest of the panel, since you were not allowed to utter anything in the first round. So please.
I will stand up, not only so that I can see you and you can see me, but so that I can see this amazing view. If you looked into my office in London, and looked out of the window, you would understand why I am so keen to be a foreign correspondent. But more seriously, we have heard Lenin being quoted in his 1906 pamphlet “What to do?” or “What is to be done?” I remember when I used to cover the Soviet Union a lot, in the 1970s and 80s, when it still was the Soviet Union, there was a very impressive slogan from Lenin, right high up on the street, near the Belorussian Station, and as you know, when you drive in from Sherementevo airport, down the Leningradsky Prospekt into town, you have to pass it. There was this huge quotation, it was in neon in the evening, so you couldn’t miss it even when it was dark, it said: “A journalist is not only an agitator, and a propagandist, but above all an organizer.” A very, very challenging quotation, because I can hardly organize my own desk. I certainly didn’t feel I wanted to be a propagandist, but I did want to be an agitator, and I think that is basically what journalism is about, it’s being an agitator, all the time trying to undermine complacency of publics, undermine self-rightousness of governments, undermine the general level of comfortable ignorance, and half-knowledge that most people live in. And if you can agitate constantly, including your own prejudices too, a little bit of self-agitation, I think that is what really it is all about.
Walter Lippman, the great sort of liberal imperialist, journalist of the 1920s and 30s in the United States, used the phrase, which of course Noam Chomsky picked up, about “the job of media is to manufacture consent”. Now, Lippman meant it in a good sense, that in democracies you have got to have consent, and it is the job of the media to manufacture that. And of course Chomsky sees it as this really is the job of the media, to manufacture consent in the most narrow way, and literally to manipulate. And again I think that is an important point for journalists to think about, because there are some moments when you have to do precisely the opposite, you have to destroy consent, if governments are going wrong, you have to undermine that, destroy that. And that is what dissidents in an authoritarian society do, and someone like Chomsky I suppose you can call an American dissident, or a dissenter, because he is constantly manufacturing dissent. But that is the most dramatic example. I think in a less dramatic context, what we do as journalists, or what we ought to do as journalists, if we want to be good ones, is to get the built-in obsolecence into these manufactured products. You know the lightbulb that has built-in obsolescence so that it will break down after a certain number of hours, American cars have whatever they put in there to make sure they break down quickly and have to be renewed. So as journalists I think we are trying to put the built-in obsolescence, build it the system, so that constantly consent has to be renewed all the time. It can’t be taken for granted, because we are always asking the questions, and I think there are questions that people in this room have to think about, if they are on the liberal left, or the far left, as I detect some people in this room are, most of the people are left of centre, anyway, in this room, I think, and that is the question of solidarity journalism. I think Andrew dealt with that a little bit when he talked about the frequent oppression in the Arab states, and self-censorship in the Arab media, and so on. Somebody from the back mentioned the whole issue of being on side with the Palestinians. I think the whole concept of solidarity journalism really has to be thought about extremely carefully. I mean, it is one thing to take sides, but the side you are on, must be one that you are only taking sides with in a very temporary capacity, and not in a sort of blind way, because people change all the time, people can be victims in one context, and villains in another context, and things change very quickly.
I will give you one example, it came to me very impressively, and dramatically. In august 1995, I was covering the refugee exodus from Krajina, from Croatia after Operation Storm in Serbia, and hundreds of thousands, literally more than 300 000 Serbs were driven out of Croatia, and we were standing, a group of journalists, on the big motorway between Zagreb and Belgrade, and they were coming across in these tractors and beaten-up cars, someone had their windows smashed, from people throwing stones at them on the way. And of course it was a dramatic human refugee story. But then I decided to follow some of these tractors and see where they were going. They went off the motorway, very quickly, still inside Serbia, but now to villages that had always been, for many years, decades, perhaps centuries, half Serb, half Croatian, or seventy percent Serb, thirty percent Croatian. And they went into these villages, and Serbian-owned houses had Serbian flags outside, to show, you know, “we are Serbs”, and these tractors would park outside the houses that did not have the Serb flag, and that had Croats living in them, and just sit there, at best, in a kind of menacing way, on the front lawn of these houses. At worst, they would go into the houses and evict the Croats. So the same people whom we had been watching as victims, within about an hour became villains. I think this is a lesson, that you must not take sides too simply and too permanently, and too blindly. You constantly have to say, what is the context, the political context, I come back to my point about being a political correspondent in a different context, when you are a war correspondent. What is the political context that makes people behave as they do, what are the pressures that make them do it, and what, obviously, are the consequences of their actions? That is what you have to be asking all the time, you can’t simply say “I am on the side of the Palestinians”. I mean, I have written articles for Anti-Apartheid News in the 1970s, or Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign News in the 1980s, I have no sense of guilt about that, but the article stood on its merits, I didn’t mean that everything the Sandinists did was fantastic, but I was willing to have articles about what I had seen in Nicaragua written, and printed in that magazine, or in the Anti-Apartheid News, when it existed. So, I mean, there is nothing wrong with journalists writing for solidarity-based newsletters and things, but I think the idea of solidarity journalism is a very questionable one, and I think we have to be very careful about it, and it comes back to the point I think somebody made there about sitting in the metro in Paris and being suspicious of someone looking North African. You said that you have to be honest, that honesty is the crucial thing, you have to be honest all the time, and I will end on a note from Lenin, self-critical too. I mean, criticism and self-criticism in a Soviet context I know sometimes has a menacing meaning, and people are forced to be self-critical, but I think one should be willingly self-critical. Thank you.
We take the opposite order of the initial round, so it is now Jan.
I shall try to briefly discuss three of the questions. First, should we not suspect Arabs in the subway rather than white folks? That is a very tough way of putting a question. Unfortunately, the answer is “yes, but…” something. And the “but” includes the analysis of what actually happened after September 11, because there could basically have been two ways of explaining the event. One, the terrorists had some sort of rational reasons. They were against the US imperialism, they were against United States support for the state of Israel, they were against the United States liaison with Saudi Arabia, or whatever rational reasons. But that way of reasoning was more or less banned the week after September 11, and all the Western media, in my viewpoint, took to the other possibility to explain the events by irrational reasons. These terrorists are Muslim fanatics, they are crazed, they have no reasons whatsoever to attack us. In fact, they have attacked us all, the Western system, democracy. September 12, the Swedish government ordered the Swedish air force to start patrolling Swedish airspace at nighttime, because, in the words of our Prime Minister, “this has been an attack on our life style”. He had misunderstood some American expression, it came out rather stupid in Swedish. It is more likely that the Arab next to you in the subway is a terrorist, but he might very well be something else. And the answer is that we should do anything in our power to try to oppose this idea that there is a crusade going on. That is what has to be fought on all levels.
The second question, – which one could speak about at length, which I shall not do -, is the issue of taking sides. Normally I would be against that as a reporter. The reason is very simple, if you are a partisan reporter, you lose credibility, and if you lose credibility as a journalist, most of what you are doing is in vain, anyway. So, in my experience, there is only one field where I have skipped this otherwise good principle taught to me by the senior editor of Washington Post: “Remember, Jan, it is us journalists against all them assholes”. It is a principle I do sympathize with, but it cannot be applied on two things, in my experience: the Western world against the Arabs, and Israel against the Palestinians, because anything you write on those topics would be partisan one way or the other. You could not even pretend, – well, a lot of people do pretend that they are objective about these subjects, but they are not. Now, that is where I have chosen not to pretend, at least, and to do more agitation than reporting. The last question is more delicate, you know, the “death of a princess”-matter. Yes, I remember that story of a Saudi Arabian princess, it was all over the Western media. Now, two weeks ago, however, the Saudi Arabian regime beheaded four homosexuals, for the crime of being homosexual. That was not widely publicized, in the Western media, but you could imagine what kind of story that would have been before September 11. So today, it is OK to keep quiet about a few beheaded homosexuals in Saudi Arabia, before September 11 it was not. Keep that in mind.
I think the objective of the journalist is not to take sides, but to tell the truth, even if it is impossible, that is, try to reveal the truth. One part of this telling the truth is to acknowledge that all sides in a conflict deal with propaganda, including your own government. So when the Norwegian Foreign Minister is asked if this bombing is according to international law, he is not a legal expert, like many journalists seem to think. He is a propagandist for his own policy, and when you are dealing with propaganda, like, for instance, the President Bush speech, you can see what he is not talking about. There is no reference to United Nations, or UN resolutions, there is no reference to international law, there is no definition of democracy, there is no definition of freedom. So then you can write about these things that he is not talking about. That could be some countermove to start with. So I think that something positive has come out of this Gulf War discussion, and this is precisely on this matter. I think that journalists generally now acknowledge that it is all about propaganda here, and that they are dealing with it, and that is a positive sign.
Someone said that you are forced to take sides for the USA. Actually, that is nonsense. You can take sides against the USA if you want, it may be that your expensive career in an American media corporation won’t flourish, but no one is going to throw you in prison for ten years like they have Akbar Angee in Iran, who has been put in prison for writing about the revolutionary regime in Iran. I used to defend the procedural rights of IRA suspects, during the 1980s and 1990s, which was a very unpopular thing to do, and a British columnist called Richard Littlejohn once wrote that anybody who met me in the street should punch me in the mouth because of that attitude, and I got letters from some loyalists, and death threats and so on, but no one stopped me doing it. The State never threatened me with arrest, I was entirely entitled to exercise my democratic rights to defend people, so in our societies we can do that and when we have that opposition, we should express it, that is what we are here to do. I think the difficult problem is the whole question of solidarity journalism, and here I absolutely agree with Jonathan Steele, I think it is a very dangerous concept. I don’t think that journalists shouldn’t have views, and I think, for example, if you are pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, that is entirely your right. All I ask, as a journalist, is that you report critically on the Israeli side if you are pro-Israeli, and that you report critically on the Palestinian side if you are pro-Palestinian. Otherwise, frankly, your reports are not going to be of much value, and will be discounted by readers like me right from the beginning, so if you are a partisan, I am simply not going to believe what you are going to say. I think where journalists can be partisan is in questions about values. Human rights are a set of values that protect human agency, and I see no obstacle to a good journalist being virulent in promoting human rights as a set of values that promote human agency, and being critical of politicians who will always try and push you around and tell you what to do, wherever they are, left or right or any country. A journalist just needs a bit of backbone to stand up to that, to be clear about what they are there to promote.
Thank you very much, and with that we end this session. I just want to add two short remarks myself, related to the issues, one is on the question of Islam, where in my opinion the main problem is the fact that media use these war-covering concepts and terms, and of course along Islam there is a wide variety of positions, of systems, of individuals, coming from the Muslim world, some of whom are secular. And what I realized during the Rushdie campaign, was that media in the West dealt with this conflict as if it was a conflict between the Western world and the Muslim world, disregarding the fact that perhaps the most prominent and courageous defender of Rushdie was Sadik al-Azm, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Damascus, who wrote extensively in Lebanese and Egyptian newspapers, also published books totally supporting Rushdie. And that started only a few months after the fatwa was issued, with very little notice, – actually with the exception of Norway, where his main essay on the Rushdie case has been published. That was totally disregarded by the Western media.
I have also another experience of a similar kind, which is that in Sudan in 1982 a very prominent philosopher was beheaded. Kaldoum, who was a feminist, had a feminist position in regard to Islam, and who actually made a very interesting attempt in defining what issues from the Quran are relevant today and what should be defined as temporary issues. He became an extremely prominent political figure, he was killed because he was in opposition to the Sudanese government. I published an essay on him written by a Sudanese disciple of his, who now lives in exile in the United States, and I tried to find in Western media one portrait of him, which was absolutely impossible. I had to go to al-Ahram in Cairo, in order to find that portrait, and that shows the provincialism of the definition of these matters. Now, he was a Muslim with a very different attitude than what is generally associated with Islam. I think that is really lack of historical understanding of the fact that Islam is as complex as Christianity. It is certainly not just one entity. In fact, in Iran today, there is a judicial process going on right now, against some of the reformist journalists. All of the leading figures are in prison, all the so-called reformist newspapers have been shut down, which tells us what it is really all about. Many of those who are in prison are believing Muslims. It is a question of the system, it is a dictatorial system which misuses the concepts of Islam to hold its power, but it is not Islam as such. And that is a very important issue to bear in mind. When it comes to Western media, it was raised here earlier, the problem with the money aspect of it. And I think that has two features, one is the fact that Western media are now quite disturbed by the fact that advertising income has fallen as a result of the September 11 issue. I mean, when they cover such controversial and serious things as that, Proctor & Gamble and other firms don’t want to be associated with that kind of seriousness. So advertisement drops. The other is that when only a few grand firms hold the power over extensive networks of media, a very limited number of persons are the ones to make the ultimate decisions. It is much easier in a system like that for political power to influence decisions related to the media, than in a system where there is real multiplicity in the numbers of media. I think one of the most serious aspects of media monopolization is that, in many countries, only half a dozen people are the ultimately responsible, and they are also in touch with government officials, because it is also a question of how the rules of the commercial game are defined at the political level. So there are points of pressure which are invisible. That is also not discussed. That is another aspect of self-censorship. Thanks.