News vs. Propaganda: The Meeting vs. the Communique


Human Rights Day was celebrated three days early, on December 6, "because all eyes will be on Oslo and the Nobel Peace prize" on December 10, according to the moderator Shashi Theroor, interim head of the Department of Public Information.

On the other hand, Secretary General Kofi Annan announced in that day's special message the welcome coincidence of the dates. A lively roundtable assembled by Sue Markham of DPI and Mary Robinson's Human Rights team produced an impressive list of panelists to debate the role of the media: "News vs Propaganda." The BBC, CNN, and The New York Times were joined by Al Jazeera TV "Al Quds" chief editor Abdel Bari Atwan and South Africa television. Mrs. Robinson and Lakhdar Brahimi appeared from Geneva and Paris via teleconference.

The debate initially dealt with the aftermath of the Durban Conference but quickly moved on to the issue of Afghanistan, civil or human liberties in the aftermath of September 11, with special interest in the situation of Arabs and Moslems, and the UN role in Afghanistan.

There was also a reference to the situation in the Pakistani territories. Mr. Atwan raised a question about the position of the UN regarding the prisoners in Mazar-i-Sharif and Mr. Brahimi responded forcefully and convincingly to general applause, even from Mr. Atwan. There were questions about CNN's new approach to coverage, answered reasonably well by CNN's New York bureau chief. Barbara Crosette of The New York Times, calm, logical and compassionate as usual, dealt with both coverage of Durban (although she was in Canada at the time) and the civil liberties question.

It was an enthusiastic crowd, and a lively event which could have been more balanced among the 5 panelists, but no roundtable is perfect. Indeed, it was actually a success, given the alternative. DPI could have taken full credit for it.

There was no need therefore to "doctor" the resulting press communiqué, which did not reflect what actually happened in the meeting. It quoted Mrs. Robinson as saying that journalists tended to "miss history in the rush to get the story" and her challenge to journalists to "walk the walk of Durban" (what was that walk, by the way?) yet did not mention any of the points, some constructive, stressed by media representatives.

The statement partially quoted Mr. Brahimi but missed his most eloquent and conclusive statement about the need for everyone, including truly aggrieved third world countries , to do more to combat prejudice. The statement totally overlooked the various points of Al Quds and CNN representatives.

There was no need for such half-baked spin. What a lost opportunity, particularly as the title was "News versus Propaganda."