Thursday, 5 March 2009

International Media Response to Indictment of Bashir

This appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 5 March 2009.

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If the answer is "six milliseconds", the question surely is, "how long did it take for the Arabic satellite TV channels to jump from coverage of the International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudanese President Bashir to cries about neo-colonialism, Palestine, and the Zionist-Western conspiracy to divide Sudan?"

My colleague, Nadim Hasbani, has a great piece in Al Hayat today, trying to counter this automated response of the Arab world by highlighting how Arab leaders have manipulated the case of Darfur and fallen in line behind Bashir. He delivers a message the Arab public debate desperately needs to incorporate:
If today the ICC has enough evidence to arrest an Arab leader for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, it is in large part because for the past six years, when those deaths where taking place in Darfur, the international community - including Arab countries - did little to stop him... The problem actually is that Arabs are leaving themselves out of the international justice system. We act as if we were targeted by justice instead of helping to bring about justice, for ourselves as well.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, Bashir's successful manipulation of Arab public opinion continued today, with the President of Sudan telling the cameras that the ICC was a tool of Israel and the US. Strange that apparently no one in the Arabic media has pointed out that neither country is a signatory to the ICC. In fact, rejection of the ICC is a policy that Israel, the US, and the entire Arab League (apart from Jordan) agree on. Ah, but to reveal that would break the narrative of a Western-Zionist conspiracy, and who in the Arabic media is willing to give up such a perennial favourite?

It wasn't always this way, mind you. Many in the West may be surprised to learn that Al Jazeera was the first international television broadcaster to break the Darfur story back in 2003 -- an explosive scoop that got the Qatari-based station booted from Sudan for a time. They got back in, and they currently have a correspondent in Darfur, but their coverage is now toned down and not victim-focused.

But Arabic channels were not the only ones who forgot the victims yesterday. Following the ICC press conference, BBC World TV incomprehensibly had as one of its first studio guests a Western mouthpiece for the Khartoum regime, moaning about how this was white-man's justice etc. What that particular white man failed to mention was that all of the 300,000 dead and millions displaced in Darfur because of the policies of Bashir's ruling National Congress Party are not white. His logic is that dark-skinned people ought to be left alone to kill other dark-skinned people, and the rest of the world ought to just shut up.

Now, some readers will doubtless think about leaving a comment on this blog saying that BBC World was just trying to offer a balance of views in the interests of journalistic fairness. But it's nonsense to take that approach in such extreme cases like this. Imagine: "Well, we've just heard from a woman who was gang raped, so let's crossover to our studio in London, where we can get a different perspective from our next guest, the director of the pro-rape lobby group..."

Sorry, that's not an acceptable approach, and it's insulting to BBC journalists who have reported from the ground in Darfur over the years and have helped to highlight the crimes committed there. Their work shouldn't be undermined by inviting in some ridiculous and offensive guest running PR for one of the world's most appalling regimes.

In general, however, the English-language media, including the BBC, have been reasonably good on the ICC indictment, with the announcement interrupting normal programming or the issue taking top billing with lots of print articles in the run-up to yesterday. Al Jazeera English ran with the press conference from The Hague for quite a long time, including into the journalists' question period, which was useful, I think, but even more so was their time chart on Darfur on the studio back wall, which gave a great overview of the long-running conflict. Most importantly, the Western media mostly put the victims first, which is what journalism should always keep front and centre in these matters. It was a stark contrast with the Arabic-language channels, which portrayed Bashir as the victim in all this.

Within hours, however, the ICC story started to drop down the priority ladder on some English-language satellite channels, with Gordon Brown's speech to the US Congress dominating in the UK and Clinton's Middle East trip grabbing the most attention in the US.

What happens in the international media next will be interesting. Bashir will no doubt keep calling people into the streets in his support as long as the world's TV cameras are willing to film it. The regime of course makes itself look ridiculous with these media stunts -- do any governments in the world apart from the most authoritarian ones ever organise public demonstrations to prove their popular support in the face of international outrage at their abuses? But the real test is whether the international media, particularly the Arabic-language channels, keep falling for his line or whether they instead keep focused on the real victims here.

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