Thursday 7 December 2006

BBC: Worth It for International News Alone

I posted this on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 7 December 2006.


While these blog pages have looked at a couple very significant media launches over the past few weeks, it is worth remembering the real value of what is still one of the greatest media organisations on the planet: the BBC. I've written about the first week of broadcasting at Al Jazeera English, and my fellow blogger Nina Brenjo has looked at the start of France 24, but the UK's public service broadcaster is also in the headlines these days because a decision is imminent on the renewal of its licence fee for another seven years.

Negotiations with the government have been going on for a while, and what it comes down to essentially is this: the BBC would like to see an increase in its funding just above inflation, and the government would like the BBC to take on some additional new tasks, including the country's switchover from analogue to digital. Timothy Garton Ash has a great piece in today's Guardian outlining the issues, and I encourage everyone, not just UK citizens, to read it if you are at all interested in media.

I agree with his praise of the BBC entirely, especially as it relates to news coverage. The broadcaster does have its problems, and it does alter the media market in the UK in some challenging ways for competitors at times. But still, despite its problems, the BBC is a model for independent public service broadcasting around the world, and it is one of the things that really does make the British half of me feel very lucky indeed when I hear journalists from other parts of the world talk about the difficulties they have in their media markets.

It's the licence fee arrangement that really allows the BBC to cover international news, for example, in a way that would be difficult for commercial broadcasters to sustain.

Wednesday 6 December 2006

Online Iran

From my Reuters AlertNet blog on 6 December 2006.


The online media in Iran have been under pressure for some time, and yet, there are also signs that the government understands the value of new media. Reporters Without Borders yesterday released a statement, noting that both YouTube and the New York Times websites were both being blocked inside the country. Wikipedia's English and Kurdish versions have been blocked for a time, and the blacklist is growing in the shadow of a general ban on high-speed Internet access imposed two months ago.

"The government is trying to create a digital border to stop culture and news coming from abroad -- a vision of the Net which is worrying for the country's future", the organisation said. "But, more generally it is a threat to the worldwide web which, instead of aiding understanding between peoples could be changed into a medium of intolerance. The Iranian government policy is not an isolated case."

Still, at least one move suggests the government "gets it" when it comes to online media. President Ahmedinejad has his own blog in four languages.

Thursday 23 November 2006

Egeland and After

I posted this on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 23 November 2006.


On 4 December, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland will give what will almost certainly be his final briefing to the Security Council before his departure at the end of Kofi Annan's term in office. With this "valedictory address" around the corner, it's a good time to recall -- given the theme of this blog -- the dramatic transformation in media response to humanitarian crises since Egeland was appointed to the post in 2003, and his role in that shift.

Media on Darfur: Detached and Dehumanised?

This originally ran on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 23 November 2006.


I met with a few well-placed Darfurians a couple days ago and asked them what they thought about the international media coverage of the ongoing conflict and crisis in their homeland. There was some downbeat head-shaking all around.

One said that there simply wasn't enough coverage of Darfur, but his colleague clarified this sentiment, saying while news coverage and ad campaigns had raised the overall profile of the crisis in the West, not enough attention was given to the conflict between the government and government-sponsored forces on one hand, and rebel groups on the other. There was very little information in the mass media about the latest developments in the fighting and even less understanding of what the fighting was about.

Wednesday 22 November 2006

Al Jazeera International: The First Week

From my Reuters AlertNet blog, 22 November 2006. The station later settled on "Al Jazeera English" as its name.


One week into Al Jazeera International's broadcasting, and I have to say: so far, so good. Expectations for the new English-language channel were high before its 15 November launch, but the station seems to be fulfilling its promise of attempting to reset the news agenda, including pushing more stories on previously under-reported crises. Of course, many people cannot receive the station through their cable provider yet, so for those who haven't been able to watch, here's some of what you missed.

Uzbekistan: Beyond Sanctions

This originally appeared in Transitions Online on 22 November 2006.


The EU can do little now to change Uzbekistan’s direction, but it could be doing more to prepare the Uzbek people for the coming blows.

It was not the worst-case scenario many had feared. European Union foreign ministers did not drop Europe’s sanctions against Uzbekistan at their meeting on 13 November. But their decision to temporarily renew the punitive measures was not exactly a complete victory for human rights and regional stability either.

Thursday 16 November 2006

Afghanistan: Battered Women

This ran on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 16 November 2006.


Tuesday's post by my fellow AlertNet blogger, F. Brinley Bruton, reminded me of one of the most disturbing NGO seminars I've attended. It was in Kabul in the summer of 2002, and the subject was domestic violence.

The panel was a mix: an Afghan judge, an Amnesty rep and a local mullah supposedly known for his more tolerant views. It started off with a description of the suffering many women face at home from husbands (and others) who abuse them. The discussion soon turned, however, when the mullah explained his interpretation of how much, not if, the Koran allowed such things.

Friday 3 November 2006

Great Hopes for Al Jazeera International

This piece appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 3 November 2006. Of course, the name they eventually chose to use was "Al Jazeera English", but I think my prediction proved correct in every other way.


Al Jazeera International, the long-awaited English-language satellite TV, will finally launch on 15 November. Given the resources and talent they have at their disposal, everyone is expecting great things -- and the humanitarian community should pay particular attention to this new outlet, because they are promising to take news television in new directions.

I've had the pleasure to meet with quite a number of AJI's producers and reporters over the past months as they have been preparing to take the new service live. AJI has hired some of the top names, and the new team has been chomping at the bit for a while now as technical problems delayed their official launch. It is billed as a sister station to the ten-year-old Arabic-language channel, but with a completely different staff, budget and programming, I imagine it will be more like a distant cousin.

Monday 23 October 2006

Darfur: The End of an Insider's Blog?

From my Reuters AlertNet blog, 23 October 2006.


Khartoum has ordered Jan Pronk, Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the UN in Sudan, to leave the country by Wednesday because of comments Pronk made on his blog. Some may dismiss this as hardly surprising because diplomacy and openness don't exactly mix.

I'm always a bit cautious of claims about the revolutionary character of blogging, and in some respects, I remain so in this case. After all, a diplomat can get kicked out of a country for saying the wrong thing in any forum, and annoying a host in a blog is little different from doing so in a media release or op-ed.

But there has been something unique about Pronk's blog.

Tuesday 26 September 2006

Darfur Disconnect

This appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 26 September 2006. Apart from a throat-clearing introductory piece, it was my first post there.


As I've been thinking about how to develop this blog, I've also been trying to get some notes together for a panel discussion on Darfur I am taking part in at the Frontline Club in London on Thursday.

Surely the whole underlying assumption of this blog -- if not the west's super-media-saturated society in general -- is that the media matter a great deal. The media are influential, and the assumption of many in the NGO and international aid community is traditionally, "if only people knew about this distant crisis, leaders would have to do something about it, and it would end".

Darfur is proving this idea wrong.

Sunday 10 September 2006

The War in American Hearts and Minds

I wrote this for openDemocracy as part of their look at the legacy of 9/11 five years after. It was my effort to define how a "conflict mentality" had taken over the US in that period.


Once you leave a place, it is never the same when you go back. I moved away from the United States fourteen years ago, and every time I return, I notice more and more changes in the country of my birth. Nothing peculiar in that, of course. I certainly never expected the United States to remain sealed in a pickle-jar marked "1992".

But the process has accelerated since 11 September 2001. Talking with some Americans these days, I am not really sure how much they recognise the scale of the sweeping transformation the country has been through over the past five years. Maybe it is just easier to see it when you don't live there and only visit every year or so. Daily incremental change is hard to spot, but small differences add up over time and become an unambiguous pattern.

My recurrent initial impression when returning to the US for a visit in the last five years is that the place has gone insane while I wasn't looking. It is a bit like visiting an old relative you haven't seen for a long time. You start off feeling she may be losing her faculties. Then you think she may in fact have been senile for longer than you realise. Finally, you begin to wonder if you ever really knew her in the first place.

After a few days of listening to Americans, however, I start to understand the madness and where it comes from. I have heard people talk like this and react like this before. In war zones.

Friday 12 May 2006

We Must Prepare for the Coming Crisis in Uzbekistan

This comment piece originally appeared in the Financial Times on 12 May 2006.


A year has passed since government troops fired on thousands of protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan and, despite expressions of concern from western governments, little has been done to try to change the behaviour of the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov.

Tashkent has successfully blocked moves for an independent investigation of the Andijan massacre – despite earlier calls from the US, UK and European Union for an inquiry. Rejecting claims by human rights groups that more than 700 people died in the city on May 13 2005, the Uzbek government has adhered to its official death toll of 187 and blamed Islamic extremists for the violence. It is becoming awkward for western governments that espouse human rights and have a strong interest in regional stability in central Asia – particularly as Afghanistan, the focus of a big international reconstruction effort, is next door.

Thursday 6 April 2006

The EU and the Turkmen "Prophet"

I wrote this piece together with Tanya Cox of Human Rights Watch. It was published in the European Voice on 6 April 2006.


For years, it has been pretty hard to find anyone with anything nice to say about Turkmenistan's leadership. A widespread consensus developed that the country's leader, president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov - who styles himself 'Turkmenbashi', or father of all Turkmen - is an autocratic ruler, wrecking his country and oppressing his people.

Criticism of his authoritarian government is not restricted to non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group. The United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have regularly criticised the country's appalling human rights record and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has suspended all public sector engagement with Turkmenistan over such concerns. What everyone seem to agree on is that Turkmenistan is one of the world's most repressive states.

It thus comes as a huge shock that the European Union is moving to break ranks and cosy up to the pariah government.

Wednesday 22 March 2006

Uzbekistan: A Lifeboat for the Media

This piece originally appeared in Transitions Online on 22 March 2006. About a year after the Andijan masacre, Uzbekistan had become a media void, and it was time to protect the country's independent journalists from total extinction. Sadly, as I write this in April 2011, it still is.


The fallout from last year's massacre in the Uzbek city of Andijan continues throughout the country and throughout the region. Since 13 May 2005 – when state security forces fired on mostly unarmed civilian demonstrators, killing hundreds, perhaps even 1,000 – the regime's paranoia about independent public activity and its desperate drive to control information have accelerated with no apparent bounds.

Along with nongovernmental organizations and human-rights activists, the media has been a primary target. The regime has openly denounced journalists, both foreign and domestic, who reported on the massacre and the subsequent crackdown on witnesses and their families. Several international news organizations have come under harsh criticism, from the BBC, CNN, and the Associated Press to the Moscow-based service Uzbek First Deputy General Prosecutor Anvar Nabiev called journalists from these media outlets "hyenas and jackals searching for carrion," and accused them of having known about the uprising plot beforehand and launching an "information war against Uzbekistan … simultaneously with [the] terrorist aggression."

Photos of foreign journalists in Uzbekistan have been featured on Uzbek national television's main evening news program in reports headed "overview of participation of foreign media in the events of 13 May 2005." Many Uzbek journalists have been forced into exile, though their families and friends still face threats back home. Most foreign media have had to suspend news gathering in Uzbekistan, and the regime continues to broadly reject applications for accreditation of foreign journalists and foreign news bureaus. The passage of a new media law in February, which makes it illegal to work as a reporter in Uzbekistan without accreditation from the Foreign Ministry, codified the practice. Following the BBC, Internews, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and others in past months, the latest outlet to have its accreditation cancelled was Deutsche Welle, on 16 March.