Bill Cook is national bureau manager of Tiempos del Mundo newspaper in Costa Rica.
The following is an address that was presented at the twenty-first World Media Conference on April 25, 2004.
I hope to make my remarks brief because you all know how the press has been used by ruling powers in the past to amplify barriers, whether it was communist states or others. What Hitler was able to do, for example, through control of the press convinced Germans that it was a good idea to get rid of Jews. But even in less obviously controlled situations the media has more often than not been a barrier not just between cultures but also between races and between domestic groups. We see what happened in Rwanda 10 years ago: a campaign for racial separation began in the press six months before the actual genocide. It was the press that generated the animus to go out and beat your neighbor to death. So the press is an incredibly powerful tool that we have to be very careful with in how it is used. We have seen many times how it has been used to the extreme negative, justifying the Holocaust in Germany or genocide in Rwanda.
However, I think the respectable press has been trying to clean itself up. Today, in the Western countries, in most of our countries, the press is relatively independent, but the factor that is most difficult to control is the yellow press, the sensationalist press. When we talk about barriers and dangerous areas, it is the cheap press that is going to get the cheap story and is the most dangerous. Even today we have a situation where after Hurricane Mitch and drought and other things that have hit the poor country of Nicaragua, we have almost a million Nicaraguans living in Cost Rica. A million is a lot of people, especially when the total population of Costa Rica is only four million people. So now one-fifth of Costa Ricans are Nicaraguans. When I went there five years ago, when this all started, I expected to see a lot of reaction to the economic pressure of having so many people living off your economy. But I am proud to say that Costa Rica has actually accepted the Nicaraguans very well and that the press did not start blaming every kind of crime or rape or whatever on the Nicaraguans, …