Forging a Path to Peace at a Time of Global Crisis
Cook, Bill, The World and I
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, although there are a few less-educated people who maintain the idea that the crime rate has gone up because of the influx of Nicaraguans.
What surprised me last month was seeing that the yellow press in Nicaragua has suddenly become very interested in the state of the Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica, coming out with wild stories about how Costa Ricans are enslaving them and do this and that. In the long run that kind of press, which is obviously not responsible, is actually dangerous because if it is the only thing the Nicaraguans are reading, then they think that Costa Rica must be a horrible country, and it just divides and divides.
On the other hand, we have seen in the last year the negotiation of the Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Central America, or CAFTA. All the Chambers of Congress, basically the educated class, tend to be in favor of the agreement with caution-we have to be sure it is done well and that they are not going to take advantage of us, but they see the future coming. The less educated have no idea what the heck is going on and during the entire year of negotiations very little information was released either by the United States or the Central American governments about the contents until the very end.
Once the contents of the treaty were released, since it had been held back all year long there was a flood of reaction to it. Many people said it is a pretty reasonable agreement, though we wish this or that had changed. But a few people throughout Central America who had domestic business interests to protect made a huge clamor. So the nature of truth is that it is very strong but also very delicate. As the media disseminate so much information, the public must decide how much of it is true, just as in the Cold War the Soviets had disinformation campaigns. …