Freedom of the Press

By Pillai, M. G. G. | Nieman Reports, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Freedom of the Press


Pillai, M. G. G., Nieman Reports


Is the Western press listening to its colleagues in Third World countries?

... [F]our main Western news agencies--Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters and Agence France-Presse--provide 90 percent of the daily wordage of the world, the AP alone claiming a third of the total. But they cover the news superficially. In Kuala Lumpur, where I live, they report on the "coups and earthquakes" and the government viewpoint, providing their objectivity in those human rights appeals, over the next hanging. The Reuters bureau is described by its head office in London as a profit center because of the money it makes out of its economic services, and one does get the impression that the news they send out would never be allowed to "kill the golden goose." While Americans, particularly, sneer at the French government's subsidy for the Agence France-Presse, that agency provides the best service out of Southeast Asia, as it does out of Kuala Lumpur. But none of them report on the main issues--the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the government decision to impose a national culture based on the culture of the politically dominant Malay community--or, indeed, what makes this country tick. This attitude towards news coverage can be extended to most countries in the Third World.

Taken globally, the United States and Europe share about 40 percent of the foreign correspondents while Africa has one percent. The American agencies, newspapers, radio and television stations have about half their correspondents overseas, much less than what it used to be, in Europe, and most of the European foreign correspondents are in the United States. So Europe and the United States are better covered than the rest of the world. The Third World and others get their share of attention only when something out of the ordinary takes place. Few Americans would have heard of Uganda until Idi Amin came on the scene or, for that matter, Vietnam before the American involvement.

The demand for a new international information order, which UNESCO has been spearheading, should be seen in this light. News of the Third World in the rest of the world, and even in the Third World itself, often comes through Western agencies which are seen, with some justification, as unsympathetic. These complaints are extraordinarily similar to those made by the United States at the turn of the century against the domination of its news overseas by Reuters. Kent Cooper, the former General Manager of the Associated Press, once wrote a book about this imbalance. He stated: "So Reuters decided what news was to be sent from America. It told the world about the Indians on the war path in the West, the lynchings in the South, and bizarre crimes in the North. The charge for decades was that nothing creditable to America ever was sent."

The Third World argument is that this criticism can be extended to the Western news agencies, including the AP and UPI. Whether any change should be orchestrated by such a bureaucratic, politicized body as UNESCO is another matter. But the central complaint of bias cannot be faulted. Two examples will suffice. When the Jonestown tragedy happened, American reporters at the scene trying to put the issue in context described Guyana as a country that spoke a form of pidgin English and where illiteracy was a major problem. In fact, 85 percent of the people are literate and they speak a pure strain of English, albeit in a local pronunciation, but certainly it is better understood than the patois and pidgin I heard spoken in the United States during my Nieman year. The reports I read on the tragedy tended to fault the government in having allowed the setting up of Jonestown without mentioning that the government was clutching at any straws to help alleviate its economic problems. The other was a cable I received from an American newsmagazine I write for after a Malaysian cabinet minister was sentenced to death for murdering a political rival. …

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