The Media and Human Rights

By Abrams, Elliott | The World and I, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Media and Human Rights

Abrams, Elliott, The World and I

Elliot Abrams currently serves as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Established by Congress in 1998, it reflects growing U.S. awareness of the importance of religious freedom as an international issue. Abrams is a prolific author; among his books are Undue Process, Security and Sacrifice, and Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America. This was an address given at the Eighteenth World Media Conference in Tokyo in 2001.

All over the globe we see violations of freedom of speech, press, and religion--violations of the most violent kind. If there is any good news here, it is that these violations are now covered by the media. Human rights is a story, and it is as bitter a story as it was twenty-five years ago. Coverage of wars, political conflicts, refugee crises, and natural disasters very often includes a human rights angle today. In addition, democracy has expanded greatly during the last twenty years, and that has meant more open societies and more of a free press all over the world, from Latin America and Russia to Nigeria and South Africa. It means that many more nations are attuned to human rights questions.


What role do the media play when it comes to human rights? Their primary role, I suppose, is as a source of information. As Professor Stanley Cohen of the Center for Human Rights at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has written, "By far the most important source of information about human rights violations is the mass media." It would be difficult to exaggerate their importance in this regard. For most people, television, radio, and newspapers are the only sources of information. They are the primary definers of this type of social reality. Their role is performed in two ways.

First, they are generators and sources of information. Second, they carry the information generated by human rights organizations. That is, of course, a positive role. Even the most horrendous, massive human rights violations will not move the international community if we don't know about them. This is the so-called CNN effect--the fact that when matters are broadcast to wide audiences, they can produce a political effect as citizens demand that their government do something about a situation.

There is a negative side as well, because the media can sometimes actually aid human rights violations. They can spur such violations and even be used to do evil. To take one example, the UN special rapporteur on the media in Yugoslavia said, "The media in Serbia and Montenegro fostered hostility among the population against other nationalities residing in the former Yugoslavia." Or consider the submission to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission made by the African National Congress. It said, "The South African Broadcasting Corporation was the most important weapon in the apartheid state's battle for the hearts and minds of the people. [It was] a virulent opponent of liberation movements." The corporation's efforts led to increasing demonization of the liberation movements, polarization, and hatred for people from other racial groups. So the power of the media can be used for good or evil.

There's another problem regarding the media and human rights, that of corporate ownership. Newspapers and TV stations are sometimes owned by media conglomerates, and they have financial interests that can make reporting on human rights abuses dangerous. One thinks of Time Warner and Viacom, Bertelsmann and the News Corporation, which have good reason to avoid provoking Chinese officials. Does this affect access to information about human rights? It may. The Star Network decided to withdraw the BBC World Service from its programming beamed by satellite into China. That surely reduces the amount of information available to Chinese citizens, and we know that the decision was not made because BBC coverage is unreliable. …

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