Jonestown, UNESCO, and the free press

I have just returned from Guyana where nobody was very interested in talking about Jim Jones but almost everyone I spoke with had questions about Janet Cooke. The subject I had gone down to lecture on, "The New International Information Order and the Free Press." was considered a very hot ticket. Georgetown intellectuals were very deep into media criticism.

Unfortunately, in Guyana one doesn't have to search very far for sources of complaint about Western press performance. It is not so much that the Western press got some things wrong in covering the Jonestown tragedy (some people are still upset about the American reporter who identified a painting of former president Arthur Chung, displayed in the parliament building, as a particular sinister portrait of Chairman Mao) but that Guyana had been covered as little more than a backdrop.

It is not difficult to understand the resentment many Guyanese feel. Insulted by a press system which seemed to have shown so little interest in them except as background figures, many guyanese were attracted to the movement, initiated by third-world representatives at UNESCO, to establish a "New International Information Order."

Since Guyana had never had much of a tradition of a free and independent press, very few Guyanese were concerned that this new order implied government control of the news. They were excited, instead, by the prospect of developing a new and wholly third-world view of how the press should operate. "We have very different values from yours," a bright young student in the University of Guyana's Development Communications (formerly Journalism) Department told me. "You look for sensational stories with the goal of maximizing profits. We look for as much positive information as we can with the goal of helping our country to develop."

The language used by third-world diplomats at UNESCO to argue for the New International Information Order is very sophisticated. It involves "correcting an imbalance in the North/South newsflow" and "using the press as a development tool." Proponents of this "new order" talk about international licensing for journalists and about establishing a code which will obligate every reporter (in the words of Forbes Burnham, Guyana's undisputed leader for the last 17 years) "to serve the social, political, and economic objectives of those who are responsible for the quality of life in any given country."

Western governments and independent news organizations have correctly seen the drawing up of such codes as a direct attack on press freedom worldwide. Dictators have always felt within their rights to expel any correspondent whose reporting makes the attainment of what the government deems its "social, political [or] economic goals" any less convenient. It would seem gratuitous for UNESCO to go out of its way to give its blessing to this practice. Clearly many of those governments now calling for a new information order are simply capitalizing upon the existence of a deep popular resentment of the Western press in their countries to legitimize their long-standing practice of denying access to outside reporters.

If those of us who care about free access for the independent press hope to forestall the establishment of this menacing "new order" we will have to make a concerted effort to win friends among third-world intellectuals. I'm sorry to have to report that this is not a mission which can be accomplished by delivering even the most deeply felt lectures on freedom of the press. I have already tried this route in Guyana and was rewarded mostly by titters.

We Americans must be scrupulous about fulfilling the promises we have made at numerous conferences to help third-world countries strengthen their own press resources. This means equipment and technology transfers, reduction in communications tariffs, and the development of cheaper newsprint. Why not establish a serious exchange program for journalists from developing countries? Imagine the long-range benefits of a worldwide corps of reporters who had all put in some time working for American newspapers.

Most important of all we must examine our own definitions of what constitutes "news" in the third world. Of course we will always want to cover coups, disasters, and the like, but why not a commitment to more consistent coverage so that we can also get at the longer-term stories of development and social change?

If we are serious about wanting to maintain (and to improve) press access to the developing world, then we had better be prepared to explain just what we want this access for. If it is simply to be able to parachute reporters in when a sensational story is breaking I'm not sure we'll be able to find many allies, even among journalists in the countries we're seeking to cover.

It would be unfortunate, but it is certainly conceivable that the next time Western reporters seek to cover a big story in Guyana they will be barred from entering the country not only by government officials but by a committed band of Guyanese intellectuals holding high the banner of a New International Information Order.

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