Despots know the media glare can’t last forever

Hussein Malla/AP
Relatives of victims who were killed in the massive blast last year at the Beirut port attend a Mass held to commemorate the first anniversary of the deadly explosion. International reporters are back in Beirut for the anniversary after a year of neglect.
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Lebanon and Myanmar are thousands of miles apart and very different countries. But they currently have something in common: They are both in the news. It’s been a year since the Beirut port explosion, about which the government has done nothing, and six months since Burmese generals overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.

That means they are now at the center of media attention, which acts like the circling beam of a giant lighthouse. But that lighthouse is fickle; for a moment authorities in Lebanon and Myanmar are caught in the glare, but as the calendar moves on so will the beam, leaving them in darkness.

Why We Wrote This

Sustained press coverage is important to ensure government accountability. But the international media show only intermittent interest in places like Lebanon and Myanmar, shortchanging their citizens.

That is frustrating for the countries’ citizens, but a relief for their rulers; global inattention eases the pressure they may have felt from a watching world.

Reporters have a huge number of competing crises and concerns to cover. But sustained press reporting is essential to ensure effective day-to-day accountability. And when we take our eyes off distant governments when they are not top of the news agenda, we risk letting them off the hook, too.

It is striking how, in recent days, the world’s media have suddenly focused, like the circling beam of some giant lighthouse, on two struggling former democracies on opposite sides of the world: Lebanon on the Mediterranean, and Myanmar nearly 4,000 miles away by the Indian Ocean.

But the two stories are related, and not just because of the suffering being visited on millions of people in both places.

They’re each subject to the fickleness of the lighthouse.

Why We Wrote This

Sustained press coverage is important to ensure government accountability. But the international media show only intermittent interest in places like Lebanon and Myanmar, shortchanging their citizens.

It is the calendar that has dictated the recent spurt of news coverage. The Lebanese capital, Beirut, is marking the first anniversary of a devastating explosion that shattered lives and dealt a potentially crushing blow to hopes of a functioning democracy. In Myanmar, it is six months since the military quashed the results of a national election, deposed the government, jailed its leading figures, and snuffed out democracy.

And as the calendar moves on, so will the lighthouse beam, illuminating new topics of interest but leaving Lebanon and Myanmar largely in the dark again.

Falling down the world’s news agenda will make the citizens of both countries feel frustrated and abandoned, as I know from my own friends in Lebanon, where I first worked as a Monitor correspondent during the civil war in the late 1970s.

Yet for those wielding power it will be a relief, easing whatever political pressure they may have felt from a watching world.

The evidence of the past few months, without the full-on glare of sustained media coverage, is not encouraging.

In Lebanon, the explosion in Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020, was initially seen as a potential catalyst for long-overdue political reforms. The source of the blast – a huge stock of ammonium nitrate sitting for years in a poorly maintained storage facility – summed up what growing numbers of Lebanese saw as the rot at the core of their political system.

A rot of incompetence. Arrogance. Above all, corruption, with leaders of the country’s main religious groupings – Christian, Sunni Muslim, Druze, and the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah movement – divvying up the spoils from the public purse while ordinary Lebanese struggled to survive under the twin pressures of economic collapse and the pandemic.

The tragedy, which killed more than 200 people and left 300,000 homeless, was still front-page news when the international community, spearheaded by French President Emmanuel Macron, rushed in with assurances of billions of dollars in aid. But donors conditioned the money on seeing deep-rooted reforms, transparency in how public funds were spent, and an independent audit of the country’s central bank.

In the 12 months that have elapsed, generally out of the international media spotlight, Lebanon’s power-brokers have not only failed to deliver. They’ve been unable to agree even on the composition of a new government.

And conditions have deteriorated. Electricity and water are intermittent in many areas. The national currency has collapsed. Basic commodities are either hard to find, or beyond ordinary people’s means. Last week, a Beirut friend posted a message on Facebook. “I’ve lived here since 1976,” it read. “Witnessed the civil war and its aftermath. I cannot recall the living conditions ever sinking this low.”

Myanmar journalists Kay Son Nway and Ye Myo Khant stand together after their release from prison. Thousands of protesters have been jailed since a military coup last February, but the international media carried few reports of them.

In Myanmar, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s military takeover on Feb. 1, annulling a landslide election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, at first drew huge international concern, criticism, and media attention.

Even as his troops began rounding up civilian politicians, democracy activists, and journalists, and violently confronting street protesters, the general pledged to allow fresh elections after a year of emergency rule.

But what’s been happening in the intervening six months, while the world was not really watching? Government troops have inexorably beaten down dwindling protests. Nearly 1,000 people have been killed. More than 5,000 are in detention.

This week the general extended the state of emergency until August 2023, pushing back the promised election date by another 18 months.

The people of Myanmar, and Lebanon as well, may take at least some reassurance from this week’s renewed international media focus on their plight.

And even once the lighthouse beam moves on, groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International will be chronicling the rule of terror in Myanmar. President Macron will be pursuing his efforts to get Lebanon’s power establishment to establish a competent and transparent government.

Still, sustained press reporting is always a key factor in ensuring effective, day-to-day accountability.

In one sense, it is inevitable and understandable that international attention will flag – at least until the next calendar catalyst. There is a huge number of competing concerns and crises for editors and reporters to cover: domestic politics, wars, international diplomatic tensions. Climate change. And nowadays, of course, the pandemic.

Still, I’ve been haunted this week by a personally significant precedent from World War II, when Nazi Germany was systematically killing European Jews in what became known as the Holocaust.

My late father-in-law spent the war years in the United States leading a campaign to convince the American government to provide refuge for those who might still be saved. He teamed up with the playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht to place deliberately provocative ads in The New York Times to make that case.

One Hecht “ballad” spoke directly, and ironically, to the millions who at that point still survived. He told them to not be “bothersome,” writing:

“Quiet, Jews. …

The world is busy with other news.”

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