Aditi Sawjiani '02 - India
Arguably, there has never been a country on which opinion is so strongly divided as the United States. A villager in Sumatra might not even know or care about what is happening in the world's biggest superpower while at the same time, things may come to a standstill in a South African household as everyone watches The Bold and the Beautiful. However, the US in the World Media panel in Wellesley last month highlighted the sizable part that the media (and in some countries, the government because it controls the media) play in deciding public opinion. Journalists from different parts of the world spoke about the media in their countries, and the part they play in shaping public opinion through their portrayal of the United States, as well as the relationship of the country and the U.S.
Co sponsored by Open World, the panel, held in Slater International Center, comprised of six journalists - Andreas Harsano from Jakarta, Ragip Duran from Istanbul, Benjamin Fernandez from Paraguay, Dennis Cruywagen from South Africa, Mojgan Jalali from Teheran and Nikola Djuric from Serbia. They are Nieman fellows at Harvard University for the present year. They addressed, with varying degrees of intensity, three basic questions: What is the relationship of my country with the United States? How prominent is media presence in my country and how does it portray the United States?"
Andreas Harsono, a freelance journalist from Jakarta, Indonesia spoke first. Harsono actually decided to become a freelancer because of the restrictive regime of President Suharto, which didn't end until two years ago. He reflected on how Indonesia's rulers have almost wholly controlled the media. President Suharto was in power from 1965 to 1998, and his was a very restrictive reign. But since 1998, there has been a sizable increase in the number of newspapers, television channels and radio stations in Indonesia. Even so, the lack of interest in US related coverage remains more or less the same. Harsono gave three major reasons for this. There was relatively more interest in the US when it increased its involvement with Vietnam, and with the formation of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), but the US lost credibility after its failure in the Vietnam War, and Indonesian interest in the U.S. rapidly waned. Also, there were other pressing problems to worry about like ethnic violence and the Asian crisis. Finally, there wasn't enough funding available either to maintain bureau offices in Washington. Harsono maintained that "people in Indonesia are also more inward looking than say mainland South East Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia, and this is a reason for the lack of interest in most things American."
Benjamin Fernandez, head of the news department, SNT Continental, Asuncion, Paraguay expressed the same sentiments. Paraguay is eight hours from Miami, and there is less interest in U.S. news than in a closer country like Guatemala. But American soaps are still eagerly watched and music listened to. However, since Paraguay receives relatively little money from the United States as aid, only about sixty thousand dollars a year, the U.S. isn't regarded as indispensable.
Ragip Duran, a correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey had quite a different story to offer. He claimed that there is a strong and close alliance between Washington D.C. and Ankara. In the fifties, Turkey sent troops to Korea and was awarded membership to NATO for this. More recently, in the aggression against Iraq, it gave privileges like the use of airspace to the Allies. These two incidents aptly demonstrate the relationship between Turkey and the United States- America is the leader and Turkey the follower. During the Gulf war, all the anti-Muslim jokes that circulated in the United States were faithfully repeated in Turkey, which is ironically a predominantly Muslim country. In the fifties, a Turkish president said, " My dream is that Turkey will one day become a little America." Duran remarked, " Well, part of that dream has been realized. Turkey has all the negative aspects of America." He talked at length about the lack of freedom of press and expression in Turkey. "Turkish newspapers do not reflect Turkish society. You will be more informed about military opinion than anything else. Twenty-three Turkish colleagues of mine have been killed for this reason. However, there are two other types of media that do not come under the official category. One is an Islamic force and sharply criticizes the U.S. and the other, which can only be termed as leftist, does cover events in the U.S. that are not given coverage in the official papers."
Dennis Cruywagen, deputy editor of Pretoria News from South Africa recounted a similar story. He said, "We welcome American investment. In a country with forty percent unemployment, we welcome investment from any country! And yes, America fascinates us because it's such a big power. Big stories at home include the How to Marry a Millionare TV show and primaries." But he also pointed out that it wasn't blind adoration. "America, after all, supported the ruling regime in South Africa during the struggle against apartheid, and we have come to realize that there is one set of principles for America, and one for the rest of the world." He wryly reflected on the fact that youth in South Africa have virtually no idea of the struggle that his generation went through to attain freedom, and are more interested in listening to American hip hop music which blares out from many local radio channels.
Mojgan Jalali, the editor of Iran News, explained how history and political relations have mainly decided the extent, if any, of the coverage of the U.S. in Iranian media. The U.S. was idolized before the 1979 revolution and then, after the conservatives came to power, the pendulum swung to the other end. Suddenly, the US was being criticized for its arrogance and imperialistic tendencies, and being blamed for freezing Iranian assets. "But," she said, "the winds of change are blowing once again. After the moderate Khatami rose to power, there has been more coverage of the United States, regardless of the fears of the conservatives. Madeleine Albright and James Rubin are now familiar faces in the Iranian news."
Nikola Djuric, manager of City Radio station in Serbia, which has now been banned, shared sentiments similar to Jalali's. He grew up with American music and culture. But after the U.S. role in the civil war in former Yugoslavia and the Serbian crisis, there has been a noticeable tension in the air.
The panel, which lasted an hour long, concluded with a question and answer session.