Reporters With Hazy Boundaries

MediaChannel carries RSF’s reply to the recent row over its funding and funding sources (via FAIR’s Media Channel Web log).

PARIS, May 18, 2005 — Reporters Without Borders wishes to rectify errors that appeared in the recent article entitled “The Reporters Without Borders Fraud” (ZNet).

The author, Salim Lamrani, accuses Reporters Without Borders of using funds received from the National Endowment for Democracy to wage campaigns “against the governments of Havana and Caracas.” This is false.

In 2005, NED awarded a grant of USD 39,900 to Reporters Without Borders within the framework of a project whose purpose was “to support journalists arrested, imprisoned or threatened in Africa.” Indeed, this project concerns Africa – and only Africa – and the amount granted represents scarcely 1.6% of the organization’s budget.

Lamrani’s article spends more time exploring a more general problem of NGO governance, however: how to serve many masters at once.

The financing of the RSF also raises some important questions. How can an organization that depends economically on the FNAC, the CFAO, Hewlett Packard Foundation from France, the Hachette Foundation, the EDF Foundation, the Bank of Deposits and Consignments (la Caja de Depósitos y Consignaciones), the Open Society Institution, the Royal Foundation Network, Sanofi-Synthelabo (now Sanofi-Aventis), Atlas Publications, Color Club, Globenet, and Cadena Ser be independent?

How can an organization financed by the French state act impartially? It is impossible, and RSF’s positions supporting the coup d’état against president Aristide of Haiti shows it very clearly. How can an organization that expects to defend journalists rejoice at the overthrow of a democratically elected president?

As to the budget line-items accounted for in the RSF rebuttal — if you really must have fodder for the forensic accounting angle on this debate — those were stated as follows:

The budget for RSF for 2003 was up to 3,472,122 euros. According to annual accounts the revenue came from: 11% from the State, 12% from patrons, 4% from contributions and donations, 15% from the European Commission, 10% from operations, and 48% from the organization’s publications. This last figure is surprising for its importance. The sum of 1,984,853 euros supposedly came from only the sale of calendars. The calendar costs 8 euros, which is the same as saying that the RSF manages to sell more then 249,106 calendars per year, or 680 calendars every day This figure is much too excessive to be credible.

Grants of that size are generally grants to fund the salary of one staffer for a year — often a staffer on loan from the donor institution. It would be interesting to know who, if that is the case, that staffer was, and what work he or she did for the money.

Comments FAIR:

Saying that the money is only 1.6 percent of the group’s budget only prompts the question of why the group doesn’t forego such a minor part of its income in order to avoid a major conflict of interest.

Now, FAIR is not my favorite media watchdog group, mainly because much of their analysis and criticism is confined to a simplistic level: “Why does the commercial media neglect this, that, or the other partisan angle on the current situation in X?”

Any idiot can play that game: Witness “Why does none of the good news from Iraq get reported?”

It’s tantamount to “You play to their confirmation bias, so why don’t you play to mine?”

I first became aware of FAIR, however, while covering the flap over the role of the commercial media in Chavez’s 48-hour vacation from office in 2002, from the WSF in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

If you want to understand why Latin American nations have moved in recent years to block foreign media control and influence from its markets, the conduct of the Venezuelan media during that period is a case study you should really dig into.

If you could consider the conduct of concentrated corporate media while ignoring the specific target of their campaign — just take a Magic Marker to all the names, and change “Venezuela” to, say, “Petrolífera — you start to realize why media concentration is such a bad idea in general.

Still, I think the question of structural, institutional autonomy and transparent governance is the right one, though the focus on a single institutional donor is a red herring.

Government agencies in the quango state understand the value of building networks, and you will often find them coordinating with members of their networks to promote mutual interests — such as teaming up with commercial interests on Internet policy and receiving support for its “democracy” projects in return.

The network often has to be the basic unit of analysis when it comes to calculating the vector of conflicting interests.

One interesting connection here, I think, for example, is the funding RSF shares with James E. Moore’s Open Economies Project at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society — which is also funded by the Hewlett-Packard Foundation, a client from Moore’s previous incarnation as an influential consultant.


The OEI, an institutional sketch. Click to zoom


James Moore. Click to zoom.

Moore, the guru of the Second Superpower meme, seems to be a paradigm case of this sort of NGO-quango-GONGO frontman working to align more or less “moral” crusades, designed to motivate the mass audience, in order to push “democracy” promotion and neoliberal trade policy … a strategy that finds its most grotesque expression in the Google is Goebbels smear campaign.

The revolution will be Webcast, and in the final accounting, the Second Superpower will be pro-GATT and pro-GATS.

Lamrani, by the way, is

Chercheur français à l’université Denis-Diderot (Paris VII), spécialiste des relations entre Cuba et les États-Unis. Dernier ouvrage publié : Cuba face à l’empire : Propagande, guerre économique et terrorisme d’État, éditions Timéli.

Obviously, France has not had a chance to drive its tenured radicals into exile in the ranks of itinerant adjunct faculty yet.

More on this in a bit. But you probably already know my libertarian take on the issue: You can’t be a pot if you want to call the kettle black.

The RSF objects to the jailing of journalists in Cuba. I do, too. But I don’t support the RSF.

Am I morally confused? No. It’s just that I demand more transparency from those who want to say they are qualified to represent me.

And if you object to the boycotting of Israeli academics because of Israeli government policies, you should, in principal also oppose the bombing of Hezbollah media facilities and the targeting of civilian personnel there at al-Manar TV.

As Lawrence Pintak points out in a recent essay:

The targeting of “enemy” broadcasts is nothing new. It dates back at least to World War II. Nor are reporters around the world strangers to retribution. The history of journalism in Lebanon itself is littered with the bodies of reporters who angered the powers-that-be.

Even foreign reporters sometimes fall victim. As a Beirut-based correspondent in the 1980s, I had to leave the country for a year after death threats from a pro-Syrian militia; one of my cameramen was literally blown in half, the sound technician killed and the driver crippled by an Israeli tank shell fired directly at them; and several of my friends ended up hostages of Hezbollah or its allies.

What has changed in recent years is the degree to which the media as a whole has specifically and systemically become a “legitimate” target of war. In Beirut in the 1980s, we were kidnap targets because we were the last Americans in town.

Now, reporters are targeted because they are reporters. Further complicating the situation is the nature of live television itself. Real-time broadcasts from the battlefield can compromise military operations and endanger troops.

Yet that argument can also provide convenient cover for darker motives. Silencing reporters from independent – or semi-independent – news organizations because they are inconveniently showing the bloody outcome of war or refusing to parrot the official line is a dangerous development – for reporters and for democracy.

In the Middle East, this new era can be traced to the U.S. bombing of al-Jazeera’s bureaus in Kabul and Baghdad. At its root is the power of satellite television. Warts aside, the reality is that until al-Jazeera came along in 1996, the term “television journalism” was an oxymoron in a region where all television and most of the print media was controlled by governments. Arabs depended on Western broadcasts for their “independent” information.

Al-Jazeera changed the rules of the game. Suddenly, Arabs were seeing their region through an Arab prism. Many protagonists found that very inconvenient. The U.S. destroyed al-Jazeera’s Kabul bureau at the beginning of the Afghan war when the channel was one of the few news organizations in the Afghan capital. Al-Jazeera was providing footage that directly contradicted U.S. claims that civilians weren’t being harmed.

The same thing happened during the Iraq invasion, but this time other Arab broadcasters were hit as well. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind reports in his book about the secret war, in the aftermath of the Kabul bombing, “Inside the CIA, and the White House, there was satisfaction that a message had been sent to Al Jazeera.” Countless similar messages have been sent in the years since. Whatever the source – whether governments or insurgents of various stripes – the central theme has been the same: Report the way we want you to or you will not be allowed to report at all.

On the other side of the coin, the politicization of the media is precisely what provides governments with the pretext for targeting journalists.

Castro and Chavez enjoy support because many people are persuaded by their case that dissident journalists and corporate media have been infiltrated by infowarriors.

Castro, for example, has ruled in a permanent state of emergency and exception. And indeed, there is abundant evidence of such activity to make those arguments highly plausible, especially to their target audiences.

He has the advantage of an adversary who moves against him with all the subtlety of a drunk elephant, lending considerable credibility and truthiness to his case to his people, and his cause.

The same perceived politicization of multinational corporate media may well lead to a higher toll among Western journalists in the future, according to a similar rationale, one essayist points out — though for now, it’s mainly the local freelance stringers, the ones who actually speak the language, still doing the dying.

Asks our essayist — I have to retrieve the attribution, sorry — If al-Manar is targeted for its political content, why should Fox not be similarly targeted?

Especially susceptible to death and dismemberment are the translators, under the battlecry of traduttore traditore.

Which as a translation pro I find chilling. More on that later.

3 thoughts on “Reporters With Hazy Boundaries

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