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VIENNA, Feb 28 2013 (IPS) - Amid calls from world leaders for media diversity and plurality to be strengthened to combat a rising tide of extremism and intolerance, media experts have warned that change should not be expected overnight and that governments and states have a crucial role to play in the process.
Heads of state, government representatives and experts are meeting in the Austrian capital, Vienna, at the fifth United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) Global Forum in a bid to promote intercultural dialogue and understanding as a path to reduce global conflict.
The role of the media in encouraging such dialogue, specifically in its representation of diverse communities, minority groups and cultures, has been one of the central discussion points over the two days of the conference.
UN officials and world leaders all spoke on the importance of using media as a tool to bring nations closer together at a time when, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, “intolerance and extremism are growing”, emphasising the responsibility media has in fostering understanding and defusing conflict.
Leaders from the conflict-plagued Middle East were among the strongest voices calling for media to recognise its responsibility in reporting on diverse cultures fairly and accurately.
Emir of Qatar, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, said: “Understanding others and respecting their cultures and beliefs and the renunciation of extremism, hatred and racism are the most effective ways to plug the pretexts used by those who try to exploit these manifestations to encourage violence and terrorism. There is a growing responsibility of media in portraying the right image of ‘the other’ while avoiding prejudices and stereotyping others, and looking at the facts to judge accordingly.”
He added: “Even under the domination of market laws the media’s mission should go beyond excitement and to secure high rates of audience, and (be aware) that their writers and journalists might be carrying preconceived notions as a result of their own upbringing and nurture, and that freedom of expression is vital but not enough, and must be coupled with responsibility.”
But journalists and media experts at the conference said that while the goal was a laudable one, effective change was unlikely to come quickly.
Speaking to IPS at the UNAOC summit, Alison Bethel McKenzie of the International Press Institute based in Vienna, said: “It is possible that eventually media across the world will be fully diverse and will have adequate plurality.
“But it will take a long time and it will be an uphill struggle because there are differences between what some communities will want, for instance indigenous peoples wanting their own separate media instead of being inclusive, and by nature I think that human beings just don’t reach out to people who are different to them and the media is no different in that respect.”
She added: “In fact sometimes it appears that we are going in the opposite direction and are not embracing people’s differences and being inclusive towards them.”
Other journalists at the summit highlighted that a number of issues the media needed to address itself to related to a lack of diversity and inclusiveness in its reporting, including the need to widen the representation of cultures and minorities in newsrooms, improving the accuracy of reporting on minorities and diverse cultures, and strengthening the implementation of ethical codes and reporting guidelines.
Milica Pecic, executive director of the London-based Media Diversity Institute, said there remain stark deficiencies in many media organisations in all these areas, pointing out that in media in western countries, which encourage social inclusion in legislation and policy practice, minorities are often sorely underrepresented in newsrooms.
“These are issues that really need to be addressed. For instance, if you look at news organisations, there may be many female reporters, but how many women hold senior positions in those organisations? Not very many,” she said.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, three Middle Eastern states – Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran – currently have the most repressive state restrictions on reporting. State censorship of news outlets remains omnipotent in China while most established media outlets in Russia are either controlled by or heavily influenced by the state.
In Western states the independence of media in the face of ever-concentrating media ownership – which critics say threatens diversity of opinion and plurality as owners could push their own interests in their media – has been increasingly questioned.
In the U.S., investigations were undertaken into cable provider Comcast over claims it was limiting competition. This came after it was bought by the NBC network – a move which third sector groups said could see Comcast favouring content from NBC to the detriment of others.
In the UK, there has been repeated concern over global broadcast giant News Corporation’s relationship with the country’s largest pay-TV broadcaster, BSkyB. The Murdoch media group controls 39.1 percent of BskyB, and is the dominant influence on its board.
This remains a serious problem, McKenzie told IPS. And while the summit showed that media experts were split on the need for legislation to ensure accurate and fair depiction and reporting of diverse cultures and minorities in the media, this was an issue where governments needed to take decisive action.
She told IPS: “Governments absolutely have got to crack down on media monopolies because it allows media to give only one perspective. It’s not fair to people and it’s ridiculous because these media then become just a propaganda tool.”
But there remains some hope that even if governments do not, or cannot act, a young media and technology-savvy generation is ensuring, if not complete plurality and diversity, at least independence in information provision.
McKenzie said: “In some developing countries, and certainly in the Middle East following the Arab spring, more people are really insisting on independent media even if they have to create it themselves.
“Young people are becoming more media literate, they are creating media themselves. Independent media is mostly online and when I talk to young people it’s amazing, it seems like they just woke up to the media, its importance what news is being covered and how they themselves are being represented. That’s a really good thing for the future.” (end)
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