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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2582

Is a Global News Agency of the South Viable?

By Thalif Deen - Inter Press Service

United Nations 25 April, (IPS): When the tart-tongued prime minister of a Southeast Asian nation was once asked what the leading newspapers were in his country, he remarked rather cynically: "We don't have any leading newspapers because all our newspapers are misleading."

They were "misleading", he explained, because the local newspapers were forced to depend on Western news agencies for their coverage of global events, mostly lacking a Third World perspective.

Moreover, he said, the mainstream Western media rarely focused on issues relevant to developing nations, including poverty, hunger, population, health care, children, gender empowerment and the environment.

As a result, there has been a longstanding demand for strengthening national news services and regional news agencies in developing nations -- leading perhaps to the creation of a global network of news agencies of the South. But how far is this viable?

At the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society, held in Tunisia, the 130-member Group of 77 (G-77), the largest single coalition of developing nations, expressed strong support for a Plan of Action to strengthen information and communications technologies (ICTs) in developing nations, and to promote the use of information and knowledge for the achievement of internationally agreed development goals.

A G-77 expert group meeting is scheduled to take place in Antigua and Barbuda next week to discuss ways to strengthen South-South cooperation, including in the fields of media and communications.

Ernest Corea, a former chair of the Commonwealth Select Committee on Communications and Development in London and principal author of the committee's two reports, admitted that several attempts were made in the 1960s to set up news and feature services reflecting mostly the views of developing nations, and responding to their people's needs.

"A number of national and regional news agencies still survive in Africa, Asia, and Latin America," said Corea, formerly Sri Lanka's ambassador the United States and a one-time foreign affairs columnist, editorial writer, and foreign news editor of the Straits Times in Singapore.

"But most efforts at building up transnational news/features services reflecting the perspectives of the global South -- such as DEPTHNEWS, Gemini News Service, and the Non-Aligned News Agency Pool -- failed," he said.

In an interview with IPS U.N Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, Corea also said the reasons for failure included governmental intrusion, inadequate resources and constraints on news reporting, including censorship and intimidation in several developing countries, and lack of support from editors and managers in the South.

"It is too early to assess the newly-created Non-Aligned News Network (based in Malaysia). The great success story of the South, of course, is your own Inter Press Service (IPS) which has 'stayed the course'," he added.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: Why should an alternate news service succeed now when it failed earlier? Would the explosion of new technology, including the Internet and online websites, which did not exist in the 1960s and '70s, help in the creation of any news/feature services now?

EC: Conceptually, yes, using the Internet should give a professional news/feature service a broad spread. In practice, however, the imbalance in access to the Internet challenges the concept. For example, "World Development Indicators 2007" shows that Internet users per 1,000 people in the following countries are: Afghanistan 1, Argentina 83, Bangladesh 81, Belgium 458, Botswana 34, Brazil 195, Central African Republic 3, Germany 455, U.S. 630.

IPS: Since some countries, particularly in Africa, are lagging far behind other developing nations, particularly in Asia, don't you think it would be imperative to improve information and communications technologies, including access to the Internet, before launching alternate news services?

EC: Yes, modern information technologies should be used as poor people's tools for empowerment, and not only as a preserve of the affluent.

IPS: Do you think the creation of a global news agency of the South or a network of news agencies of the South is viable? Or is it more practical that, for starters, there should be a concerted effort to build up South-South cooperation, including training and capacity building, among news agencies and newspapers in the developing world?

EC: This is another version of the "chicken and egg" question. Capacity building and institution building are both important. Let me ask myself: Is a transnational news-features agency of the South necessary? Yes. The best North-based transnational news and features outlets write or broadcast with understanding and skill.

They are, however, conflict-oriented -- "if it bleeds, it leads", as former U.N. Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor once said -- and they neglect coverage that is of specific significance to Southern readers/listeners/ viewers. They also neglect trends in developing countries, as opposed to "breaking news", and they are not committed to enabling Southern countries to understand each other better and learn from each other's experiences.

Would such a service be viable? Yes, if it is adequately funded to maintain professional staff in all departments, if governments do not attempt to control it, and if media establishments in the South are committed to using it. An alternate source of information is always an asset. Does such a source already exist? Yes, at the risk of embarrassing you, let me say it's your own IPS. Helping to develop IPS further as a global, South-oriented service should be a great South-South project.

IPS: As you know, the Group of 77 which emerged from the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has been strongly identified with development issues. Do you think it should also focus strongly on communications?

EC: To begin with, communications are an essential component of development. Moreover, the G-77 was long convinced that the South was, by and large, shoddily treated by the international news services and Northern media in general. In May 1974, a G-77 initiative resulted in the U.N. General Assembly adopting a "Declaration of the Establishment of a New International Information Order" (NIIO).

Subsequently, at the General Conference of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in October 1980, the G77 tabled a "Declaration on a New International Information Order" which called for the elimination of imbalances and inequalities in the dissemination of news and the removal of internal and external obstacles to a free flow of news. The Doha Plan of Action endorsed at the Second South Summit held in Doha, Qatar in June 2005, emphasised the importance of increasing human and institutional capacity in developing countries for information communications technologies.

IPS: What was the result of the UNESCO Declaration?

EC: The initial outcome was a riposte from U.S. media. Time carried a full-page commentary under the headline "The Global First Amendment War". Of the 88 percent of U.S. newspapers that commented editorially on the UNESCO conference, 87 percent opposed the Declaration, and 27 newspapers suggested that the U.S. should leave UNESCO if it attempted to implement the Declaration.

Subsequently, a group of 100 media representatives from 21 Northern nations, including the U.S., adopted the "Declaration of Talloires" (France) which urged UNESCO to "abandon attempts" to follow through on the Declaration. Finally, UNESCO, which was the Declaration's "implementing agency", gave up the task which it was not suited to undertake in the first place. International bureaucrats have no place in newsrooms.

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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