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Nonaligned nonstarter

Philip Bowring

HONG KONG I thought it had died years ago. But there it was, 30 years on, making a re-appearance last week under the auspices of the normally sensible prime minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Badawi: a proposal for a Non-aligned News Network.
Back in 1975 when NAM (the non-aligned movement) was still a set of initials to be reckoned with, it came forth with the idea of a non-aligned news pool, to present the world through the eyes of Third World journalists to counterbalance the political bias and cultural prejudice of the Western wires and syndicated news services.
Those were idealistic days and many a talented Asian journalist joined the bandwagon. Newly independent and developing countries generally were not big enough or rich enough to have their own international news networks, so why not band together and provide their own news to each rather than read the Western accounts of how backward, undemocratic or just weird they all were?
It was a natural extension of de-colonization. The Western media did ignore large tracts of the world, or covered them only when some disaster struck or Western interests there were in some ways affected. Bias was rife and the media naturally catered in the first place to the news interests of their Western clients rather than those of the developing countries which had no alternative sources of international news.
Unfortunately, the idealism foundered on the rocks of reality and cynicism. It spawned a concept known as "development journalism," a kind of "good news" journalism focused on progress, not disasters, and "development" rather than political issues. This sounded nice and the advocates were able to raise money from the United Nations and elsewhere to further the cause.
Less admirably, authoritarian governments latched on to development journalism as a way of diverting attention from politics and a free press which "obstructed development." The Marcos regime in the Philippines was particularly supportive.
The NAM also spawned a "non-aligned news agency pool" in 1975 under the leadership of Yugoslavia's Tanjug and including the likes of Malaysia's government-controlled Bernama news agency. This was to be the news part of the New International Economic Order.
The reality was that Yugoslavs were no more interested in Malaysia than Malaysia in Yugoslavia, and both were more interested in the United States. No national agency had the capacity or competence to match the coverage of major events provided by the developed country agencies. Worst of all, the enthusiasts for the NAM venture were mostly states with little media freedom.
Fast forward to today. The Western media is often as prejudiced as ever, its focus on a few issues and nations. Its bias is often glaring, especially in its coverage of the Muslim world. But the new NAM network proposed at a conference in Kuala Lumpur last week is no more the answer now than it was in 1975.
Unsurprisingly, among the loudest voices supporting it last week were ministers from Myanmar, Sudan and Syria, the countries whose news supply is least likely to find takers elsewhere. Malaysia, which has put itself forward to spearhead the new NAM news, has a freer media than several of its ASEAN neighbors, but it still fails to reflect the levels of education of its population or the competence of its journalists.
The bottom line is that to be acceptable internationally, there must be some consistent proof of independence from sponsor governments. The difficultly of that is demonstrated by one example, the Asia News Network, which provides a Web link to major Asian English-language papers.
It is a useful tool but not credible as an entity because its participants range from lively, independent papers in India, Thailand and Indonesia to government mouthpieces of China, Vietnam and Singapore, where officials boast of not having an independent press.
If the proposed organization were to be an independent agency funded by NAM and staffed by top journalists from NAM members, well and good. But it will not be. It will be just another way of recycling propaganda from state controlled entities.
What a pity.
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