On the task of media in the 21st century

Historical facts are particularly important in reports from regions of war and crisis

by Karin Leukefeld*

In the light of recent events – the military invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army – I would like to talk about media and reporting today. Because the media have changed a lot, and changed has also the way they report and what they report about. This is particularly true of reporting from abroad and especially about war and crisis zones.

Articles – including those of news agencies – are increasingly generated by artificial intelligence. Journalists are sitting at their computers and are rarely on the scene. Hardly any sources are gathered from libraries, books, from their own conversations with eyewitnesses, their own research on the ground and compared with other sources.
  Various points of view, which of course exist – and not only in conflicts – are hardly ever presented. Articles refer to agency reports from AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa – all of them have their headquarters in Western capitals. Media from other parts of the world are hardly noticed and if they are – like those from Russia or China – they are portrayed as “controlled”. Or they are banned.
  Articles are referring to unverifiable “social media”, “citizen journalists” or civil society organisations which often report on conflicts subjectively and one-sidedly. And there are media taking over reports from secret services, which – for security reasons, of course – are not named in detail. This has clearly been increasing in recent years, and I state this against the background of more than 20 years of work in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Syria and the Gulf states.
  We are living in dangerous times.
  Voices for dialogue and peace are defamed. International law is disregarded and is degenerating. Instead of pointing out injustice, hypocrisy and lies and letting all sides have their say so that the public can form a picture and understand, the media, like war drummers and trumpeters of former armies, accompany political crises and urge escalation.
  The reporting has become – and here I am referring to an officer of the Austrian armed forces – part of a hybrid threatening scenery. “War without fighting” is what the military calls it. A war designed to weaken and destabilise a political adversary.
  “Hybrid threat” is happening covertly, often illegally. Sometimes openly. The arena is mainly the internet. The targets are the brains. And in any case, the “hybrid threat” can also be continued at any time by military means – as war.
  Hence, the actors of this “hybrid threat” are media; it is the cyber sphere; it is manipulations including sanctions in the economic, energy and financial spheres; it is diplomats and politicians and it is the promotion of certain groups in the population of the adversarial state – the Austrian officer speaks of “popular violence [Volksgewalt]” – promoted in various ways – sometimes even by arming them – in order to stir up unrest in the opposing country. We have seen this in many crises and wars in recent years. In Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt and Syria – to name but a few.
  We are currently seeing this in the conflict over Ukraine, which has now taken a military turn. From the Western perspective, Russian President Putin is blamed for the escalation, having turned down offers of talks from the USA, the EU and NATO. But the Russian perspective, the long history that began with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the promises made at that time by NATO not to expand towards the east, the war against Yugoslavia and the break-up of the country, the expansion of NATO, Russia’s proposal for security guarantees and a neutrality of Ukraine, this long history does not appear in most of the media.
 On 21 February, for example, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzya gave a good overview of the political and historical developments in Ukraine since 2014 at the UN Security Council and appealed to the other Security Council members to work sensibly and not emotionally to resolve the crisis over Ukraine.
 But did German-language media report on this speech and publish excerpts from it? Were politicians or government representatives interviewed about it? I read the speech because I specifically searched the internet for the Russian statement on the website of the UN representation of the Russian Federation. But in the general media, in Germany also the public media, the speech of the US Secretary of State Blinken on that day in the UN Security Council was heard repeatedly in words and pictures.
  What is happening now in Ukraine is a tragedy. War is always a defeat for the people. But it is also the result of a haughty, dialogue-incapable, or perhaps dialogue-unwilling policy of the West towards the Russian Federation.
  In her book “Cassandra”, German author Christa Wolf wrote:

One can know when the war begins, but when does the pre-war begin?
If there were rules, they should be passed on.
In clay, in stone, handed down.
What would it say. It would say, among other things:
Do not be deceived by your own.

Russia’s war in Ukraine began on 24 February 2022, but when did the pre-war begin?
  Incidentally, Kurt Wyss devotes a chapter in his book to Russia’s intervention in Syria, in which he goes into the prehistory in detail: “The humiliation of Russia by the West” is the title of one chapter. And he concludes that Russia’s intervention in Syria led to a turnaround in the war on the one hand, but also to “anti-Russian hysteria in the West” on the other.
  The prehistory to a war is determined by many actors and – if one really wants to solve a conflict and avoid a war – must never be disregarded or “framed”, as it is called in media language today. “Framing” is the attempt to influence the perception of information in a certain way through certain formulations and perspectives so that it is remembered by the addressee in a certain way and not from a different perspective. The antecedents to a war must also never be locked into a particular “narrative”, which is akin to propaganda, especially in situations of war and crisis. Presenting the history of a conflict or war from only one perspective and omitting other perspectives or deforming them is unhistorical and leads to “fake news”, to false and interest-driven news.

Afghanistan and its neighbours

When I wrote the foreword to this book by Kurt O. Wyss in September last year 2021, the world was witnessing the withdrawal of Western and NATO troops from Afghanistan. They left almost head over heels, followed by the Afghan local forces who had worked for them for 20 years. They had been well paid for this. They had become a kind of elite.
  Unlike most Afghans who lived in poor huts in rural areas, the families of the local forces could live in houses, had water and electricity. They had a car, mobile phones, medical care. Their children could go to school and maybe even study abroad.
  Some Afghans worked for the foreign troops in the hope of renewing their homeland. Others in the hope of one day being able to leave their homeland to build a new life in the country of their employers – USA, Australia, Canada, or Germany.
  With the withdrawal of the foreign troops, that was over. The foreigners only took their own people with them: Diplomats, embassy staff, aid workers. Those who did not belong stayed behind.
  How can one forget the terrible images of people clinging to the undercarriage of a plane taking off! How could it be that the pilot did not slow down and stop to save people’s lives? There are mobile phone footages of bundles falling from a plane taking off. According to reports, they were people.

  There is no doubt that the withdrawal of Western troops after 20 years was an admission of failure. They left according to the motto “Après moi le déluge – After me, the Great Flood”. What remained was a destabilised country, an impoverished, aimless society. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria – the same picture everywhere.
  Now Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries had to shoulder the consequences: Refugees had to be accommodated, economic aid had to be organised, the population had to be cared for, and the question was how to counter the possible spread of jihadist ideas. And what happened?
  Afghanistan’s neighbours, the Russian Federation, the Central Asian states, China and Iran came together and talked. They met with the Taliban and made them offers. They came closer together in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). They coordinated in the field of military and security, they strengthened economic cooperation in the new Silk Road project. And they turned to the UN and demanded support for Afghanistan from the West.
  The most important thing was to talk to each other and engage in dialogue. Because when you talk to each other, there is encounter. One hears the concerns and interests of the other and also talks about oneself and one’s own country. The aim of these talks was and is to avoid destabilising Afghanistan and to strengthen the country and its people. One seeks ways of understanding, or at least the beginnings of understanding, and remains in dialogue. To avoid war.
  And the West?
  The dialogue with the West remains vague. Why? Because the USA and the West want to determine the issues? Because they impose conditions that run counter to the interests of the others? Because they don’t want to commit themselves? Because they are perhaps talking to gain time – a frequent tactic in negotiations, by the way?
  But then what is the point of negotiations at all if it is only about their own interests and not also about the interests of the other side?
  What is the point of a dialogue or “peace process” like in the Middle East, where Israel has refused to recognise the interests and especially the rights of the others, the Palestinians, since 1948 – since its foundation more than 70 years ago? Where Lebanon is seen as a “combat zone”? What is the point of the Geneva-Syria talks if Syria is being starved and deprived of its resources by Western sanctions?
  Is dialogue even possible when someone sitting directly or indirectly at the table claims to set the tone? The US administration still sees itself as an “indispensable”, almost “chosen” nation with a leadership role. To bring peace, freedom, democracy and prosperity to the whole world? As in Afghanistan? Or in Iraq?
  Where did this missionary idea of the USA lead to after 11 September in 2001? Instead of reflecting and seeking dialogue, a “war on terror” was declared. Dozens of states were destabilised by this war, livelihoods and the environment were destroyed and the number of people who lost their homes worldwide due to the crises and wars thus triggered skyrocketed.
  In 2001, the UNHCR registered around 12 million refugees worldwide.
  In 2021, there were 84 million.
  This development must be reason enough for responsible politicians to change direction and seek cooperation instead of confrontation. But the opposite is the case, again now, in Ukraine. Politicians need a new compass to redirect their path. They need to talk to those they see as opponents for as long as it takes. They need to learn to engage in dialogue, not war.
  The media also need a compass. If they do not find their way back to their real mission of reporting and reportage to enlighten and understand other realities, there will only be advertising and propaganda in the future, strategic communication oriented towards one-sided interests. Then the media will no longer need reporters and journalists, but PR managers.

The encounter with the other

In search of a compass for my journalistic work, I always go to two bookshops in Beirut, where I have found many important books and had good conversations. “The Other”, is the title of a slim volume I found in one of these bookshops a few years ago. It is a collection of lectures and speeches by Ryszard Kapuściński, a master of reportage.
  In it, Kapuściński, who comes from Poland, tackles a question that has accompanied him throughout his life as a reporter, which has taken him to all continents, to crises and wars. It was not the borders or frontlines that preoccupied him, not the practical difficulties and dangers, he writes. Rather, he has always asked himself what kind, what quality his encounter with the others, with other people would be and how this encounter would go? Much, sometimes everything, would depend on it, Kapuściński writes, asking himself: “How will it be? How will it go? What will be the conclusion?”
  On the occasion of the award of an honorary doctorate to him by a university in Krakow (on 1 October 2004), Kapuściński wrote a speech entitled “Encountering the Other is the Challenge of the 21st Century”. He had observed that there had always been “three possibilities” “when people encountered another”, it said. “He can choose war, he can entrench himself behind a wall, or he can start a conversation, a dialogue.”
  Justifying war, it says, is not easy because “it is a defeat for people”. The idea of building walls and isolating oneself from others is called “apartheid” today, he said. People want to keep everyone who does not belong to their own race, religion and culture at bay. All those who did not belong to one’s own tribe, one’s own society – all others – were sub humans or not human at all, said Kapuściński.
  People had made different decisions at different times. They would have waged wars against the other, built walls to seal themselves off from the other, and also talked to the other.
  Until now, the “concept of the other” had been defined by the whites, by the Europeans and colonial masters. This is over in the 21st century, because those defined as “other” by the whites are now self-confident and independent. And – I would like to add – because these “others” today also live among the “whites”.
  In the 21st century, the encounter with the other, the conversation is the challenge. Because everyone is “the other” for the other, and everyone has to think about how he or she wants to encounter the “other”.
  Kurt Wyss answered this question unambiguously for himself. He did not choose war, he exposed war and destabilisation plans. He did not build walls, but broke through walls of silence. He spoke openly, even contradicted, even if it may have been uncomfortable. He sought solutions, he sought dialogue, otherwise he would not have written this book.
  And for that he is to be thanked.

cc. Kurt O. Wyss (1939–2019), who holds a doctorate of English and history, was a diplomat in the service of the Swiss Confederation for 32 years of which he worked 17 years as an ambassador in Jordan, Syria and Turkey. After retiring from the diplomatic service, he found more time to pursue his interests in history, to research the backgrounds and contexts, and time to write. He unfortunately was not able to complete his last book, which was a great concern to him – but surely it is in his spirit, that it now could appear posthumously. The well-known German Middle East specialist, Karin Leukefeld comments: “In this book, a longterm expert of the region and Western politics, writes about the reasons why countries between the eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf became today war and crisis zones. Out of his 32 years in his career as a diplomat, Kurt O. Wyss was stationed as a Swiss diplomat for 17 years in Jordan, Syria and Turkey among other places. He explains the historical and political actualities and describes the complicated structure of interests and centres of power. Wyss relentlessly called a spade a spade and this is which results in a widely-researched report, which should belong to the education of each and every diplomat.”


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