A missed opportunity
By Christina Stucky Posted Jan 1 2002
From the perspective of media consumers as well as media practitioners, the World Conference against Racism (WCAR) represents a missed opportunity.
Journalists at the conference in Durban, South Africa, focused by circumstance and choice on a narrow definition of what constitutes news, honing in on headline-grabbing events that occurred between Aug. 31 and Sept. 7 while disregarding not only a host of relevant issues, but also the components of the conference’s very own title. This was, after all, a conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances and not a conference on Zionism and reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Newspaper readers, television viewers and radio listeners who followed the WCAR could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
The media further missed the rare opportunity offered by the WCAR to examine their own role in the propagation of racism.
The reasons which led to these missed opportunities can be located in the dynamics that existed at the conference and the choices journalists and editors made in covering the conference.
The majority of the 1,100 media representatives accredited to cover the WCAR largely failed in their mandate to inform their audiences. Only a few covered the Non-governmental Forum held in the five days prior to the official conference.
Representatives from 170 countries gathered at a cricket stadium in Durban, the venue for the WCAR. The causes they represented were diverse, ranging from the Falun Gong in China to the Dalits, or so called “Untouchables,” in India, from the white minority Afrikaaners of South Africa to native Americans from Canada and the United States. Only the most vocal and organized of these – particularly African-American groups – managed to capture the attention of journalists and photographers.
The Dalit representatives resorted to a hunger strike on the final two days in a desperate attempt to make their pleas heard.
While the NGO Forum offered the participating organizations a unique opportunity to network on a global scale, the groups had travelled long distances to lobby government representatives for their causes. The media were their main conduit to reach a larger audience in the hope of rallying support. But, to a large extent, these causes and the debates, about the various manifestations of racism and racial discrimination around the world were not covered in the media. In many cases, it was also a case of “preaching to the converted” with Indian journalists, for example, interested in the Dalit issue or Americans reporting on African-Americans fighting for slavery reparations.
At the media center, discussions focused squarely on the contentious equation of Zionism with racism and the controversy over reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As soon as the delegations from the United States and Israel pulled out of the conference at the end of the second day, most of the NGOs and their causes were forced to the fringes of the conference. But to criticize the journalists covering the WCAR for this concentration on the Israel/United States versus Palestine issue would be simplistic.
In many cases, journalists could be heard arguing with their editors in Europe and the United States about the coverage of the conference. As space in most newspapers is limited, WCAR coverage had to focus on the main issues of the week, in other words Zionism, Palestine and reparations.
One factor helped create a particular dynamic at the conference: its location in South Africa. The majority of South Africans, who experienced decades of repression, tend to side emotionally or politically with the cause of the Palestinians. It is unlikely that in most other countries around the world, pro-Palestine marches would have swelled to the size they did in Durban. Tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against the U.S. government’s withdrawal from the conference and for the creation of an independent Palestine. These marches, combined with a few active NGOs who distributed often virulently anti-American and anti-Israel pamphlets and cartoons, captured the media’s attention which was already “hijacked,” as some critics liked to phrase it, by the Israel/Palestine issue.
The opportunity to channel some of the energy expended by the media on this subject on other interest groups, let alone on introspection regarding the media’s own role in propagating racism, was reduced to nil. A panel of prominent journalists and representatives of media organizations was brought together to discuss the role of the media. But it failed to look at the draft of the WCAR’s declaration which contained a number of questionable clauses limiting the rights of the media in an attempt to prevent the propagation of racism and racial discrimination through media organs. These clauses were dropped or rewritten in the final declaration.
The domination of the racism conference by the Zionism debate and reparations for descendants of the slave trade not only overshadowed other causes but reduced debates
on racism and racial discrimination to
The WCAR was never going to be the place for moral discourses and debates on racism, but it was intended to highlight the manifestations of racism around the world as well as the ramifications of various forms of discrimination on a global and a community level. This opportunity was largely missed.