Features / Travel

Thou shalt give equal worth to tragedies that occur in non-English speaking countries as to those that occur in English speaking countries

Hannah Al-Othman investigates what role the media should play in instigating change in the developing world.

Bun Hean was 25-years-old when he was sent to jail for a crime he is adamant he did not commit. Now he spends his days in Banteay Meanchey Provincial Prison in North-Western Cambodia. By night he shares a cell with thirty other men, sleeping three to a narrow rice mat, and by day he interrupts the tedium of prison life by tending to crops in the prison vegetable garden and studying English. After spending the best part of a decade in prison he has become accustomed to subsisting on two small meals per day, collecting rain water to drink, and ignoring the all-pervasive smell of human faeces. In rainy season the prison regularly floods, which means English classes are cancelled for weeks on end, prison library books are destroyed, and inmates must wade through knee-deep water to collect their meagre daily food rations.

But Bun Hean remains philosophical. In broken English he explains how he was imprisoned for a gang-rape that he witnessed, but did not commit. In Cambodian society the notion of honour is all-important, particularly for women, and honour can be lost through sexual activity, even when it is non-consensual. Bun Hean says the rape victim had wanted to keep the attack a secret, and because she thought he had exposed her she accused him in an act of vengeance. He says: “She got furious at me because her mother said I told everything [that] happened that night. She said your name will be on the police list.”

Before long, Bun Hean was arrested for rape. He denied the charge throughout his trial, and despite requests from his lawyer he was unable to call the rape victim as a witness in his defence.
He explains how he felt when he was convicted: “The judge got angry because I did not confess. I knew exactly that I would be sent to jail. The verdict read that I must serve my sentence for ten years, it has been seven years now. When I was first in jail I wanted to revenge the judge, I said I would do something evil to pay back his decision. Now I have killed my anger. I have forgotten about it. I’m waiting to be released in a few years’ time.”

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Vichet Ses runs an English school at the prison and has been teaching Bun Hean for several years. He believes that Bun Hean is innocent, and has nothing but praise for him. He says: “Bun-Hean is one of the best people I know. He is clever and respectful, he helps other prisoners and also helps the guards with some of their work, and he is now even a teacher at the prison.” He adds: “Not all cases are like his but I think one out of a hundred cases are similar to this one. People tend to think that there is no smoke without fire, but there are many innocent prisoners. I know that if their stories were known to many people, especially justice protection groups, it would be a big help for them.”

Niall Couper, Press Officer for Amnesty International, agrees. He argues that the importance of media coverage cannot be underestimated. He says: “[A story] could be the critical spark that actually leads to fundamental change in those countries. The media has a huge, huge, huge role to play.” He believes that by using personal stories, photographs and videos, and relating experiences of people in the developing world to those of people in the UK, it is possible to make people – and governments – care about what is happening in the developing world. He explains: “A story could be so important, such a moving and emotional story, that it actually has the chance of making a fundamental difference not just to them but to loads of people around them.”

Chad Williams is the Editor of the Phnom Penh Post. He thinks journalists working in Cambodia are already effecting change there. He says: “We do play a role in raising awareness of important issues occurring here simply by reporting things as accurately and truthfully as possible, whether or not the resulting story may offend the sensibilities of the people currently in power. We don’t do that because we are trying to effect some type of specific change; we do it because it’s our job. But in doing that, change is often effected.”

He believes some of the stories his paper has run have led to lasting change for Cambodian people. He gives the example of the high-profile story of garment workers fainting in Cambodian factories, which received worldwide news coverage, but was reported in his paper first. He also believes that coverage in the Phnom Penh Post has forced the Cambodian Government to tackle illegal land-grabbing. He says: “In the past year, the World Bank let it be known that they were freezing funds to projects in Cambodia until the government sorted out a number of on-going land disputes that had led to mass evictions, I honestly don’t think that would have happened if it hadn’t been for our – and our English-language competitor The Cambodia Daily’s – relentless coverage of the subject.”

Jeff Vize is a former journalist, who works as an advocacy consultant for LICADHO, a Cambodian Human Rights Non-Governmental Organisation. The NGO runs a prisons project, which aims to deter abuse of prisoners and improve their living conditions. He thinks one of the main barriers to the media reporting on international issues, such as human rights abuses in Cambodian prisons, is cost. He says: “Good journalism – especially international investigative journalism – costs money and takes time, and sometimes story leads might not even pan out.” He adds: “Ideally it would be great to see editors and reporters taking more risks on stories concerning the developing world. But the overwhelming majority of media outlets are for-profit entities, and a failed risk can hurt the bottom line. So a lot of media outlets – particularly large ones – may tend to be conservative in story selection.”

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Martin Hodgson, Assistant Foreign Affairs Editor of The Guardian, is somewhat resentful of the criticism levied at media organisations. He says: “I do get slightly annoyed by the criticism that there is some kind of double standard, or hypocrisy.” He explains that at a time when newspapers are under such financial pressure it is not always possible to have staff correspondents, or even stringers [freelance journalists], throughout the globe. He adds: “We don’t have correspondents in every country of the world. We have whole patches of the world that go for years without having anyone visit them, for a long time we didn’t have anybody in South East Asia.”

He emphasises that it is largely practical considerations that prevent newspapers reporting on international stories. Giving the example of Hurricane Sandy, he explains that although there were many reporters – and civilians with camera-phone footage – who could report from the United States, it took several days for the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent to travel from Brazil to Haiti and gather a story in the midst of the disaster. He explains that when the story did come out in the paper – a week later – it was a powerful piece, but he says: “Half the comments on the story were, ‘well, finally you’ve realised that a black life is equal to a white life’, but no, that’s not the issue, it took a long time to get there.”

He also points out that newspapers have to reflect the interests of their readership. He says: “You can’t just have: massacre; starvation; genocide; deforestation; death. Otherwise a reader would top themselves – maybe that’s thinking commercially, but nobody would want to buy that newspaper.”
Broadcaster Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who presents Unreported World on Channel 4, believes that: “As public service broadcasters we have a duty to raise awareness of great stories and great injustices wherever they may be, and there are probably more of them in the developing world.”

However, he understands his audience is limited, and that people who watch Unreported World do so because they already have an interest in hearing about developing countries. He acknowledges that: “Particular sections of audiences are less interested in foreign news than they are in home news – not everyone, there are some people who are very interested in world news, but there are some who are not.” He goes on to say that in tough economic times, broadcasters must cover what they think their audiences are interested in. He explains: “Commercial national broadcasters are increasingly concerned about retaining audiences, so there is a greater pressure now than there was, say twenty years ago, to make sure that you’re not going to switch off a section of your audience.”

Shadow International Development Secretary Ivan Lewis is at his office in Bury for just a day. He returned from a trip to Tunisia the week before, and is flying out to Burma the next morning, but he seems unfazed by his gruelling schedule. As a man who spends his working-life immersed in international development, dealing with both NGOs and media organisations on a daily basis, he can see the arguments from both sides. He says: “Newspapers are increasingly commercially under pressure and are having to make tough choices about budgets, the BBC has had its TV license fee frozen, we know there has been cuts to the World Service, so there are all those pressures.”

But he also knows how valuable positive media coverage can be. He explains: “If you want to maximise public support then media coverage is incredibly important, and balanced media coverage, including positive as well as negative. As the Labour Party’s Shadow Spokesperson for Development, if I’m very honest with you it is difficult to get mainstream media coverage; it’s not an area that they are particularly focussed on.” He goes on to say that: “There’s a big issue about the public’s perception of what development is, because I still think the perception really is of a starving African child or of a humanitarian crisis. The lack of awareness of what development really is – the different elements of development – influences public opinion.”

Steve Ballinger, Head of Press at Voluntary Service Overseas, couldn’t agree more. He believes that a lack of media coverage “Means that the vast majority of people don’t have a clear understanding about what’s happening in developing countries, what life is like for people there, or what really development is about. It’s only really emergency relief that gets in the media predominantly, so I think a lot of members of the public still think that development is about sacks of rice.” He explains that this makes it particularly difficult for his organisation to receive coverage: “We deal with long-term development; we don’t do emergency disaster relief, so it is much harder to get people interested.”

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Mark Galloway is the Director of the International Broadcasting Trust, a charity that works to promote high-quality broadcast and online coverage of the developing world. He believes that media coverage is important, but cautions that negative media coverage can be more harmful that no coverage at all. He says: “There’s a potential threat, which is that people will start to think that this money is wasted, so the way that the media covers countries that are developing is crucial.” He adds: “There are certainly elements in the media who are promoting a view that aid is a waste of money, that there’s a lot of corruption, and if those become the dominant media voices, there will become a much bigger group of the general public that thinks that aid is a waste of time, and that undermine will the ability of governments and aid agencies to deliver aid.”

Ivan Lewis shares his concerns. He says: “There are more newspapers in my experience that are hostile than are positive.” He adds: “Some papers have an agenda which is to undermine the case for aid by publishing stories which are always about corruption, always about human rights abuses, which always present developing countries in a negative way, as a way of saying ‘why are we giving these countries money?’”

But Nevine Mabro, Foreign Editor of Channel 4 News, thinks it is important that the media provide balanced reports from the developing world, even if that means reporting the negative as well as the positive. She says: “If we do a report on corruption in a charity, and we said that 10% of what you send gets taken by local officials, within that report you will show also where the money is going, and the fact that you’re highlighting the fact that 10% is being taken off by corrupt people means that will change. It appears to be negative, but you’re doing an important job, making clear where money’s going, I think there’s a responsibility to report that.” She adds: “Yes, it means that there may be a dip in the number of donations for a few weeks, but ultimately money will be better spent, because those issues will be dealt with once they’re raised.”

She believes that reporting negative events in a country is important because coverage can instigate fundamental change. She says: “Things can happen because of news reports. Sometimes something big happens and people go on trial, sometimes laws are changed, sometimes people are held to account.”

And Vichet agrees. He believes it is important for people to hear about the human rights abuses that are happening in the prison where he works, and about the endemic corruption in the Cambodian justice system. He is sure that if the British public could only hear Bun Hean’s story they would be sympathetic. “After all,” he says: “The media play an important role in making the truth known to the public.”

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