2003 - Kuala Lumpur - May 30,31 & June 1


News World Asia 2002

Day 1 - Wednesday 31st July


In a special message for the opening day of News World Asia, Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf hit out at what he called the totally misguided perception which linked Islam – “a religion of peace” - and terrorism. “The only way to destroy terrorism” he said, was “to cut off its roots, which are injustice, desperation and hopelessness.”

He stressed the importance of the media in combating terrorism but, he said, it had to deal with facts, not false perception. “Sometimes exceptions get projected as the rule,” he said.

President Musharraf’s message was the keynote moment in the opening debate at this year’s News World Asia, which asked whether Western news coverage has undermined Pakistan’s ability to keep a balance between its support for the anti-terror campaign and the often hostile response of its own Muslim people.

Musharraf’s chief media advisor, Major General Qureshi, told delegates at the Singapore conference that at one stage of the Afghan crisis there were 3,500 foreign journalists in Pakistan – many of whom knew nothing about the country or its problems. This, he said, had caused serious difficulties for a government determined not to impose any press restrictions on the media.

And President Musharraf reminded delegates of their responsibilities with a closing compliment. “The media is one of the most powerful tools in the world,” he said, “which is why the News World Asia session was so important.”

Other speakers in the debate included Steve Mitchell, head of BBC Radio News, Sun Yusheng, editor in chief of CCTV Peking, Simon Dring, MD of Ekushy TV in Bangladesh, and APTN CEO Ian Ritchie, who said he fully understood some of President Musharraf’s criticism. “If journalists are to have objectivity, they first need to understand,” he said.

These were themes echoed in a later session – Was Afghanistan Fairly Reported. On balance it was, said the country’s foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, although he too hinted that most of the journalists who flooded into Afghanistan knew very little about its politics or past, and often made assumptions that did not reflect well on the widespread resistance to the Taliban regime. Afghans were deeply grateful for the support of troops from the US, Britain and elsewhere, he said, but the courage of the Northern Alliances forces should not be dismissed, and nor should the part they played in the war.

Afghanistan’s finance minister, Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai, agreed. And he said he was not disappointed that only two billion of the ten billion dollars promised in aid had so far been delivered. The new Afghan government, he said, had to show that it was acting in the best interests of its people if it expected the world to continue its support, and it needed the world’s media to report the country’s painful reconstruction accurately and sympathetically.

And that theme carried into the day’s other big debate, News Coverage of the Developing World. Keynote speaker Martin Hadlow, director of the UNESCO office in Kabul, described how difficult it was to persuade journalists to cover good news stories in any depth.

“Reporters are interested in the extremes – the doom and gloom of war on one hand, and surfing goat stories on the other. Nothing much in between gets any consideration.” There was little interest, he said, when he suggested a story about women teachers – regularly beaten up by the Taliban when caught teaching at home – who were now working for no pay to bring two million children back into full time education.

Day 2 - Thursday 1st August 2002


The inventors of the much-publicised Afghan Explorer news robot brought their dream to News World Asia in Singapore on Thursday – if not the dream machine itself.

The latest version of the robot – a remote controlled solar powered buggy carrying two cameras and several microphones – is still undergoing trials, but MIT development team Ryan McKinley and Kelly Dobson had video proof of the prototype Explorer in action, and claimed that once perfected it will allow journalists to penetrate areas which are either too dangerous for reporters to venture into, or too sensitive for governments and the military to want them there anyway.

Their emphasis is very much on freedom of movement and freedom of speech – by controlling access, they said. American governments have been manipulating the media ever since the Revolutionary Wars.

Ironically, though, their Free Speech News Robot relies heavily on military research – “It’s problematic for us,” said McKinley, “that the science of robotics was developed to serve the military.”

Now they plan to make their own research available to all, at a price even comparatively small news organisations can afford. “For $110,000 you can build the robot yourself from off-the-shelf surplus parts, said Dobson, “and we will be publishing the plans to show you how to do it.”

A get rich quick scheme for MIT and its boffins? Apparently not. The information will be offered free of charge because, said McKinley: “We’re not looking for commercial gain, but cultural gain.”

Whether the news robot would be of any help to journalists in countries where the press has traditionally been highly restricted is another question, in the Journalism Powderkegs session speakers from all over Asia had mixed views on their governments' claims to be loosening their grip on local media.

Thepchai Yong, editor of the Nation Media Group in Thailand, said many newspapers and TV new organisations had been compromised by allowing the government to bail them out of financial problems in return for their support, and Tarun Tejpal, of tehelka.com, India, observed that viewers and readers usually see through such “sponsored media.”

He added: “Sections of the media aligned to government will always try to frustrate you as a free-thinking journalist, but you must simply hold on to the fact that you’ve got a good story.”

This was easy for journalists working in the full glare of publicity in New Delhi or Mumbai, he said, because they were high profile figures with the protection of the intelligentsia around them.

“But it’s much harder for reporters working at district or local level, who have no such protection from the police, magistrates and local officials who can bring huge pressure to bear on them.”

Stephanie Scawen, executive producer of news and current affairs at Star TV in Hong Kong, admitted that such pressures encourage a habit of self-censorship. “In Hong Kong, there is a growing tendency to be less critical of the Chinese mainland government than used to be the case. And anyway, the new administration is a lot less transparent than the old colonial government ever was.”

Carmen Pedrosa, the veteran Philippines columnist, was fatalistic. “You have to accept that American influence is so strong in my country and stories involving the US are given much greater prominence than anything else – the government has been very critical of journalists who didn’t give their full support to the war against terrorism, for instance.”

And she pointed out that there are other, far more alarming pressures on Filipino journalists than the disapproval of government. “If you do a story about someone that isn’t entirely favourable, they might just come in and shoot you – we have one of the highest death rates among journalists in the world, and most of the killings happen on our own soil.”

There may be little even the safety industry can do about such random murders, but in Hostile Environments – Must Journalists Die?, Paul Rees, MD of Centurion Risk Assessment, invited a panel of top news executives to discuss whether there were indeed any stories worth dying for. On the panel were Stefan Pauli of ARD/ZDF, Victor Antonie of Reuters, Marcus McRitchie of International SOS, Gosta Liljeqvist of GRASP, Australia and Satindra Bindra, CNN’s New Delhi bureau chief.

“What’s interesting,” said Rees, “is that when we do this session again in two years from now, I suspect that once they get involved in safety training, the panel will be entirely made up of people from local media, telling us how they deal with local problems. These are the people who were born and brought up in hostile environments, and they have at least as much to teach us as we can teach them.”

But let the last word on Day Two of the highly successful News World Asia rest with one of the men who might stand accused of restricting press freedoms in his own country.

Major General Sudrajat, director of strategy for the Indonesian defence department, was the keynote speaker in a session on News and National Security.

“One of the main issues with press freedom,” he said, “is an increase in quantity can easily lead to a decrease in quality. One must remember that the interests of the people are more important than the interests of the press.”

Day 3 - Friday 2nd August 2002


The Second annual News World Asia ended in Singapore on Friday with the best news possible – News World Asia III will take place between 9-11 May next year, in either Singapore of Malaysia.

News World Asia director Alexander Thomson’s closing announcement was greeted with applause from conference delegates, most of whom stayed until the very end of the successful three day event and were rewarded with a revealing last session on the lessons learned from the war in Afghanistan, chaired by Alistair Brown, director of international operations for BBC World.

Both Rena Golden of CNN and Max Uechtritz of ABC Australia admitted that in hindsight, their organisations were guilty of slanting their reporting towards the US campaign. Said Golden: “If anyone who claims the US media didn’t censor itself is kidding you. It wasn’t a matter of government pressure but a reluctance to criticise anything in a war that was obviously supported by the vast majority of the people.

“And this isn’t just a CNN issue – every journalist in this room who was in any way involved in 9-11 is partly responsible.”

Uechtritz added ruefully: “We now know for certain that only three things in life are certain – death, taxes and the fact the military are lying bastards.”

There was also concern that new technologies which were supposed to make life easier for journalists and allow them by-pass military obstruction were less than helpful. A letter from a reporter who covered the crisis said: “More time was spent in hotel rooms servicing and fixing some of the gear than was spent on the road doing the job. The technology wins, but the journalism loses.”

As Uechtritz put it: “The lessons of the war? So much technology, so many outlets, so much ignorance.”

Afghanistan was inevitably the focus for an earlier Day Three session on hostile environment training and dangers of working in war zones, chaired by AKE boss Andy Kain.

Simon Dring, MD of Ekushey TV in Bangladesh, observed: “There were 3,500 reporters in Afghanistan – many of them freelances pushing harder than they should for a story. Where was their safety training? Were they properly insured? Absolutely not.”

Those people became a danger to more seasoned professionals, said CNN New Delhi bureau chief Satinder Bindra. “One of many totally untrained journalists I encountered was determined to get closer to the front – close enough to see the Taliban front line. I told him that if we could see the Taliban, they could see us, and they’d shoot – for what purpose? There was no story, no good picture, but because this guy wanted to make a name for himself we all had to follow, just in case.

“Until every single journalist working in war zones has proper hostile environment training, such things will keep happening.”

Dring added that journalists should also be aware of how they behave. An Italian woman journalist was shot dead by Taliban fighters, he said, after getting out of a car wearing no head cover, in skin tight jeans, smoking a cigarette on a Friday - the holiest day of the week.

And Kain, whose company is one of the world’s leading hostile environment training outfits, asked delegates not to forget the people without whom journalists can’t operate in war zones. “The reporter might be able to get away with all sorts of things, but what about his driver, his local fixer and their families? We have a collective responsibility to ensure that those people aren’t exposed to dangers we can walk away from, but they can’t.”