Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What's in a name?

You may notice the slight name change for this page. The new name recognizes the fact that I will be leaving Uganda within a month, yet my work in Peace Journalism will continue. In fact, I'll be working in the coming months on PJ projects in South Africa and Turkey.

Did the media inflame violence in the Koran burning case?

This is a difficult conundrum for journalists. Do we ignore actual news in an effort to keep the peace? Do we spin news in a conflict-sensitive way so as to mitigate the harmful effects of what we report? My position is always that journalists should consider the consequences of their reporting. It's our responsibility to be aware of our power to incite violence, and to choose options that give peace and reconciliation an opportunity to flourish. Had I been reporting for an Afghan audience, I would have sought a way to give the story some context--that Jones is only one isolated fool--and to remind Afghans that a violent reaction only discredits Islam in the eyes of some.

Here are three other takes on this issue:

Apr 01, 2011
Should media have reported the Florida Quran burning?
from USA Today By John Raoux, AP

In Afghanistan seven people died today after a demonstration by 2,000 Muslims -- angry that a tiny Florida church burned the Quran -- turned into a deadly attack on a U.N. outpost.

USA TODAY carried coverage of that Quran burning. I wrote about it here and Religion News Service interviewed the pastor Terry Jones. Some of you readers objected: Why give this man more publicity? Ignore him and he'll go away like he did after a massive international outcry last September, people said.

But ignoring news events doesn't mean they don't happen. The Dove World Outreach Center, his miniscule congregation in Gainesville, Fla., has a web site with a photo of a burning book on it. The Agence France-Presse reporter who witnessed the burning in March described people taking souvenir pictures. The AFP story swept the international press and how long do you think it took before photos moved on the Internet.

So, I ask again: Who's responsible for the death in in Afghanistan today? The mob fired the guns but who handed them the ammunition? The news media? Or Terry Jones? And if we had not carried the stories about Jones, would this magically have made the event vanish, too?

Free speech, fighting words, and Koran burning

La Times By Tim Rutten
April 6, 2011

In this digital age, speech has been globalized just as surely as commerce.

That's one of the lessons to be taken from the troubling sequence of events in which a tiny Florida church's distasteful publicity stunt of burning a Koran triggered five days of protest and mob violence across Afghanistan. Through Tuesday, more than 20 people had been killed, and the hand of our Taliban antagonists has been strengthened.

…The American news media simply ignored Jones' crude cabaret of bigotry, but a video made its way onto the Internet. Then, for reasons that remain unclear, Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to let the provocation pass. On March 24, he issued a news release demanding that the United States "bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime." On Thursday, he gave a speech condemning the burning and demanding Jones' arrest.

…Others have raised the question of whether our conception of constitutionally protected speech needs to adjust itself to an age in which words spoken in Gainesville can have deadly impact in Mazar-i-Sharif. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, wants Congress to explore ways to limit now-protected expressions, such as Jones'. "Free speech is a great idea, but we're in a war," he said Sunday. "During World War II, we had limits on what you could do if it inspired the enemy." Graham, who wields considerable influence as a former military lawyer, said he wants to do "anything we can to push back here in America against acts like this that put our troops at risk."

…Others have wondered whether it might be possible to apply the "fighting words" exception to the 1st Amendment to cases such as Jones' stunt, which seemed almost certain to provoke a deadly response half a world away. In its 1942 ruling in Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire, the U.S. Supreme Court defined that exception in a way that could be construed to cover Jones' desecration of the Koran:

"There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include … 'fighting words' -- those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality."

…The issues raised by these events are not a challenge to our conception of free speech, but to our collective conscience. The question that ought to be asked isn't whether the wretched Jones' repellant theater is protected speech, but why the United States continues to produce as many people who speak and act as he does about Muslims?

Koran burning coverage troubling

Marty robbins, guardian/uk, 3 april, 2011

…It's troubling to see the sheer amount of exposure Jones and his followers have been given over the last several months (which of course I'm ironically contributing to here). If some daft bugger burns a Koran in the forest, does it matter? Probably not, but Terry Jones, cutely-described by the Telegraph as, "a homophobic used furniture salesman with a love of controversy," is no ordinary daft bugger; he and his glorious silver moustache are a global media phenomenon.

The legend of Pastor Jones is to a large extent a creation of the media (both traditional and new-fangled), fuelled by perhaps ill-advised comments from political figures who saw fit to wade in. While his 9/11 Koran-burning stunt in the words of the Washington Post "started with a tweet" last July, it was endless saturation coverage of his threat in more established media that propelled him to international celebrity.

…It would be silly to claim that the media hold responsibility for the killings of the UN staff; but on the other hand it's tempting to fall towards the conclusion I clumsily articulated yesterday, that providing Jones with such a powerful voice may have been a bit of a reckless thing to do – even if, as is probable, Jones was really just a convenient pretext for violence that might have happened anyway.

…Journalists cannot be assigned direct guilt for the actions of fundamentalist militants, suicidal fugitives or misguided parents; but they ought to have the awareness to stop once in a while and consider what the impact of their stories will be, and what public interest they serve.

…Thankfully, mainstream coverage of Pastor Jones and his gang had died down this year until now. A question journalists, editors and bloggers might want to ask themselves before writing more about Pastor Jones' increasingly transparent attempts to provoke outrage is this: what public interest is served by giving such a prominent platform to the bigoted ramblings of a minor Pastor and used-furniture salesman; what exactly, beyond sensational spectacle, is this coverage designed to achieve? How much coverage is too much coverage?

There probably aren't any definite right or wrong answers, but ultimately book-burning isn't a big deal unless people choose to make it one.

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