Amb. David Newton, Middle East Institute

Every great information or communication advance in history has been seen in its time as furthering education a benefit that has certainly proved to be correct. These advances, such as printing, the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, television, the computer, and the internet, however, were in large part also touted as promoting understanding and even peace.  In some cases one could argue a benefit.  A government could use the media to help defuse s crisis, as the Kennedy administration did during the Cuban missile crisis.

At other times the media could be misled by an administration into promoting a war as happened over the largely fabricated Tonkin Gulf incident in Vietnam or the false arguments for war against Iraq in 1993.  If the media’s responsibility to report the news accurately and objectively is paramount, must the media also ask themselves what the consequences may be for such reporting?  Given the present rapidity of communication and the perception that dramatized news sells, there seems to be little appetite for withholding or de-sensationalizing information even in times of war or near war.  Additionally we have seen two negative developments in the United States in recent years, despite the undeniable benefits of the information revolution: the increasing partisanship reflected in the media means prejudices are reinforced rather than reduced and a flood of unverified statements and deliberate misinformation has muddied the public’s efforts to learn.  It is hard to claim, therefore, that technological advances in the media by themselves promote peace. The close relation between the media and the promotion of peace is focused much more closely in radio and TV international broadcasting.  Major reputable broadcasters, BBC being the best known, follow high standards of journalism in avoiding often inflammatory misinformation.  In doing so, they also advocate through their type of reporting universal values such as democracy, human rights, and economic freedom.  I am most familiar with the organization I worked for from 1998 to 2004 as director of Radio Free Iraq, namely Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty.  While broadcasting in local languages to countries where free media are banned or significantly limited, RFE/RL also tries to strengthen civil societies, combat intolerance, promote understanding, and serve as a model for local media. I believe that such efforts are fully compatible with objectivity.  In the case of Radio Free Iraq we gave highest priority to tolerance, bringing all ethnic and religious groups on the air whenever possible to encourage peaceful outcomes.  Most recently, RFE/RL, which already broadcasts to Afghanistan in its two major languages, has just begun to broadcast in Pashtu to the Swat Valley, the Northwest Frontier Provinces, and Waziristan of Pakistan in the cause of peace.  Even if the media cannot by themselves stop violence and war, they give support to those local forces trying to do so.

About the author:

David Newton: Currently an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. He returned to the United States at the end of 2004 after having served for six years in Prague as the first director of Radio Free Iraq. Shortly before that appointment he had retired from a thirty-six year Foreign Service career (living twenty-two years in the Arab world), having served as ambassador to Yemen (1994-97) and as the first ambassador to Iraq (1984-88) following the resumption of diplomatic relations. Other Foreign Service tours included deputy chief of mission in Yemen and Syria, political counselor in Saudi Arabia, and Department of State assignments as director for Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, as Near East division chief in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and as economic officer for the Arabian Peninsula. In 1993 he headed an inter-agency delegation to Jordan to deal with the effects of the Iraq sanctions. From 1990 to 1993 Ambassador Newton was international affairs advisor and chairman of the national security policy department at the National War College, also doing extensive public speaking and working during Desert Shield/Desert Storm with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency on Iraq, for which he was commended by President George H.W. Bush and JCS Chairman General Powell. In February 1998, immediately after Foreign Service retirement, he was appointed a special envoy for public diplomacy, traveling to twelve Arab countries to explain U.S. policy on Iraq to the media and the public.

The Role of the Media in Promoting Peace

I would first like to express my appreciation to the Rumi Forum for inviting me to address this significant forum examining the role of the esteemed thinker and educator Fethullah Gulen.  I come here as a practitioner with a long history of government service, mainly as a diplomat and a journalism manager.

Over this long career I came to the conclusion that if there is any chance to make the world a better more peaceful place, something that diplomats do try to do, then the most important human value that one should try to promote is tolerance.  All too often during my career I found that instead intolerance was driving events.  Indeed there is no shortage of that vice in our own country.  This conclusion has led me to value in particular the work of the Gulen movement, a truly moderate and tolerant movement doing much valuable work, in my opinion a model for Muslims everywhere.

I chose to talk about the role of the media because in my own diplomatic career I did a good bit of work with public diplomacy, working twenty-one years in five Arab countries.  Then in my second briefer career I was responsible for starting up and running Radio Free Iraq, a service that became part of the fifty year old tradition of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

Turning now to the subject of my talk, I would have to say that the media in a sense have been with us for half a millennium, if one wants to start with the printed word.  They are directly connected to the great communications inventions: printing press, telegraph, radio, TV, and now the explosive and still unimaginable spread of the internet.  Each of these inventions in its turn was touted as a great advance of civilization, heralding a new era of peace and tolerance.  I think of Edward R. Murrow and his hopes for TV.  Would that it were so!

There is no denying the great benefits brought by these inventions, but they have not lived up to their billing.  One could argue in fact that they have as often been used as a means to spread intolerance, violence, and even war.  One could cite over history the role of the printing press in contributing to the Thirty Years Was, the telegraph in stimulating the Franco-Prussians War (Ems telegram), and the American entry into World War I (Zimmerman telegram), William Randolph Hearst’s use of the press to drive us into the Spanish-American War, and Hitler’s masterful use of the radio to create support for his invasions.  I myself remember in June 1967 hysterical appeals on Egyptian and Yemeni radio, calling on listeners to destroy, maim, and kill.  Now in Afghanistan we are witnessing a repeat of an experience from the Burundi genocide: use of FM radio to identify specific victims to be killed.

I do not mean to suggest that the media do not also promote worthwhile values.  Radio, TV, and the internet are unparalleled as educational vehicles able to reach large numbers of persons.  While we ourselves have seen in recent years the growth of programs designed more to reinforce existing prejudices, often with distortions or even falsehoods, there are many examples in the national media that inform, educate, and stir cultural thinking.  National Public Radio, the Christian Science Monitor, and even the often maligned CNN, which a recent analysis pictured as squeezed between MSNBC on the left and Fox on the right, come to my mind.  I’m sure you have many others.

Because, however, we are focusing today on media and peace we should really look at the international media that have a wide reach, especially radio and TV.  But we also have to realize the admirable effect that the internet is having in gravely weakening the control of authoritarian regimes over information content.  This change has provided a much more fertile environment for radio and TV to exploit.  I would assert that, in their operations, promoting peace and tolerance is not incompatible with providing objective and balanced information to listeners.  One can encourage universal values such as security of the person, political participation, human rights including women’s rights, and uncorrupt free economies without professing a bias toward the specific policies of any outside national ideology.

Such was my experience running Radio Free Iraq, since we operated within the Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty tradition as a so-called surrogate radio that is broadcasting in Arabic as an Iraqi radio, with no mission to defend America or its policies.  We covered U.S, news only as it related to Iraq.  I confess that we had to fend off some pressure to support the runup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but we had the law and fifty years of RFE/RL tradition on our side.  All the language services of RFE/RL have long known that propaganda must be avoided at all costs for the simple reason that it will alienate your audience almost overnight.  Incidentally RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi broadcasts in Pashtu and Dari to Afghanistan and is the leading foreign radio in the country.  It has just begun also to broadcast to Pakistan’s Swat Valley, Northwest Frontier Province, and Waziristan in the local Pashtu.

If you will forgive me I will read in part the RFE/RL mission:

Provide objective news, analysis and discussion of domestic and regional issues.

Strengthen civil societies by projecting democratic values.

Combat ethnic and religious intolerance and promote mutual understanding among peoples.

Provide a model for local media, assist in training, and develop partnerships with local media outlets.

Foster closer ties between countries of the region and the world’s established democracies.

I have used RFE/RL as my example because I know it well.  I recognize that there are other equally praiseworthy international broadcasters promoting peace and tolerance, most famously BBC, but also the Voice of America.  I also recognize that these are Western stations and that there can be cultural variations in the principle of objectivity.  In the Arab World Al-Arabiya and Aljazeera strive for the same standards with some cultural differences.  For example Arabs often see American practices minimizing pictures that show the gory side of war as a deliberate attempt to sanitize views of wars in which we are engaged; Americans tend to see the much more lenient Arab views of using such pictures as a political message.

In summary then, in my view the media per se are not necessarily a force for peace.  It is rather the content that provides the message, whether of tolerance and peace or intolerance and war.  It is thus our responsibility as media users to support those media elements which promote the values which make a better world and discourage those elements which take the easier and often more profitable route of pandering to our darker side.