NZ media falls into the stereotyping trap – again

By Dev Nadkarni

For all its pontificating about media ethics and criticising media practice in the developing world, the west’s mainstream media persists in applying double standards in how it reports and comments on non-mainstream and overseas issues.

The Pacific Islands and Pacific islanders – including those living in New Zealand  –have borne the brunt of insensitive reporting and editorialising along with other migrant minorities for some time. And the trend continues – as two recent instances showed.

Last month a family of Fijian nationals of Indian descent was involved in what appears to be a case of extreme family violence. The badly burned body of the woman was found on an isolated rural road. Investigations found that her husband had fled to Fiji with the couple’s son. Following good coordination and swift action by the Fijian police, the man was apprehended and put in custody.

The New Zealand media fuelled wild speculation around the incident about the act of violence being an honour killing. This has been hyped on such a scale, that the New Zealand Police had to publicly clarify that the crime was being treated as a homicide and not a case of honour killing.

The communication from the head of the investigation team stated, “There has been reference by some media about an ‘honour killing’, I want to reassure our Indian community, Police are investigating a homicide enquiry.

Honour killings are certainly prevalent among the South Asian subcontinent’s communities – and these are reported from around the world from time to time. There have even been successful films based on real life incidents. But not every violent and heinous crime involving women of the subcontinent’s ethnicities can be dubbed an honour killing unless it is proven to be. This is exactly what the New Zealand media did.

Fuelling wanton speculation that this particular case could be one of an honour killing even as the police from the very beginning have been saying that it is being treated as a homicide was therefore insensitive – if not downright mischievous, which it could well be according to a conscientious media insider.

Would the New Zealand media have indulged in similar speculation if the incident were of a more mainstream nature – one that looked, sounded and felt more New Zealand than migrant?

Would reporters have phoned a clutch of experts to ask their opinion and broadcast them linking them to the news story even before the investigations were complete? Would they make speculative assumptions contrary to the investigating authorities’ specified line of inquiry (in which case clearly was stated as homicide)?

Highly unlikely that this would have been the case. Journalistic ethics would have been applied more rigorously – even perhaps with considerations of political correctness.

But honour killings, bride burning and the like is culturally a foreign issue – so it’s okay to speculate in cold print and over the airwaves, as it were. Even when the police say that it is being treated purely as a case of homicide – at least as of now.

Reporters went into overdrive to reinforce the speculation of the honour killing angle and contacted members of the Indian community for their reactions. The exercise was totally pointless. The Sharmas are from Fiji, where there is no record of honour killings in the manner that there is on the South Asian subcontinent.

But that did not matter to the media, which seemed determined to push the honour killing angle and keep talking about it at full blast. Not to be outdone, TV3 roped in Amnesty International to reel off statistics of honour killings around the subcontinent and how the malaise was following migrant settlements across the world.

Every major news outlet played along with the honour killing angle, interviewing ethnic Indian workers of women’s and social organisations to record their general statements about honour killings and linking them to this case.

New Zealand TV channels dropped their reporters parachute style into Fiji as they have done every so often in past decades and persisted with the honour killing spin though by then there was enough being said in other media that the phenomenon did not exist in Fiji.

Writer and Auckland University researcher Ruth DeSouza commented: “The reporting on this deplorable and heartbreaking story of a life brutally taken away resorted too quickly to cultural explanations for the crime.

“This has two negative effects. Firstly, the issue of family violence is sidelined; secondly, a stereotype is reinforced which ‘insider’ commentators have to fight against in order to have such a crime treated based on available evidence.

“Culture becomes something fixed and concrete, the efforts of ethnic community members to address family violence (endemic in every community with subtle variations) is hidden or pathologised. Surely responsible journalism could find out some more about this sad story before reaching for cultural explanations?

“While the desire to seek ‘answers’ after a death like this is understandable, when the media reduces complex cultures to stereotypes, it fails in its mission to inform.”

A veteran journalist who obviously appreciates inclusive reporting and journalism said, “You would be surprised that there is a kind of secret code to dismiss those who say no to the stereotyping. I’m off in a box labeled eccentric cynic. Somehow younger journalists who know this kind of labeling is wrong must be empowered … but [they] cannot fight it [entrenched attitude of their seniors].

A few months back, because of his derogatory remarks about New Zealand’s Governor General and the deliberate mispronunciation of the last name of an Indian minister who was in charge of the Commonwealth Games, the television host responsible had to resign after a raft of complaints to the broadcasting standards authority.

As of writing this, Indian community leaders in New Zealand were in the process of considering options if the reporting in the present homicide case merited another complaint to the authority.

One would expect the media to try to break stereotypes, not reinforce them.

So, in New Zealand, when Indians are not running dairies, liquor stores, driving taxis or cooking curry – and getting mugged or shot in the bargain – they’ve now got a new activity: they’re burning brides and killing for honour.

First appeared in Islands Business, February 2011

WikiLeaks saga far from a David and Goliath tale

By Dev Nadkarni

No matter that most people are wont to debunk them, everyone loves the juiciness of a conspiracy theory. Nearly every major historical event has at least one popular conspiracy theory that fires the public imagination and lingers long enough to form the leitmotif of alternative lore, which manages to cast its telling shadow on some aspects of the generally accepted “official” record.

The assassinations of US presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, the “real” reasons for the sinking of the Titanic, the raft of UFO (unidentified flying object) sightings in the 1950s and 1960s, the moon walk of 1969 and nearer our times, September 11, 2001 – all have the choicest conspiracy theories woven around them.

These theories have been preserved in hundreds of books and magazines – many of them bestsellers no matter how crackpot they may sound – dozens of films and television shows and of course countless YouTube videos and digital files on the internet.

The latest major event to spawn a juicy conspiracy theory is the WikiLeaks saga. Amid reports that catalogued the unfolding of the 250,000-document leak – more a torrent than a leak, really – and their publication by media across the world, a convincing theory, as in the manner of almost all conspiracy theories, has surfaced.

There is a school of thought that believes that the whole WikiLeaks saga was a planned operation of a consortium of the big, bad, super secretive, completely opaque and ruthless, faceless intelligence organisations of the Western world. A ploy to find the strongest possible justification to control the free flow of information in the world via the bugbear of all manner of secrets – the internet.

The argument here is that it would not have been possible for a disgruntled, lowly soldier, now held in solitary confinement in a prison in Virginia, USA, to have had access to such a cornucopia of classified documents on such diverse matters at his station in the Middle East without help from higher officials who were responsible for the secrecy of the documents.

Like the 9/11 conspiracy theories or for that matter even those about the lunar landing and others, this theory too is sure to have its diehard believers and defenders.

The ingredients for a choice, spicily juicy recipe are all there: The internet has grown at the speed of light into an unbelievably big, amorphous beast. In its wake it has dissolved political and geographical boundaries and is all but out of reach of brick and mortar jurisdictional authority, challenging every statute in every country’s ‘book of authority’ as it were.

Like nothing else in history the internet has enabled the convergence of the flow of ideas, two way communication, mass communication as in publishing, sound and visual broadcasting as well as commerce, besides much else in one single handheld device, often independent of location.

The high barriers to the power afforded by the ownership and control over traditional media have not only been lowered but have been destroyed. One does not need to have millions of dollars to become a broadcaster – any blogger will vouch for that.

Why, the man at the centre of the WikiLeaks saga, Julian Assange, is an acclaimed homeless individual with none of the trappings of a traditional media magnate or the halo of a celebrity editor. Suddenly, the individual has been placed on an even keel with traditional big money, big power, big muscle authority.

It is undoubtedly a nightmare for everyone that has something to hide. And governments and politicians everywhere have the most to hide, no matter how much democracy, fair play and transparency they may profess. Doublespeak is the stuff of politics and it is abundantly evident in the leaked documents.

In fact, few of the documents would take the informed citizen by surprise. Journalists, commentators and citizens who follow events closely all along suspected what has been released. For instance, Fiji had been saying all along that New Zealand and Australia were spying on it. That has now been confirmed.

Last year I wrote a piece in a New Zealand newspaper that the US was worried that Pakistan’s nuclear devices could easily fall into the hands of Taliban terrorists who were lurking ever closer to the country’s nuclear installations. The US officially denied this all along saying that the Pentagon was in close touch with Pakistan’s chain of command and there was no question of a worry. The leaks though tell the real story. The US was worried as hell. And still is – as it should be.

So there is every reason for authority to worry about the burgeoning, completely individualised, hard-to-pin-down, on-the-fly power of the internet. It has the potential to leave governments bereft of the clothes they wear, exposing them for all to see. There is a very good case, indeed, to clamp down on it in the name of national interest, sovereignty, security and peace.

Whether the conspiracy theorists are right or wrong in their contention that governments initiated the leaks to gain control of the internet does not really matter. But their belief has a grain of truth and that is what matters – rather disturbingly: we are beginning to see early moves in the world’s governments toward toying with ideas about, yes, you guessed right, regulating the internet.

There have been media reports that the United Nations is actually considering a consortium of an inter governmental working group to “to harmonise global efforts by policy makers to regulate the internet”.

The meeting, which took place in New York days before Christmas discussed the possibility of forming a global body consisting of government representatives to create standards for policing the internet. And it clearly states that this is specifically in response to the WikiLeaks phenomenon.

At first instance, the world appears divided on this. There is one group of countries that is openly eager and another that appears to be more cautious. No prizes for matching the countries to their respective groups. Their reputation – or the lack of it – for upholding liberty, equality and egalitarianism in both letter and spirit is a dead giveaway.

India, South Africa, China and Saudi Arabia seem to rather readily support the idea of a new inter-governmental regulatory body to police the internet. The US, Canada, the UK, Belgium and Australia, as also community and business representatives have raised the cautionary flag.

So, conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Big Brother does want to control at least some of the gates to the internet – the simplest, biggest and most potent purveyor of freedom ever known to mankind.

First appeared in Islands Business, January 2011