Defining role of the press in genocide prevention

Talking about genocide prevention in the shadow of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps brings an intense and unique gravity to the discussions. The academic presentations cannot extract themselves from the looming presence of the barbed wires and grim towers surrounding the Nazis’ most infamous death factory.

How could it happen? What made it happen? How can we make sure today that we would have the right reactions if something similar would emerge? Last week some 25 diplomats from around the world gathered in the small town of Oswiecim, the Polish name of Auschwitz, to find answers to these questions under the auspices of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation and the U.N. Office of Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide. My role was to reflect on the role of the media in covering and preventing genocide.

During all of the somber moments of history, journalism has been put to the test. The Armenian genocide during the First World War was intensely covered by the U.S. and European press. In 1915 The New York Times published an article every two or three days, thanks in particular to the information it received from the U.S. ambassador in Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau.

However, this is the exception that confirms the rule. The first genocide of the past century–German annihilation of Hereros in South West Africa (now Namibia)–was hardly mentioned in the world media. In the early 30s the Soviet-organized mass starvation in Ukraine went mostly unreported, except by Welsh journalist Gareth Jones and Manchester Guardian reporter Malcom Muggeridge.

During the Second World War the Holocaust was buried in most mainstream U.S. newspapers. Why? In 1986, U.S. historian Deborah Lipstadt underlined one of the reasons by giving the title “Beyond Belief” to her insightful essay on the American press and the coming of the Holocaust. While not neglecting the other explanations and responsibilities, she echoed Varian Fry’s famous December 1942 article in The New Republic: “There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them.”  

Four decades later, the world and the press recoiled before another genocide. According to Carleton University professor Allan Thompson, editor of “The Media and the Rwanda Genocide,” there were only two international journalists present in Rwanda on April 6, 1994, when the shooting down of Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane triggered a murder machine that killed close to a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu. In Darfur, 10 years later, most of the media waited until late January 2004 to cover the mass killings committed by the Karthoum regime and its Janjaweed henchmen in the course of a campaign that had begun in March 2003.

In his laudatory blurb to Lipstadt’s book, the late U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston had referred to “the indispensable role an inquiring press must play when human and human lives are at stake.” His remark remains valid today, raising the eternal questions on journalistic neutrality and commitment.

Is neutrality ethically defensible when a murderous regime is slaughtering masses of civilians based on their religious, ethnic, or cultural identities? Years ago, Polish journalist and former dissident Adam Michnik proposed another standard for journalism: “Our responsibility,” said the editor-in-chief of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza, “is to speak with the voice of the victim, not with the voice of the butcher.”

In Auschwitz, many participants agreed that reporting mass atrocities is a commitment. The media cannot passively wait for the event to occur: they must be the canary in the mineshaft that alerts the miners of the impending explosion. They cannot just observe: they must dig and search, like Pulitzer-winning reporter Roy Gutman who in 1993 exposed the Bosnian Serb army’s death camps in Bosnia. They cannot just report: they have to connect the dots in order to provide meaning to the avalanche of facts and data. As veteran journalist and media scholar Malvin Kalb, paraphrasing Elie Wiesel, wrote in his preface to the book “Why didn’t the press shout? American and International Journalism During the Holocaust,” information must be converted into knowledge “crowned with a moral dimension that can be transformed into a call for action.”

But can information really lead to action? Gutman’s exposure of camps in Bosnia is credited of saving thousands of lives by forcing the Bosnian Serbs to close them, but media scholars disagree on the media’s capacity to push for action.

Murderous regimes, however, won’t take any chance. As CPJ research shows, rogue states increasingly want to exclude journalists from the killing fields. By refusing them visas, by bombing Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn or Homs’ makeshift press center, they prove that journalism matters and can be the conscience trigger that shakes the international community from its indifference.