Thursday, 8 December 2005

Chad’s genocide – missed by the media

Masses of information from the media constantly bombard us yet, paradoxically, often the most important goes uncovered. Take for instance, Africa. A country like Sudan suddenly comes under the spotlight. Reports of rape, massacre and corruption in the Darfur region reinforce all the stereotypes about the “dark continent” of savage aliens. And then, just as quickly, Sudan will fall from view.

However, while thousands of refugees from the Darfur conflict have fled to Chad, just to the west of Sudan, this country remains largely off the British and American media map. And so one of the most remarkable contemporary human rights campaigns goes largely unreported in the UK as the Belgium courts seek to try the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for crimes of genocide during his rule from 1982 to 1990 – even in the face of the Belgium Parliament’s decision to repeal its landmark “universal human rights jurisdiction” statute.

Following threats from the United States in June 2003 that Belgium risked losing its status as host to NATO’s headquarters, the 1993 historic law, which allowed victims to file complaints in Belgium for atrocities committed abroad, was repealed. Yet a new law, adopted in August 2003, allowed for the continuation of the case against Habré – much to the delight of human rights campaigners.

And finally last month, Senegal, where Habré has been under house arrest, arrested the former dictator to face an extradition request from Belgium over the genocide charges.

Formerly part of French Equatorial Africa, Chad gained its independence in 1960 and since then has been gripped by civil war. In a rare instance of coverage on 21 May 1992, the London-based Guardian carried four short paragraphs reporting how 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or been executed during the tyranny of Habré. A justice ministry report concluded that Habré had committed genocide against the Chadian people.

Five years ago, in a case inspired by the one against Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet, several human rights organisations, led by Human Rights Watch, filed a suit against Habré in Senegal (his refuge since 1990). They argued that he could be tried anywhere for crimes against humanity and that former heads of state were not immune. However, on 21 March 2001, the Senegal Court of Cassation threw out the case. And so human rights campaigners turned their attention to Belgium where one of the victims of Habré’s torture now lives.

Extraordinary events but all of them hidden behind a virtual wall of silence in the West. Yet also hidden is the massive, secret war waged by the United States and Britain from bases in Chad against Libya. British involvement in a 1996 plot to assassinate the Libyan leader, Colonel Mu’ammar Gadafi, as alleged by the maverick M15 officer David Shayler, was reported as an isolated event. Yet it is best seen as part of a wide-ranging and long-standing strategy of the US and UK secret states to remove Gadafi.

Grabbing power by ousting King Idris in a 1969 coup, Gadafi (who, intriguingly, had followed a military training course in England in 1966) soon became the target of covert operations by the French, Americans, Israelis and British.

Stephen Dorril, in his seminal history of M16, records how in 1971 a British plan to invade the country, release political prisoners and restore the monarchy ended in an embarrassing flop. Nine years later, the head of the French secret service, Alain de Gaigneronde de Marolles, resigned after a French-led plan ended in disaster when a rebellion by Libyan troops in Tobruk was quickly suppressed.

Then, in 1982, away from the glare of the media, Habré, with the backing of the CIA and French troops, overthrew the Chadian government of Goukouni Wedeye. Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame), in his semi-official history of the CIA, reveals that the Chad covert operation was the first undertaken by the new CIA chief William Casey and that, throughout the decade, Libya ranked as high as the Soviet Union as the bête noir of the White House. A report from Amnesty International, Chad: The Habré Legacy, records massive military and financial support for the dictator by the US Congress. It adds: “None of the documents presented to Congress and consulted by AI covering the period 1984 to 1989 make any reference to human rights violations.”

US official records indicate that funds for the Chad-based covert war against Libya also came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Iraq. The Saudis, for instance, gave $7million to an opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (also backed by French intelligence and the CIA). However, a plan to assassinate Gadafi and seize power on 8 May 1984 was crushed. In the following year, the US asked Egypt to invade Libya and overthrow Gadafi but President Mubarak refused. By the end of 1985, the Washington Post had exposed the plan after congressional leaders opposing it wrote in protest to President Reagan.

Frustrated in its covert attempts to topple Gadafi, the US government’s strategy suddenly shifted. For 11 minutes in the early morning of 14 April 1986, 30 US air force and navy bombers struck Tripoli and Benghazi in a raid code-named El Dorado Canyon.

The US/UK mainstream media were ecstatic. Yet the main purpose of the raid was to kill the Libyan president – dubbed a “mad dog” by Reagan. In the event, the first bomb to drop on Tripoli hit Gadafi’s home killing Hana, his adopted daughter aged 15 months – while his eight other children and wife Safiya were all hospitalised, some with serious injuries. The president escaped.

Reports of US military action against Libya disappeared from the media after the 1986 assault. But away from the glare of publicity, the CIA launched its most extensive effort yet to spark an anti-Gadafi coup. A secret army was recruited from among the many Libyans captured in border battles with Chad during the 1980s. And as concerns grew in M16 that Gadafi was aiming to develop chemical weapons, Britain funded various opposition groups in Libya.

Then in 1990, with the crisis in the Gulf developing, French troops helped oust Habré in a secret operation and install Idriss Déby as the new President of Chad. The French government had tired of Habré’s genocidal policies while George Bush senior’s administration decided not to frustrate France in exchange for co-operation in its attack on Iraq. Yet, even under Déby, abuses of civil rights by government forces have continued.

Recently, relations between the US, UK and Libya have thawed, with Gadafi pledging support for the “war against terrorism” and agreeing to pay compensation to the victims of the 1988 Flight 103 Lockerbie bombing, for which a Libyan intelligence agent was jailed. But significantly, at his trial in November 2003, David Shayler was denied the right (under the European Convention of Human Rights) to speak out about the 1996 anti-Gadafi plot. Since it is obvious there are a lot of shady secrets from the years of the dirty war to conceal, such a decision by the court must have come as a relief to the government.

And a report in the Guardian of 15 March 2004 said US troops were arriving in several African countries, including Chad, as the Pentagon warned that the region runned the risk of becoming an al-Qaida recruiting ground. Giles Tremlett reported (“US sends special forces into North Africa”): “…US navy P-3 Orion aircraft guided Chad troops during a two-day battle on the border with Niger last week in which 43 suspected members of Algeria’s Salfist Group for Preaching and Combat were killed.” Oil reserves in North and West Africa are drawing increasing attention from the US. West Africa supplies the US with 15 per cent of its oil while the US National Intelligence Council has projected the figure will grow to 25 per cent by 2015.

Richard Keeble is Professor of Journalism at Lincoln University. His publications include Secret State, Silent Press (John Libbey; 1997), a study of the US/UK press coverage of the 1991 Gulf conflict.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005, 21:20

And so to Manchester University...

And so to Manchester University to give a talk titled “Translation and the Languages of Silence: Newspeak, nukespeak and the massacrespeak of New Militarism” at the Centre for Translation Studies and Intercultural Studies. I look first at Orwell’s newspeak, reminding the audience that one of the major themes of Nineteen Eighty Four is the political role of translators.

In his novel Orwell described a Big Brother state in which the authorities controlled thought and language by inventing a new one – newspeak. Significantly those who translate oldspeak into newspeak play the most crucial political and ideological roles in Oceana constantly re-translating history to conform to the demands of the present.

In the Appendix to Nineteen Eighty Four titled “The principles of newspeak” Orwell wrote: “The purpose of newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” In other words the dominant language served above all to silence all dissident modes of thought. And newspeak was inherently moving towards silence. Newspeak was, in effect, a language in a process of self-disintegration. Adjectives and adverbs were being cut. There was little need for them since almost any adjectival meaning could be arrived by adding –ful to a noun-verb. Thus speedful meant rapid. Adverbs were created by adding –wise - so speedwise meant quickly. And so on.

I then examine Paul Chilton’s concept of nukespeak to explain the specific language of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Chilton made three main claims. Firstly there existed a specialised vocabulary for talking about nuclear weapons together with habitual metaphors. Secondly that this variety of English was neither neutral nor purely descriptive but ideologically loaded in favour of the nuclear culture. And finally that nukespeak was massively important since it affected how people translated their thoughts and feelings about the subject and largely determined the ideas they exchanged about it.

The atomic bombs which fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 were, indeed, weapons of mass destruction. Their deployment represented, according to Chilton, a revolutionary jump in military strategy. And inevitably it heralded a new order of experience in science, politics and everyday discourse.

The names given to these horrific bombs are very telling. They are strangely humanised drawing on familiar parts of our normal everyday lives. The horror is silenced. The Hiroshima bomb was called “Little Boy”, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki “Fat Man”. Edward Teller is known as the father of the H-Bomb.

Finally I examine the dominant (though contested) language of the mainstream media’s coverage of current US/UK military adventures. I argue that US/UK militarism is best understood as having three major strands each of them with a significant mediacentric dimension:

The totally secret activities with no media coverage. This will include the destabilisation by intelligence agencies and covert forces of countries and ruling elites: not just through the CIA but a range of clandestine forces. Other secret activities include the manipulation of elections, assassination of “enemy” military and political leaders, the arms trade, economic sanctions and diplomatic pressures. US covert intervention in Chad during the 1980s (organising two coups in 1982 and 1990 and imposing a series of ruthless dictators on the country) would provide an archetypal case study here.

Low Intensity Conflicts (LICs in the jargon). These are conflicts that are conducted mainly in secret but with occasional brief media coverage. Pentagon adviser John M Collins, in his seminal analysis of the United States’ LIC strategy, isolated just 60 US examples during the 20th century. These included Iran 1951-53, Bolivia 1980-86; Lebanon 1982-84. For the UK, the Irish Troubles/War (1967-1998) has been an archetypal LIC given only spasmodic coverage in the mainstream media. Currently US/UK operations in Afghanistan and Iraq can be defined as Low Intensity Conflicts. Recent massacres of civilians in Fallujah, Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq have gone largely uncovered in the mainstream media.

Finally, manufactured, media-hyped, quickie attacks against puny third world opposition usually largely celebrated by the mainstream press. These New Militarist attacks provide the spectacular theatres in which the US/UK can gain rapid “victories”. Recent examples include 1982 The Falklands; 1983 Grenada; 1986 Libya; 1989 Panama; 1991, 1993, 1998, 2001, 2003 Iraq; 1992-1993 Somalia; 1999 Serbia/Kosovo; 2001 Afghanistan.

And all of these conflicts resulted in massive civilian casualties – though the media represent them as largely “heroic”, “clean”, “precise” and “humanitarian”. Colin Powell, in his account of the 1991 Gulf conflict, estimated that 250,000 Iraqis perished. Thousands died during the Kosovo attacks; many more were traumatised and military sites, broadcast stations, hospitals, homes were bombed. Hundreds of thousands were left jobless. Up to 10,000 civilians died during the Iraq invasion of 2003 with more than 100,000 Iraqis reported killed since May 2003.

Thus the essential function of the mainstream media in New Militarist wars, I argue, is no longer to naturalise and humanise the possibility of nuclear holocaust as during the Cold War but to acclimatise the public to the acceptability of mass slaughters of the nameless “enemy”. In place of nukespeak we have the massacrespeak.

After my talk, Prof Mona Baker, of Manchester University, shows me a fascinating paper she has written on activist translators. She examines the work of committed translators and interpreters in such bodies at Peace Brigades International (, Front Line Defenders (, Babels ( and Translators without Borders (

Baker writes: “Today, the worldwide web has become a symbolic space in which peace activists and marginalised groups who wish to challenge dominant discourse can elaborate and practice a moral order in tune with their own narratives of the world. Translation enables such groups to elaborate their alternative narratives across national and linguistic boundaries.” In other words, Baker is arguing that translators need to translate a political analysis into political activism. I agree. And I incorporate some of Baker’s ideas when I repeat the talk to a meeting organised by the translation department at City University, London, later in the week.

Those interested in seeing the full text of my talk can email me at

Monday, 10 October 2005

Orwell and the secret state: close encounters of a strange kind?

George Orwell, journalist, political commentator, activist and novelist, has always fascinated me. However, his decision in 1949 (just months before he died) to submit a list of 35 names of alleged Communist fellow travellers to the newly formed, top secret propaganda unit, the Information Research Department, has provoked mixed responses from the Left. For many it represents his ultimate betrayal of the cause.

Virtually all commentators assume this was Orwell’s only flirtation with the secret state. On 18 July 2005 the Guardian reported on a newly-released special branch file which suggested Orwell had been subject to surveillance – at least from 1936 (when he travelled north to research The Road to Wigan Pier) until 1942 (when he was working at the BBC). Big Brother clearly took a close watch on Orwell over this period. But, more intriguingly, could Orwell’s own links with the secret state have grown more substantial in later years?

Take, for instance, his reporting assignment on the Continent for the Observer and Manchester Evening News at the end of the Second World War in 1945. The assignment (from 15 February to the end of May) was interrupted briefly when Orwell became so ill he had to enter hospital in Cologne on 24 March. Then he suddenly had to quit the hospital to return to England following the death of his wife, Eileen, on 29 March. By 8 April he was back in Paris, moving on then to Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Austria. These were, indeed, traumatic times for Orwell which makes his completion of the assignment all the more remarkable. In all he despatched 14 articles (each roughly 1,000 words long) to the Observer (though the final two, of 27 May and 10 June, were composed on his return to London) and five to the MEN.

Could Orwell have been on an intelligence mission? He is certainly known to have met in Paris two men working for British intelligence at the time. One of them was Malcolm Muggeridge who introduced him to P.G.Wodehouse. Muggeridge had been assigned to keep a watch on Wodehouse who was suspected of having Nazi sympathies following his broadcast in the summer of 1941 from Berlin for the American CBS network. Orwell had written an article in defence of Wodehouse in February just before leaving for France (though it was not published until July 1945 in the Windmill magazine) and may simply have wanted to express his admiration to the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. Orwell also met the philosopher (and old Etonian) A.J.Ayer, in Paris for the Secret Intelligence Service (M16) who were particularly concerned over the danger of a Communist coup. Ayer’s biographer Ben Rogers records that the two found they shared a devotion to the works of Kipling and Dickens and immediately became friends.

Orwell also saw Ernest Hemingway whom he had previously met in Barcelona during the Spanish civil war. The American novelist, who was serving as a war correspondent and staying at the Paris Ritz, had close links with members of the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA) and his son, Jack, was a member of the OSS. Carlos Baker's account of the meeting in his 1969 biography of Hemingway, based on a letter he wrote to the critic Harvey Breit on 16 April 1952, only adds to the mystery: "Orwell looked nervous and worried. He said that he feared that the Communists were out to kill him and asked Hemingway for the loan of a pistol. Ernest lent him the .32 Colt that Paul Willerts had given him in June. Orwell departed like a pale ghost."

Orwell's possible links with the intelligence service (MI5) were explored in detail by W.J. West in his 1992 text The Larger Evils: Nineteen Eighty Four – the Truth behind the Satire. He reports a "retired CIA officer in Washington" asserting that Orwell worked for MI5 and suggests that he could have developed contacts with Maxwell Knight, head of MI5's Department B5(b) counter-subversion unit and a former pupil of Orwell's prep school, St Cyprian's, in Eastbourne. Yet Anthony Masters makes no reference to Orwell in his 1984 biography of Knight.

The editor of the Observer, and Orwell’s great friend, David Astor, was also deeply immersed in the intelligence world. He served with the Special Operations Executive during the war and thereafter maintained close links with intelligence. Stephen Dorril, in his seminal history of MI6, published in 2000, reports that in 1944 Astor was transferred to a unit liaising between SOE and the resistance in France, helping the French underground in London spread the word to groups throughout Europe. While on the reporting assignment in Paris, perhaps inspired by Astor, Orwell attended the first conference of the Committee for European Federation bringing together resistance groups from around Europe.

Does this point to Orwell’s deeper links with the secret state? I would be interested to hear your views. My analysis of Orwell’s war reporting from a critical journalistic perspective appears in Journalism Studies Vol 2 No 3 pp 393-406.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005, 02:14

Why we have to remove all these meaningless militaristic metaphors

George Orwell was always keen to stress journalists’ responsibility to preserve high standards of English. In a series of celebrated essays he explored the links between politics and language and he constantly used his “As I please” column (a sort of proto-blog) in Tribune to harangue the perpetrators of bad grammar. In Politics and the English Language (which appeared in Horizon of April 1946) he called for an end to “dying metaphors”, “pretentious diction”, “meaningless words” and the jargon of political writing. He wrote: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible…Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” He called for us all to “jeer loudly” whenever we heard or read some “worn-out and useless phrase”.

Today, along with the militarisation of our politics and culture goes the militarisation of our language. Time after time, Fleet Street trots out the dull, all too predictable, unimaginative metaphors of warfare, fighting and battle. And each time we see them we should jeer! Looking at just a recent crop of mainstream newspapers there are countless examples – across all the sectors, tabloid, mid-market and “up-market” and in all areas: sport, politics, business, arts reviewing, travel writing.

Obscenely, the metaphor of “carpet-bombing” (which, in reality, brings such horrific, indiscriminate horrors to so many innocent people) appears everywhere. For instance, in the Independent of 25 July 2005 John Walsh, reporting on a new $100m TV epic in ancient Rome writes: “ …it will invade your living room for 12 weeks in the autumn, carpet bombing British audiences with togas, triumvirates and troilism, backstabbing and betrayal, slavery and sexual excess, in a visual assault rarely seen since , well, since the last episode of I Claudius in 1976.”

Then, in the Independent of 10 August 2005, Michael Harrison reports in the business section on Britain moving away from its “carpet bombing approach” to regulation in areas such as health, health and safety and employment protection. On 14 June 2005 Dominic Mills, in the Daily Telegraph, describes the media strategy behind Crazy Frog “the equivalent of carpet bombing”. In the Sunday Times of 29 May 2005 Kate Butler describes the Bud Rising Festival as “carpet bombing” Dublin’s venues with gigs over seven days. And in his obituary of the Indian film maker Ismail Merchant, Hugh Davies in the Daily Telegraph of 26 May 2005 describes him as “carpet bombing” journalists with invitations to parties. In a profile of the Penguin paperback, celebrating its 70th birthday, John Sutherland, in the Times of 7 May2005 describes the publishing company “carpet bombing” the market with quality goods.

In a review of The Importance of Being Earnest, Robert Gore Langton, in the Independent of 17 May 2005, describes it as a “visual assault on the chuckle muscles”. On 22 May 2005, Tony Glover in the Business, describes Nintendo’s new revolution console as its “secret weapon”. And of Bill Gates Xbox, he says it is “a Trojan horse to invade living rooms and lay siege to the residential telecoms market”.

Similarly newspaper “circulation wars” are everywhere. The Guardian’s Media Monkey Diary of 22 August 2005 speaks of a circulation war of attrition between The Times and the Telegraph entering a new black ops phase. And in the Sun of 13 January 2005, Dr Keith Hopkirk, in talking about blood circulation amongst “blokes” speaks of the “circulation war”.

A headline in the Guardian of 22 September 2005 runs: “Clubs ready for war after RFU votes to withhold tour payments.” And Paul Rees reports: “English rugby was placed on a civil war footing last night. What’s wrong with English rugby was in crisis last night…” In the same issue, Jonathan Watts’ report from Beijing on a campaign against designer drugs is headlined “War declared on designer drugs as Chinese middle class gets high”. On the Guardian’s Financial pages, in a profile of the chief executive of J Sainsbury, the headline runs: “Sainsbury’s chief opens up a new front in the stores war – land”. The headline accompanying the “Notebook” section on the same page is “Europe’s battle of the champions”.

In the Independent of 22 September, Chris Hewett reports that rugby’s management board signalled their readiness to “fight to the finish with the Guinness Premiership clubs” while the headline screamed “RFU declares war on top clubs over player releases”. The Guardian G2 section of 23 September profiles Tom Hunter and carries a standfirst reporting Bill Clinton’s “war on poverty”. The media business section has a headline “Sony fights losses with 10,000 job cuts” while a subhead goes “Electronic arts: A battle on four fronts”. Significantly Sir Howard Stringer, Sony’s chief executive, is quoted as saying: “We must be Sony United and fight like the Sony warriors we are.”

A headline in the Daily Mail of 23 September runs: “Legal aid for travellers in battles with planners” while in the Guardian of 24 September the controversy over a new Nelson Mandela statue in Trafalgar Square is headlined: “Sculptors at war over statue” with a strapline “Gloves off at inquiry into Mandela figure as old rivals clash”.

The 29 September Guardian story about the Education Secretary’s campaign against junk food at schools is headlined: “Kelly’s junk-food war” while a feature in the Femail section on women at work is headlined “Are career women at war?” On October 4, the Guardian’s art critic Charlotte Higgins suggests that “a new exhibition at Tate Britain shows English artists putting up a decent fight against their counterparts in Paris”. On the Guardian2 cover of 6 October 2005 a feature comparing the cultural offerings of the two capitals is headlined: “London v Paris, the art war” And so on and so on. In all of these cases, a non-militaristic metaphor is possible. Only a lack of imagination and a dull conformity to journalistic conventions prevents reporters from searching out the alternatives.

Orwell was always optimistic in his language campaigning. In Politics and the English Language he argued that “the decadence of our language is probably curable” and he highlighted the way in which a few “silly words and expressions” had been discarded from the language through “the conscious action of a minority”. So is it not important now to jeer every time we see a crass, militaristic metaphor -- and work in every possible way to eliminate them from the language? Who’s going to join me?

Friday, 6 May 2005

Interesting to see how the mainstream media...

Interesting to see how the mainstream media constantly reaffirm the myth of al-Qaeda as an organized, international threat to elite western interests. Today (5 May), the media celebrate the recent capture of the Libyan Abu Faraj al-Libbi – and all describe him as number three in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy. This, the media report, is the most important “terrorist” captured since the arrest of the then al-Qaeda number three Khalid Shaikh Mohammed two years ago. Al-Libbi has been accused of involvement in two assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharaff, of Pakistan, in December 2003 and of recently co-ordinating “Islamist” cells in the US and UK.

Predictably, confusion and contradiction dominate the coverage of the arrest. The Independent reports that al-Libbi has been held for the past five weeks and is being questioned by Pakistani and American agents. The Guardian reports he was seized on Monday (2 May) only after a “fierce firefight”. However, Chris Johnson in The Times reports: “Pakistan security forces claimed that they seized the al-Qaeda third in command after a two-day gun battle at a farmhouse in the Waziristan region. In fact, it appears that the chase lasted only a few minutes, as secret agents -- some of them disguised in burkas -- chased the terror mastermind over back walls.”

The Pakistan daily, Dawn, reports Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao telling a press conference that no US agency was involved in the arrest. But the Daily Telegraph reports: “US officials indicated that their intelligence had been involved in the swoop, staged in recent days, which led to the arrest of at least five other al-Qa'eda men in Pakistan's North West Frontier province.” (see

Only the last two paragraphs of the Guardian report dare to raise important questions about the arrest. Unnamed “analysts” suggest that al-Libbi’s importance has been overplayed “to mask the failure of US and Pakistani forces to find Osama bin Laden”. The FBI certainly do not include him on their list of the world’s most wanted terrorists (see

Significantly, these hunches about the shifts amongst the al-Qaeda hierarchy come from prominent politicians and the US/UK and Pakistani intelligence services – all with a distinct interest in promoting the notion of a coherent al-Qaeda threat. But as Jason Burke, of the Observer, writes in Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (Penguin Books 2004: 8): “To see it [al-Qaeda] as a coherent and tight-knit organization, with ‘tentacles everywhere’ with a defined ideology and personnel, that had emerged as early as the late 1980s, is to misunderstand not only its true nature but the nature of Islamic radicalism then and now. The contingent, dynamic and local elements of what is a broad and ill-defined movement rooted in historic trends of great complexity are lost.”

Monday, 11 April 2005

And so to Budapest...

And so to Budapest for an international conference on journalism ethics. We are dropped by the airport bus at the headquarters of the Hungarian Journalists Union and, since we have a few hours spare, walk down the Andrássy út avenue towards the Millennium Monument (built in 1896 to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the arrival of the Magyars in Hungary) at the end. Behind is a park and in the distance lots of Hungarian national flags are flying. Could it be a market? We head off.

But as we approach we see not market stalls but line upon line of tractors, up to 1,000 of them. How odd. What is probably the biggest ever exhibition of tractors doing in the centre of Budapest on a freezing cold March day? We see a massive tent and enter. Inside, hundreds of farmers are busy chatting away; tables are piled high with food; hundreds of posters, newspaper cuttings, slogans and maps have been stuck on the walls.

And the farmers are keen to talk. They claim payments of EU subsidies under the Common Agriculture Policy have been subjected to unacceptable delays by the government. Their patience has run out and so they are striking, setting up roads blocks around Budapest and another massive display of tractors in front of the grandiose, neo-Gothic parliament building overlooking the Danube. Residents of Budapest are sending donations, food and offering them places to sleep at night.

Later on that night, I see the lead story in the English-language weekly, the Budapest Sun, focuses on moves to negotiate a settlement between the farmers’ association and the government. Out of nine paragraphs in the story, only one and a half are given over to the farmers’ case; in the rest government spokesmen are quoted. Interestingly, a quick Google search shows owner of the Budapest Sun is Northcliffe Newspapers, chaired by Lord Rothermere. And the Budapest Sun is just one of a string of media outlets in Hungary owned by Northcliffe.

So I’m left pondering that my stroll down Andrássy út through a chilling March wind has brought me face to face not only with the extraordinary courage of the Hungarian farmers – but also with the importance of challenging the distorted news values of an increasingly globalised mainstream media.

Sunday, 3 April 2005

I see in today's Guardian...

I see in today's Guardian (2 March 2005) a profile of the Bangladeshi reporter Sumi Khan, in this country to receive the Index/Guardian/Hugo Young award for fearless journalism. Recently at Lincoln University where I teach, my students "adopted" three reporters under threat around the globe - and Sumi Khan was one of them. The others were Paul Kamara jailed for writing an article criticising the president of Sierra Leone and Hafnaoui Ghoul, imprisoned in Algeria since May 2004 for criticising local officials. The adoptions followed a well-attended public meeting at the university when Umit Ozturk, chair of Amnesty International's Journalists Network, and Trevor Mostyn, of the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN, highlighted some of the dangers facing journalists who dared to expose corruption.

One of the units I teach is International Human Rights for Journalists. It includes theory, history, contemporary political controversies, human rights legislation, women's and workers' rights, US/UK military strategies and the promotion of "humanitarian" warfare - as well as basic journalistic issues such as privacy, confidentiality, censorship and freedom of expression. .

But it's also important to translate that study into positive action. Hence the letter writing campaign to support jailed journalists.