“Asians?” The very suggestion of such a simplistic grouping was laughable to the reporter from China Radio International. And sure enough, the East Asia Journalism Forum erupted soon afterward at a proposal to highlight “Asian values” in its resolution to expand regional cooperation among journalists in the interest of peace.
What did the term mean? Some suggestions came from the floor: An emphasis on group goals instead of individualism? A focus on widening areas of agreement, rather than fighting over details? The use of chopsticks at meals instead of forks and knives?
Over and over, the U.S. delegation to the East Asia Journalism Forum was reminded that “Asia” isn’t a monolith. While the geographical region shares much in the way of history, religion and culture, its diverse peoples can’t be lumped together as if they shared the same vision, problems or goals. Yet this is exactly what Western journalists tend to assume when we parachute in with little knowledge of the areas we are covering, complained our counterparts from Korea, China, Singapore and other countries.
“For more balanced and just reporting by American journalists, there should be a better knowledge of Asian countries,” said Somsanouk Mixay, vice president of the Lao Journalists Association. The key is “cultural intelligence,” said Shin-Chin Lim of the Singapore National Union of Journalists – that is, reporters must describe events within the context of differing languages, traditions and values.
The reports on the struggles and priorities of journalism in each country made this point clear. For example:
• Tran Thi Hien, speaking on behalf of the 13,000-member Vietnam Journalists Association, described the role of the press in Vietnam as actively propagandizing and helping to popularize party and government decisions and policies.
• The media in Singapore sees itself similarly, said Shin-Chin Lim of the Singapore National Union of Journalists. “The press has to stand squarely with the government in its prescription of medicine to treat the body politic’s economic ills,” he said. “In informing and educating the public, the newspapers also seek to inculcate the values and beliefs promoted by the state.”
• In stark contrast, the practice of journalism in the Philippines is vibrant, freewheeling and aggressive, highlighting “calamities and disasters both natural and man-made,” reported Jose Pavia from the National Press Club of the Philippines. It is also quite dangerous. Forty-two journalists have been killed since 1986; six of them in the past year alone.
• Laotian journalists support government initiatives to eradicate poverty, fight AIDS, and raise awareness about drugs by reporting on their successes as well as their shortcomings, according to Somsanouk Mixay, vice president of the Lao Journalists Association. “Though most of the media belongs to the state, journalists do not hesitate to criticize what is wrong,” he said. “Officials recognize that criticism from the media, when just and constructive, has greatly helped the government reorient some policies.”
• Since Mongolia became an independent nation in 1991, journalists have struggled to establish their role, reported Dongor Tsendjav, vice president of the Confederation of Mongolian Journalists. An open press began serving as a government watchdog, but soon reporters were writing unsubstantiated stories and violating the right to privacy, he said. In May, his organization adopted a code of ethics, recognizing that “freedom is always accompanied by responsibility. For the press, that responsibility is to the public and to society.”
While the journalists at the forum pledged to expand their professional cooperation toward the goal of building peace between their respective countries, they also acknowledged their differences – as journalists, and as individual cultures. If we are to present an accurate picture of events in the region, their plea to be seen as unique and diverse countries and peoples must be recognized by Western media as well.
Sally Lehrman is a freelance writer in California and chair of SPJ’s Diversity Committee.