Geopolitics


Homes effected by the flooding that began last month in North East Brazil. Photo courtesy ofhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

Homes affected by the flooding that began last month in North East Brazil. Photo courtesy ofhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

 

Earlier this month North East Brazil experienced a series of extreme flooding events which have displaced thousands of people. In the last few decades remote cities like Salvador, in Northern Brazil, have felt the effects of climate change with increased intensity and frequency of flooding. This latest episode has taken a heavy toll. Thousands of people have been made homeless by days of heavy rainfall and there has been a heavy death toll due to collapsed houses, fallen trees and landslides. During this flooding event new media platforms, such as Twitter and the blogosphere, took centre stage as information disseminators for flood victims as well as keeping the rest of the world up to date. This example feeds into current theories that have stipulated the importance of new media during environmental hazards and other tragedies. New media, due to its immediacy and user generated contact, is quickly taking over from many mainstream media platforms in times of crisis.

Climate change in Brazil…

Firstly, lets put climate change in Brazil into context. Some critics argue that Brazil is just not properly prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change and does not have an efficient national climate change policy. In many areas of rural Brazil climate change is taking its toll. For some, whom it has rendered landless and homeless, the impacts are even worse than the current economic crisis. Whilst in urban areas shoddy buildings and inadequate planning regulations mean that flooding effects penetrate infrastructure and can destroy whole towns in one go.

This comes after new research has revealed that fiercer storm surges and extreme weather conditions brought on by climate change will claim the most land in Latin America than in any other continent. See here for the full report. Economists at the World Bank’s, who carried out the research say worsening weather threatens 52 million people and more than 29,000 square kilometers of agricultural land, across the globe. Mexico and Brazil, with larger coastal zones than other countries in the region, are predicted to suffer from the most severe coastal inundation.

Despite these ongoing threats from nature and repeated warnings, the media affords climate change little coverage.

Widespread flooding began in North East Brazil in April and has displaced thousands of people. It is thought this due to the increased impact of climate change in Brazil. Photo courtesy of http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

Widespread flooding began in North East Brazil in April and has displaced thousands of people. It is thought this due to the increased impact of climate change in Brazil. Photo courtesy of http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

Brazilian bloggers…

Brazilian blogs have played an integral role in covering of the flooding and getting information out to the wider population where it would other wise by impossible. Facebook, Twitter, You tube and the blogosphere have played a key role in disseminating information on the number of victims and how to assist those who needed help. Liberdade Digital (Digital Freedom) called for more help from social network users to spread information about the situation and ask them to help flood victims: “If you have a blog, a website, a mailing list or if you are a member of a social network, do pass this information on.” Whilst one local journalist took interactivity to a new level. Sarita Bastos published a map on Google Maps showing the most badly effected areas. Others internet users then updated the map with their own local information. The end product has been a community resource that has aided the local population with recovery from flooding.

The power of the Twitteratti…

In Salvador, Twitter took centre stage by giving detailed accounts of what was happening in the city day by day and at a mush faster rate than other media platforms. This contrasts greatly with the role played by mainstream media and especially commercial television who gave only brief and superficial news reports and whose news agenda was dictated by scheduling and advertising. Cottle and Nolan (2007) argue that this is the very nature of mainstream media; ‘the media spotlight is apt to roam from one disaster to another and does so in a competitive environment informed by the pursuit of readers, ratings and revenue.’

Mainstream media are only interested as long as it makes exciting news. This emphasises the importance of the role played social networking sites in news dissemination and cyber-activism. They are bottom up and participatory platform allowing everyday people, affected by these issues, to control the news agenda.

One blogger comments that: “there’s no doubt that the coverage via Twitter was the best about the tragedy in the city of Salvador.”

André Lemos, Communications professor at the Federal University of Bahia, reported the experience as an “alternative media show” and as a “sample of how mass media is losing influence” in his blog:

 “I went to look for some news on local online newspapers but I didn’t find anything very… informative. I gave up on it and came back to Twitter, much more deep, fast and detailed.’

One last point…

There was a clear lack of interest in this event from the rest of the country. Here in the West, if it wasn’t for the internet, and blogs especially, we would never have heard about these problems. This is again due to the differing controls and agendas of mainstream and alternative media platforms. Cottle and Nolan (2007) effectively sum up the fact that geopolitical issues dictate news agendas. Disaster reporting is all about focusing on ‘home connections’ and regionalising stories. If there is no cultural connection with an event then it goes unreported. People are left to fend for themselves and often lack the support needed for recovery from natural disasters. This is what has happened here in North East Brazil .The rest of the country and continent just aren’t interested as it does not affect them and for many climate change is old news and dull. Beck (1999)  has argued that climate change reporting focuses upon dramatic impacts at the expense of useful information and such ignorance increases the environmental risks. This perhaps reiterates the importance of new media platforms and user generated content in the future for environmental and disaster reporting.

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Gisele Bundchen in the America Express (RED) campaign to help eliminate aids in Africa. Photo courtesy of http://www.joinred.com/Learn/Partners/AmericanExpress.aspx

Gisele Bundchen in the America Express (RED) campaign to help eliminate aids in Africa. Photo courtesy of http://www.joinred.com/Learn/Partners/AmericanExpress.aspx

In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, the partnership between humanitarian agencies, like Red Cross and Save the Children, and the media is of paramount importance. These NGOs use communication strategies and marketing to raise awareness of their cause and ultimately to raise funds. Cottle and Nolan (2007) argue that this has resulted in many NGO’s seeking to ‘brand’ themselves and use celebrities and personalised media packages to gain media attention and further their cause. Their article titled ‘Global Humanitarianism and the Changing Aid-Media Field’ looks at the pros and cons of this new strand and strategy of global aid media. They conclude that these developments (branding and increased reliance on global media) are threatening the ethics of global humanitarianism.

It is now worth analysing this ethical argument and posing the question: are aid organisations now ‘selling’ suffering to satisfy the news agenda of the media at the expense of the respect and dignity of the affected people? Is this a typical example of the ends justify the means or just ‘the pornography of suffering?

Many NGOs are now spending huge proportions of their budgets on expensive media campaigns and courting celebrities instead of focusing on the real causes and effects of poverty. The media has a ridiculous penchant for the ‘celeb’ and aid agencies are playing up to this:

‘Until you’ve got a celebrity or a photo worthy person up there to sell it…then its going to be a steep hill.’ (Public affairs officer, Save the Children 2007).

The work of Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen – the so called lady of charity – is a perfect example of this new media logic at work. Her image has been used to lend support to a number of humanitarian causes. In a campaign for HIV/AID’s sufferers in Africa, her face appeared on American Express Red card, an initiative by U2 front man Bon and Bobby Shriver, in which some percentage of money earned from the credit card’s transaction went to support African’s victims of HIV/AIDS. She has also appeared naked in a recent ad campaign for a Brazilian eco-charity. She is well known for her support of charities that protect the Amazon rainforest , such as Nascentes do Brasil, ISA, Y Ikatu Xingu, and De Olho nos Mananciais. She posed clad only in leaves on the cover of US magazine American Photo to promote her Forests of the Future project for the reforestation of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. The initiative, which was set up with SOS Mata Atlantica in 2004, has planted over 1 million new trees in Bundchen’s name to start reforestation of the Brazilian rainforests. Bundchen has also donated $150,000 to Brazil’s Zero Hunger program.

The Red Cross in Latin America has also recently joined up with Sony Erikkson to promote their cause and aid communication. Their moto is now ‘when there is a human need to communicate Erikkson is here.’

Of course I am not criticising the charitable work done by these celebrities and companies and I just highlighting the often hidden problems or by-products that they create. Aid organisations do need the media promote their cause but in my opinion this obsession with the celebrity is taking too many resources away from actually physically helping people, distorting the goals of many agencies and leading to an over-reliance on media practices. A quick analysis of the new rhetoric emphasises the shifting agendas in aid media. The word ‘brand’ highlights the increased use of corporate promotion and marketing principles and the integration of NGOs into the corporate world. Jobs Selasie, head of charity African Aid Action has gone as far as saying that campaigns led by Bono and Bob Geldof have actually made problems worse in Africa by increasing corruption and dependency.

Beck (2005) argues that humanitarian agencies are actually playing a leading role in defining a new global social landscape. They are the leading players in connecting the poorest people in the third world with those in the developed world. How is this done? Through sophisticated television campaigns and the dissemination of images and ideals through new media. In this way the media act as a bridge between the first world and the third world. Cottle and Nolan contend that a new ‘media logic’ has emerged with inherent contradictions within it; NGOs need the media to bring public attention and support to global humanitarian issues but in order to attract this support they use communication strategies which detract from their original purpose. Funding is being focused in the wrong places.

In my opinion this new media logic is counter-productive. Media organisations seek to provide video images of the latest unfolding humanitarian disaster and deliver it to the global media to satisfy their appetite. ‘Everyone was dying for footage’ – those were the mis-chosen words of a communications manager of an aid agency referring to the media’s clamourings for footage and not the vitcims of the last humnaitarian disasters. This powerful highlights the now distorted focus of these agencies.

Images are becoming more sensational and more graphic. They flood our television screens. We’re constantly being told by Bono or Gisele Bunchen or some diamond earring wearing footballer, that we can end this suffering with just two pounds a month. This commercialisation of suffering has in some ways had an ironic side effect; many people simply change the channel. They’ve seen it all before and have become de-sensitised to death and suffering Branding has depoliticised development.

President Chavez presenting 'Alo Presidente'. His programmes are notorious for spoteneity and longevity - He once talked for more than eight hours non-stop. Photo courtesy of - http://www.alopresidente.gob.ve/

President Chavez presenting 'Alo Presidente'. His programmes are notorious for spoteneity and longevity - He once talked for more than eight hours non-stop. Photo courtesy of - http://www.alopresidente.gob.ve/

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been celebrating this week as his television and radio program ‘Alo Presidente’ marked its 10th anniversary. The program, which goes out live every Sunday, is watched by both supporters and opponents of the Chavez regime. The show involves the unveiling of new policies, retorts to criticisms, lambasting foreign and opposition leaders, live phone-ins from a carefully selected audience and even celebrity guests. These guests have been as diverse as Diego Maradona and Danny Glover to a live phone call to best chum Fidel Castro. It has become an arena for Chavez to strengthen his loyal support base and further manipulate the power of the media for his own gain. He has truly developed the Chavez ‘brand’. The BBC’s Will Grant sums up the programme aptly:

 “Whether Venezuelans dismiss Alo Presidente as a crude propaganda tool or consider it the best thing on television, the programme looks set to remain on air for as long as Mr Chavez remains in office.”

Others have not been so diplomatic and reiterate the idea that television can be a top down and elitist medium used by dictators:

‘Chávez will go down in history as one of the major operators of a media outlet invented for dictators, that is, television. The stages in the short and violent life of the media are becoming distinct. And after the era of the press and the movies, beginning with the 1940’s, the era of radio and TV started for 55 years. Perfect tools to prevent the message from returning and allow the transmitter to speak to the entire world with no answer: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin.’ (Antonio Pasquali, communication theorist – see here for the link)

This all comes after fresh concerns from United Nations (UN) and Organisation of American States (OAS) officials that Chavez’s government is threatening free speech and intimidating the media. It’s all part of a long running battle between Chavez and the private media whom he seeks to control. The government is currently ‘investigating’ a leading anti-government television station; Globovision TV network is being accused of “media terrorism” by the government who claim that they incited panic and anxiety in its coverage of a minor earthquake on May 4th. It would seem that the station did what a credible media establishment should do – tell the facts and give a balanced account of the event. By openly criticizing the government for its slow response to the quake they’ve now been branded as ‘media terrorists’. Globovision is now the only anti-Chavez channel left on air as the rest have been intimidated into submission by arrests, revoking of licenses and raiding the homes of television executives.

Chavez has now imposed sanctions against the network. Frank La Rue of the United Nations, who monitors freedom of speech warned that these kind of actions “generate an atmosphere of intimidation in which the right to freedom of expression is seriously limited.”  Chavez’s retort was somewhat predictable. He accused the UN of having a media imperialist agenda and imposing the will of the West on Venezuela.

Chavez came to power in 1999 and his regime has been met by both adulation and loathing at home and abroad. Venezuelans remain split on their president: some say he speaks for the poor and is a man of the people whilst others fear he is becoming increasingly autocratic. A referendum in February 2009 saw the people vote for a change in the constitution allowing Chavez to run for office an unlimited number of times. It would seem ‘Alo Presidente’ might be around for another decade. This latest erosion of civil liberties and crack down on the opposition highlights the power that Chavez exerts over the media in Venezuela. He crushes any stations that criticize him and uses his own dedicated and thoroughly self indulgent Television programme as a blatant propaganda exercise.

Media ethics in the third world - a tough balancing act? Photo courtesy of: http://www.pjreview.info/issues/11_02_05.html
Media ethics in the third world – a tough balancing act? Photo courtesy of: http://www.pjreview.info/issues/11_02_05.html

The journalists’ role in developing countries is complex and contradictory. There is a set of universal principles of journalism which include freedom of expression, objectivity, truth and social responsibility. There is controversial debate surrounding the question as to whether these principles, code of ethics and professional ideology inherent in western journalism actually translate into practice for the development journalist in the third world, where conditions are very different. According to Musa and Dumatob (2007) in post colonial societies there are tensions between social responsibility and journalistic principles and the practicalities of implementing these principles. For them development journalism is distinct from other forms of journalism; professional values of development journalism do not align with the western model.

What is a development journalist? A simple question but extremely hard to answer. Are they truth tellers? Civic advocates? Liberators? Watchdogs? Government propagandists? The truth is they still aren’t sure themselves:

“Development journalism eschews a dogmatic adversarial posture toward government…it doesn’t require journalists to become lapdogs” Musa and Domatob (2007).

They argue that a balance needs to be found between these two extremes. Sooner or later development journalists need to decide what role they want to play and stick to it. Is there a need for a re-examination of media practices for the third world?

The media as a lapdog?

As Latin American countries gained independence their leaders saw the media as an institution that could and would play a salient role in fulfilling development goals and national building (Schramm 1964).  Media is still seen as an instrument of modernisation imposed by the west as development journalists are expected to partner with the government in a drive to improve socio-economic conditions for the people. Conversely in developed countries the media emerged as part of the economic structure of these countries.

The media as the peoples’ advocate?

To return briefly to the argument of Musa and Domatob, they stipulate that development journalists can take on the role of ‘peoples advocate’ – giving a ‘voice to the voiceless’. Latin America boasts a plethora of examples of the ways in which development journalists have empowered the marginalised and raised indigenous issues onto the governmental agenda. “The People’s Radio” of Vila Nossa Senhora in Brazil powerfully illustrates Musa and Domatobs’ argument.

Vila Nossa Senhora Aparecida today - photo by Vitor Rodrigo Dias courtesy of http://images.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://www.panoramio.com/photos/original/7173268.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.panoramio.com/photo/7173268&usg=__D9VJTPrbs_g3-LNQq4wnw3YQx8A=&h=1536&w=2048&sz=795&hl=en&start=2&tbnid=11NDGQqrifwWDM:&tbnh=113&tbnw=150&prev=/images%3Fq%3DVila%2BNossa%2BSenhora%2BAparecida%26gbv%3D2%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DG

Vila Nossa Senhora Aparecida today - photo by Vitor Rodrigo Dias courtesy of http://images.google.co.uk/imgres?

This community radio project was established on outskirts of Sao Paolo in the 1980s by migrant workers to provide them with the means of receiving information about government events; radio was also used as a medium through which they could voice their concerns and initiate debate. TV programmes were westernised in outlook and portrayed industrial southern Brazil and its relatively affluent lifestyle as the true urban Brazil. This image attracted rural populations in their droves and ultimately led to problems with integration and identity for these once subsistence farmers. The radio project was inspired by the use of loudspeakers as popular radios in Villa El Salvador on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. The station was set up using a basic tape recorder, amplifier, microphone and loudspeaker wired to the church tower and transmission was over an area of 3 km. The broad aims of the station were to use the oral medium as a vehicle for mobilisation and empowerment.

‘In Shanty towns nobody knows how to read…people have an aversion to paper’ (Sao Paolo News 1986).

Radio reiterated the importance of the oral culture for rural migrants and overcame the hurdle of illiteracy. After the success of this project 19 sister stations sprang up across the region under the umbrella of the ‘Project for Non Written Communication of the Eastern Zone’. The group developed communication and technical skills at a grassroots level, ideas were exchanged between communities and locally produced programmes and audio visual materials were made. A news group was created to read daily papers and journals as well as providing a critical commentary on them. Schelling (1999) describes this as the development of a ‘new communicational order’ where communication is participatory, two way and dialogic. The poor were not seen merely as receivers of information but producers of it.

The results of this communication network are far reaching. Firstly radio played an educative role by raising awareness of social and political issues and providing basic information to help the community. It also created a sense of community and celebrated the values of rural culture for these migrants.

Secondly it created a culture of resistance by giving these migrants the power to resist marginalisation and push for development from below. This is an example of how the ‘radio’ can be a double edged sword for the development journalist. Empowering the masses also politicises them and can ultimately lead to rebellion. This brings me back to my first point that the development journalist is stuck in the middle of the government and the people unsure of who he/she is serving. On one hand the development journalist is partnering with the government to disseminate its literature and publicise its events. On the other by educating workers about their rights and providing them with civic media tools they are breeding discontent and workers begin to demand justice and equality. This inevitably means that authoritarian governments will limit work like this as it threatens their own power systems.

Projects such as the ‘Peoples’ Radio’ have developed from the belief that Latin America needed to follow an alternative route of development that reflected its historical, social and economic identity. Today most Latin America post-colonial societies are experiencing waves of democratisation with communication at the centre. Globalisation is constantly changing and re-defining the roles and impacts of development journalists. The question is how will they adapt to these changing landscapes and best serve both the government and the people?

Can they find the balance between working with these new governments to aide development and becoming their lapdogs and propaganda tools?

 With so many competing interests, contradictory principles and unforeseen effects of reporting it’s proving a challenge.

In his article headed ‘Chavez taking Venezuela out of poverty into the space age’, May 4th, Juan Pedro Zapato wrote that Venezuela is at ‘the forefront of cutting-edge technology and advancement.’  He predicts that under Hugo Chavez, Venezuela is becoming ‘one of the super powers in technology in the western hemisphere.’

He has the facts to back this up too.  In January, Venezuela sent its first satellite into space. In a few weeks Venezuela will be selling its first cellular phone, the Vergatario, and producing up to a million phones a year. And who could forget Chavez’s present giving and hand shaking with President Obama last month marking in his words a ‘move forward in having better relations with the new government in the United States’.

So it would seem that Chavez is using the media and new technology to propel his country to the forefront of development in Latin America. Chavez’s form of socialism marks a general shift in the Latin America continent towards the left. However Chavez is a hugely polemic figure…an icon and liberator to some and a dictator and tyrant to others. For many, articles like this are just another part of the Chavez propaganda machine.

The state propaganda machine...Chavez Memorabillia including Chavez as Superman T-shirts and Dolls. Photo courtesy of http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/blog/blog.aspx?id=506

The state propaganda machine...Chavez Memorabillia including Chavez as Superman T-shirts and Dolls. Photo courtesy of http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/blog/blog.aspx?id=506

Venezuelan Cartoonist Roberto Weil uses his cartoons as a social commentary for the events unfolding in his country. He’s equally as sceptical about this unlikely new global friendship…See here for latest cartoon.

Cartoon by Roberto Weil - Obama, Chavez and Facebook. This mocks the unrealistic warming of relations between Venezuala and US over night. Photo courtesy of http://devilsexcrement.com/

Cartoon by Roberto Weil - Obama, Chavez and Facebook. This mocks the unrealistic warming of relations between Venezuala and US over night. Photo courtesy of http://devilsexcrement.com/

Some interesting blogs about the Chavez effect and Venuezuala more generally…

http://devilsexcrement.com/

http://liberal-venezolano.net/blog/en/

Since Cochabamba’s water war, the issue of water and access to it has gained attention on the international stage. Bolivia forced water privatisation as well as water scarcity onto the international agenda. Fortune magazine declared that water is the oil of the 21st century whilst Barnett (2001) anaylses the implications of these environmental securty threats. For many authors water scarcity is the proverbial spark that starts the metaphorical Middle East bonfire. In a region which is extremely arid, with existing ideological, religious and geographical disputes, combined with water scarcity, the result is one of the most volatile situations in the world. This begs the question – Is water a basic human right to be provided by governments through the public sector or is it a commodity to be sold by big business?

Whatever your view it is clear that water is set to be a major source of conflict across the globe. The environmental literature is replete with dire predictions of water wars. The water wars thesis is simple; water is distributed unevenly and, as population grows and the climate changes, it is increasingly in demand and will cause violent conflict. The potential for violence is extremely high as like most things, whoever control water wields the power. Bolivia has faced a series of crises over water and it is somewhat depressing to acknowledge that in the aftermath of the 2000 Cochabamba water wars, thousands still do not have access to clean water. The debate rages on…is water a commodity or basic human right? I think morally we all know the answer to that one.

So is conflict inevitable and perhaps exacerbated by the effects of climate change?

Barnett (2001) argues that the environment-conflict thesis is a product of the Northern security agenda premised upon geo-political issues. It is often only concerned with resources of economic value rather than the reality of environmental degradation and the welfare of those in the developing world. In other words the north constructs an eco-centric outlook of two worlds to suit its own agenda. The south plays the psrt of the primeval Other who needs the north to maintain order. Bascially the West just simply aren’t interested in the plight of Bolivia because it has no resources that they need.

However there is no escaping from the fact that in many area resource wars are a reality whether their seriousness is exaggerated by the West or not. Homer-Dixon (1991) contends that the geopolitics of environmental problems, their transboundary nature and the geographical misfit between resources and national boundaries,  means that sometime soon the North need to sit up and take notice. Many countries throughout Latin America are teetering on the edge of environmental conflict.