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Cutting through the brush – and the bullshit – with On The Media

President George W. Bush and I don’t have much in common. We do share a hobby, however – cutting brush. According to Lisa Rein in the Washington Post, the President uses a chainsaw and burns the resulting piles. I use a machete, a bowsaw, and have started using my truck and a towchain to pull out particularly recalcitrant stumps. The President maintains his 1600 acre ranch, removing cedar and mesquite to create nature trails and open space for his wife’s collection of native grasses. I’m maintaining roughly 1.5% as much land, and I’m currently trying to reclaim enough space from the goldenrod and staghorn sumac so I can plant apple trees.

I would guess that we both cut brush because it’s neccesary, because it’s fun, and because it’s surprisingly meditative.

According to Rein, the President wears earplugs while cutting brush, an excellent safety precaution, since he’s using a chainsaw. (It’s also an excellent method to avoid hearing any dissenting opinions about brush cutting, foreign policy, constitutional law, etc.) I cut brush while listening to the Red Sox and to On the Media, a brilliant weekly radio show produced by WNYC in New York. I had a backlog of OTM this weekend, and spent three blissful hours straining my muscles on Saturday and stretching my mind.

One of the pieces that caught my attention was a report on “Musekeweya”, a radio soap opera produced in Kigali by Hutu and Tutsi radio actors, with support from Dutch NGO Radio Benevolencija. Musekeweya is a Romeo and Juliet story, a tale of love between a man and woman from different villages which are perpetually on the verge of war. (The show’s name is a Kiruanda word that means “new dawn”.) While the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” are never mentioned in the show, the show is clearly a parable about the genocide that nearly destroyed the nation in 1994. It’s enormously popular in the country, enjoying an audience of almost 90% of radio listeners, and appears to be providing a way to discussing issues that are otherwise difficult to discuss in Rwandan media.

“Love in the Time of Reconciliation”, July 6, 2007 – On the Media

There’s a lot of optimistic stories about Rwanda these days, observing that the nation is making strides in rebuilding, rebranding and maintaining stability despite poverty and underlying tensions. Few of these stories talk about the fact that this stability is maintained at the cost of multiparty democracy and a free press: the Kagame government is accused of jailing or exiling critics, especially those who complain that Hutu are underrepresented in the current government. A media law against “divisionism” allows for five-year prison sentences for publishing material likely to provoke ethnic division… which makes it very difficult to discuss underlying tensions that still effect the nation. But Michael Cavanaugh’s story for OTM is remarkably critical of the speech environment in Rwanda, ending with the observation, “And as long as the government muzzles the press and exiles any opposition, it’s left to fictional dramas like Musekeweya to let R talk about the mistrust that still divides them without directly talking about it.”

OTM’s insistence on finding the free speech/free press angle in reporting leads to some interesting confrontations in a recent show on Russia. The show’s co-host and editor Brooke Gladstone spent two weeks in Russia talking about the media environment with opposition figures, mainstream media hosts and Russians she meets in cabs and cafés. The picture that emerges is far more complicated than you’d expect from a crusading program encountering a hostile media environment. In Gladstone’s interviews, it becomes clear that a media environment that allows exposure to Western media and culture is seen as far more open than media in the former Soviet Union, and that this relative openness might be sufficient to satisfy much of the population. Figures in the opposition who are recognizable names in the US are considered extremely marginal by many of the Russians she interviews – she asks her cab driver what he thinks of Gary Kasparov, the chess grandmaster who’s become an anti-Putin activist, and he quips that he always thought Karpov was a better player. Whether these figures are marginal because they’re kept off the airwaves by government policy and pressure, or whether they’re simply outside of the mainstream of Russian thought is unclear.

Gladstone’s interview with Vladimir Mamontov, editor in chief of the pro-government newspaper Izvestia (linked above) is absolutely priceless. Mamontov insists that major newspapers in all countries are pro-government, and opens the possibility that, some years after competitive multiparty democracy takes hold in Russia, it might be time for an ideologically diverse media. When Gladstone challenges him on freedom of the press, he’s got a wonderful response:

I am sometimes smitten by your Western self-confidence. You are somehow sure that everything you say, all the values you propagate, be they true or false, are ultimately good and indispensable for everyone. But, my good friends, it’s so much not right. I’ll re-iterate. It’s not true.

There are different civilizations who created their own values, and Russia is one of them. You can’t point to us which freedom is more important and to which extent it has to be presented. We might as well figure it out ourselves. We do not ever try to dictate to you the rules of the game. This problem is actually at the root of everything else. Gentlemen, just let us have our own values. Do not put this mercy on us by force, as you do in Iraq and Serbia. Whenever the due progress is not achieved, you use your military force, bombs, air force. Why don’t you start with yourself and deal with your own Bush?

Everybody says Russian journalists are in danger, but look at what’s happened in Iraq. How many journalists and people were killed there? Thousands of people have been murdered. Why were those people killed? What did they suffer for? In fact, they suffered for democratization—according to the rules you consider to be superior and true. Fantastic, fantastic.

Mamontov isn’t quite as provocative as Alexander Prokhanov, who identifies himself as a Stalinist, who believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union constrained his freedom as a writer, and who has very little sympathy for the plight of liberal critics of Putin:

…there was a time when Garry Kasparov was a welcome visitor at all the channels and my absence did not bother him. It doesn’t even bother me that during the dissenters’ march the police clubbed Garry Kasparov’s allies. It doesn’t bother me at all, because at other times my friends were beaten nearly to death during our rallies. They shot at us from tanks and machine guns, and people like Garry Kasparov never bothered to stand up for us.

Fascinating stuff, well worth listening to. I have only one complaint about the show. Gladstone characterizes Russia as “the most dangerous place in the world to be a reporter, after Iraq.” That’s not quite true. That unfortunate distinction goes to the Philippines, where reporters exposing corruption in local politics are often subject to violent reprisals. Violence against investigative reporters in Russia is notable because it seems to be closely linked to the central government. But would be worth looking closely at the dangers that come from local reprisals in the Philippines, and I hope OTM will consider a show focused on that nation soon… perhaps in cooperation with the remarkable folks at the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism.

While we’re on the subject of nations that are hostile to an independent media, it’s worth paying some attention to the trial of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy members in Ethiopia. 38 members of CUD, an alliance of political parties that’s challenged Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s EPRDF party, are being charged with a variety of crimes, including “outrage against the constitution” and armed rebellion. These charges stem from protests against the rigging of parliamentary elections in 2005, where the CUD, supported by a large number of students, took to the streets. Some of the CUD protesters began throwing stones. According to an independent judicial review, Ethiopian government forces “massacred 193 protesters”, shooting live ammunition into the crowds.

The Zenawi government considered the protest to be “treason” and “incitement to genocide – two ludicrious charges that were later dropped – but now the CUD organizers are now being threatened with the death penalty for their “crimes”. It’s worth noting that several of the 38 are journalists who’ve been detained for their criticism of the ruling party. Zenawi claims that the journalists, “became part and parcel of the day-to-day preparation for the insurrection after the elections.” Anyone want to sponsor On The Media to head to Addis Ababa next?

3 thoughts on “Cutting through the brush – and the bullshit – with On The Media”

  1. It is really a sham what is happening in Ethiopia. The country where there is only one television and few radio stations that controlled by Zenawi government. I love freedom and democracy. In my understanding democracy mean every people in the country to get access to the information’s about what their government internally and externally doing. As well many other things. I don’t think the Ethiopia people getting the information they need even this generation where there are a lot of communication medium. It is really abstract, we live in twenty first century but stuck to solve these problems. How will solve this obstacle the Internet or mobile?

    Thanks Ethan for other great post.

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