After the U.S. fades, wither human rights?
The shrinking of U.S. power, now pretty much taken for granted and in some quarters relished, may hurt news coverage of human rights and the uncovering of abuses to them. But not necessarily. Journalism is showing itself to be resilient in adversity, and its core tasks – to illuminate the workings of power and to be diverse in its opinions – could prove to be more than “Western” impositions.
When the British Empire withdrew from its global reach after the World War Two, the space was occupied, rapidly and at times eagerly, by the resurgent United States, at the very peak of its relative wealth and influence in the immediate postwar years. What it brought with it was a culture of journalism that was increasingly self-confident in its global mission: not just to describe the world, but to improve it. Some European journalism had that ambition too, but these were nations exhausted by war. The Americans, at the peak of their influence in the postwar years, had the power, wealth, standing and cocksureness to project their vision of what the world should be.
Now, American power too will shrink, and the end of U.S. hegemony (it was never an empire in the classic sense) will mean that there will be a jostling for power, influence, and above all resources by getting-rich-quick mega-states like China, India and Brazil. They will project their view of what the world should be — they have already begun, some (China) more confidently than others (India, Brazil).
Whether this will mean that the illumination of the workings of power around the globe will be better or worse will be one of the large themes for journalism of the next decades. In his The World America Made, Robert Kagan thinks, by implication, that it could be worse, because he believes the U.S. did most for human freedom round the world and a loss of American power means a threat to the protection it offered to democratic change. He writes that “perhaps democracy has spread over a hundred nations since 1950 not simply because people yearn for democracy, but because the most powerful nation in the world since 1950 has been a democracy.” I think he’s right in this, and that his “perhaps” is pretty definite. And if he is right, it means that the impulse to probe and expose will be weaker.
The U.S., however imperfectly, often hypocritically, and at times mendaciously, nevertheless possesses a default mode in favor of freedom and human rights. So do the European states. But though the European Union is more populous and has a higher GDP than the U.S., it’s disunited and likely to stay that way. So the decline of the U.S., even if it remains only relative rather than absolute (as Kagan believes), is the important issue. It could mean that the narratives of human rights, told by Western governments, by NGOs and above all by journalism, will become fainter.
Western journalism has developed human rights, and their abuses, into one of its major themes. Where the “something must be done” approach to issues was once largely confined to domestic matters, it is now writ globally. Western journalists, especially those from Anglophone countries, feel empowered to report and comment critically on the authoritarian and despotic policies of every country everywhere – the more so since the end of the Cold War meant that the pressure from Western governments to soft-pedal the abuses of tyrants who were on our side was no longer felt in the editorial offices.
The journalism of human rights was often valuable and sometimes influential, making abuses known and getting something done about them. Behind it, though unacknowledged for the most part, was Western, mainly American, power. Western reporters and columnists could take these stances because they had the moral backing of the most powerful nation on earth and its European allies. And sometimes, when they got into trouble, the governments of these states would intervene to try to get them out of it (not always successfully). The clout that the New York Times, the BBC, Le Monde – or, for that matter, Reuters – can exert is partly due to the ideals they espouse, partly underpinned by the global power of the West, with the U.S. ever in the lead.
When the SARS epidemic was suppressed by the Chinese authorities in 2002-2003, the brave efforts of the Chinese media to cover it (and they did, against threats and even imprisonment) were greatly assisted when Elizabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times picked up the story and her paper put it on the front page, shaming the regime. The struggle for free speech and free elections in China waxes and wanes, and it may be that over the next decade, there will be more openness. But if there isn’t, and China’s power puts the U.S. in a greater shade, China’s journalists will have an even harder job than in the recent past.
Western journalism, which has itself been hegemonic for many years, will face greater challenges from states and their media that reject the human rights narrative – or at least, use it selectively. It’s already happening: The new, global TV channels sponsored by states like China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela spend much of their time trashing the Western media’s coverage of their states. Their common approach can be summed up by the remark of Jesus in Matthew, chapter 7: “You hypocrite, first cast the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the mote out of your brother’s eye.” Or more simply: What makes you Westerners so great? (It isn’t the British tabloids.)
The difference between the state-sponsored journalists and the majority of the Western ones is that the latter, for good or ill, are acting independently. We really do think abuses of human rights are bad things everywhere and that common standards should be applied to them. The arguments between state-sponsored journalists and those who have some sense of professional independence are a dialogue of the deaf: If they continue, we get a spiral of incomprehension and contempt.
There is another possibility, though. Almost everywhere in the world, there are journalists who get it – get, that is, that independent journalism’s claim must be based on an attempt to tell the same kind of truths to all kinds of power. If a Chinese reporter does some good reporting and analysis on the fact that the U.S. incarcerates one in four of its young black male citizens, because he sees a problem in that, we should attend to his or her reportage as much as anyone else’s. If however the piece is thrown together to divert attention from the allegation made this week by Amnesty International that China executes “thousands” of criminals, then we shouldn’t.
My belief, from talking to journalists in Russia, China and India over the past few years, is that in all of these countries there is a growing core of reporters and editors who interpret their job as something of a moral duty and believe that independence and freedom are required to do that. Achieving that independence and freedom will not be easy, and will certainly not be safe. In the West, journalists who expose human rights abuses win awards and better salaries. In China they can go to jail. In Russia, they can get murdered – as was Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, after a decade of fierce reporting from the killing grounds of Chechnya. She is only the most famed tip of an iceberg.
But in spite of that, my bet is that many of these men and women will carry on. They do see in Western reporting – especially investigative journalism – a model and seek to learn from it. But they will fashion their own tools to tackle the job they have set themselves. There is much in their societies – poverty, misuse of power, corruption – that demands the exercise of rigorous reporting. And as they do that, and as the power of their societies grows, they will become more confident – on their own professional account – to make judgments about the behavior of Western states as well as their own.
When they do, they will see a lot of motes in our eyes. We should then have a dialogue where both listen. And that will be good for us all.
PHOTO: Security officers stand guard at the foot of the stairs to stop journalists, whose names are not on the list of attendees allowed into a news conference by China’s Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, during the ongoing National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s parliament, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 9, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Lee