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The Media – a Hostage’s Friend or Foe?

The story of The New York Times journalist David Rohde’s escape from his captors in Afghanistan raises interesting questions about the role of the media in hostage takings. As has been widely reported, the major media outlets displayed a high level of solidarity by keeping mum about Rohde’s capture for 7 months. By resisting their natural urge to report the hostage taking of one of their peers, the international journalism corps honored the request of Rohde’s family and The New York Times not to make the story public.

Some commentators refer to this “media blackout” as a mere case of “professional courtesy.” They point out the double-standard of journalists seeming to be more concerned about a hostage’s safety when the victim is a member of their own profession. At the same time, they freely report on the hostage taking of aid workers, soldiers, or tourists.

The intriguing question here is, however, did this “media blackout” strategy work in Rohde’s case? We have no way of answering this question. After all, Rohde did not get released. He escaped his captors.

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Global Media Forum Day 3: Serious Games

GMF public in the plenary hall / photo: Cristina Viehmann, ISN
GMF public in the plenary hall / photo: Cristina Viehmann, ISN

Ever since the earliest of ages, the human being has been a player. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga knew what he was writing when he entitled his 1938 book “Homo Ludens“.

Huizinga defines the conceptual space in which play occurs. And some of the serious games today create the virtual universe in which conflicts occur.

There is nothing you cannot make a game about. What is a game, after all? To create a game, you just need a topic and a virtual universe. You then put people in it and assign them tasks.

Combining virtual experiences with the act of reporting games can be a way of representation. Take Dafur is Dying as an example. And yes, Darfur is a special case because coverage is there, but we do not know why so very little has happened.

When it comes to serious conflict gaming, a big question remains open: How do we deal with the exposure offered by such interactive games?

Global Media Forum Day 1: First Encounters

Global Media Conference poster in Bonn / photo: Cristina Viehmann, ISN
Global Media Conference poster in Bonn / photo: Cristina Viehmann, ISN

Once the capital of West Germany, the city of Bonn appears unexpectedly modest and tranquil today. However, some converted official buildings and the placards reminding of the 60th anniversary of the Federal Republic do actually bring back the city’s important steps in Germany’s democratic history.

Despite its apparent modesty, what Bonn represents today is a perfect conference city. Exempli gratia, more than 4,000 participants are meeting these days in Bonn for the Climate Change Talks.

These talks are taking place very close to the World Conference Centre, hosting the 1500 participants that have registered for this year’s Global Media Forum. (Just as a side note: I was told by one of the organizers that 1500 will unfortunately not be the real number of participants. Numerous registrations from African countries were more of the fictive kind, since visas were only accorded to the very few.)

My first insightful encounter was with the people from U-Media, a Ukranian Internews project. Internews is an NGO fighting for the independence of information by empowering local media. As for U-Media, its goal is to develop a more robust media sector that works to serve the interests of independent media in the Ukraine.

U-Media staff explained how difficult it is to attain such a goal in country whose economy is about to fall. And yes, the good news is that bad media – as they call it – is disappearing. But the bulk of the biased media is not – it remains in the hands of oligarchs. As for the support of new media, it is very hard for U-Media to make its way through in a country with an internet penetration of only 22% (you can compare it to the 53.9% in the neighboring EU member country Romania.)

Like the USAID-sponsored Intermedia, the Thomson Foundation trains and supports journalists throughout the world. With the Thomson Foundation representative I discussed the case of Mizzima.com, the New Delhi based news agency run by Burmese people in exile offering coverage on the country. A Deutsche Welle reporter for Hindi told us about his idea of India supporting Mizzima to establish a rebel radio for Burma.

Many ideas in the air, as you can see. Looking forward to the conference itself and to more encounters tomorrow.

BBC Monitoring @the ISF

Kris Wheaton is an assistant professor of intelligence studies at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania and is attending the 8th International Security Forum going on now in Geneva.

Mr Wheaton is also a prolific writer, posting his thoughts and tips on intelligence and international security at his blog, Sources and Methods. He has kindly allowed us to crosspost his liveblog entries from the ISF.


BBC Monitoring headquarters / photo: robinhamman, flickr
BBC Monitoring headquarters / photo: robinhamman, flickr

I had a chance to visit with the good folks at the BBC Monitoring booth at the ISF conference. For those of you unfamiliar with BBC Monitoring, they are the branch of the BBC that acquires and translates raw news and other reports from around the world.

They have been doing this since 1939 and made their intial fame in WWII translating German news broadcasts. Since then, they have grown substantially and now provide translation services in over a hundred languages through their subscription service.

I had the great good fortune to be asked to give a speech at the BBC Monitoring HQ (see image to right) a number of years ago and, as a result, I got a chance to actually see their operation. It is quite impressive. They pull in info from all over the world and rapidly and professionally translate and distribute in whatever form you want.

Conceptually, at least, it is pretty straightforward and simple. What makes BBC Monitoring different is that they are so frightfully good at it. Want an example? Check out their case study of last year’s Georgia crisis.

Related Posts:
Live-blogging The ISF!

Liveblogging the ISF

Kris Wheaton is an assistant professor of intelligence studies at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania and is attending the 8th International Security Forum going on now in Geneva.

Mr Wheaton is also a prolific writer, posting his thoughts and tips on intelligence and international security at his blog, Sources and Methods. He has kindly allowed us to crosspost his liveblog entries from the ISF.


Kris Wheaton / photo: Sources and Methods
Kris Wheaton / photo: Sources and Methods

All this week I am in Geneva, Switzerland attending the International Security Forum (ISF). The ISF is a biennial conference designed to discuss “ways to increase communication and cooperation between institutions engaged in research related to international security worldwide.

The conference this year has a strong (for me, at least) intel orientation. The theme is “Coping With Global Change” and the whole first day will be dedicated to the question: which new challenges are looming over the horizon? (Uhhh…that’s our job, isn’t it?)

The conference has a really interesting line-up of speakers and panels. For example, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martti Ahtisaari, and Deputy Director for Energy and Environmental Security in the Office of Intelligence and Counterintel at the Department of Energy, Carol Dumaine, will make two of the keynote speeches.

I am here as a guest of the wonderful people at The International Relations and Security Network (ISN) and The Center For Security Studies CSS, two of the many sponsors of the forum. My own modest contribution to the event is a short presentation on “Open Sources And The Death Of The Intelligence Cycle” (Yes, you read that right — death. And if it is not dead yet, by the end of my presentation, people are going to want to kill it…).

I am going to lug my computer around with me and see if I can do a bit of live-blogging. I will probably not be able to cover most of the panels as Chatham House Rules are in effect but, as with all good European conferences, there are lengthy coffee and lunch breaks and I may be able to corner a few people and capture their insights for you.

As always when I cover these type events, if you look at the schedule and see something or someone interesting, drop me a note or post a comment and I will try to sit in on the presentation or get a few words with the speaker, at least.