James Rodgers (rodgersjamesm) wrote,
James Rodgers

Making a difference

What do you hope to achieve when you tell your story from far away?  Do you just want to let people know what is happening there? Do you hope your words or pictures can change something? Do you seek a sense of achievement? All of these, and others too? 

These were the questions I asked myself as I watched "Through the Looking Glass: The Andijan Massacre" at a screening at Chatham House.

The film (see a trailer here) was made by Monica Whitlock. As the BBC's Central Asia correspondent, she reported on the killing of hundreds of protesters in Andijan in Uzbekistan in May 2005. Shortly afterwards, the Uzbek authorities told her to leave the county.

Her film makes the case that, more than five years after the shootings, they are more relevant than ever. It is a determined attempt to place back on the international news agenda an incident which is now rarely discussed. One of the main interviewees, Shamsuddin Atamatov, who now lives in Sweden, was present at the screening. 

I asked Mr Atamatov why he had decided to take part. "Thousands of people came out on the 13th May 2005," he replied, through a translator. Mr Atamatov was one of a number of local businessmen on trial for alleged links to a banned Islamist movement. The protesters had been demanding the businessmen's release from jail. An armed group  - whose precise identity remains unclear  - eventually set them free. Uzbek security forces subsequently opened fire on the crowds which had gathered in the city's main square.  "I think it was my duty to tell their stories of what happened then, and what is happening now," Mr Atamatov explained.

In doing so, he was potentially putting friends and relatives back in Uzbekistan at greater risk - although, as Monica Whitlock pointed out, earlier silence on the events of May 2005 had not protected those suspected of involvement.

But his decision contrasted with that of others in fear for their safety. I remember a Palestinian family, living near a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, and in the firing line from the watchtowers which protected their neighbours, politely refusing my request for an interview because "journalists have come here before, and things didn't get any better."

In other words, unlike Mr Atamatov, he had no hope that reporting an injustice might end it. And, given that the Uzbek authorities comprehensively crushed internal opposition five years ago, any substantial change in the situation there - and the fate of those who were involved in the protest - would have to involve international pressure.

Since the days of William Howard Russell in the 1850's, there has been a debate over the extent to which journalism can influence foreign or defence policy. The issue probably reached its height in the Vietnam War. There is still no consensus over whether the reporting caused the people of the United States to question the war, or whether the reporting instead reflected doubt entertained in top level military and diplomatic circles, rather than creating it. 

While governments may be moved to speak in response to reporting of injustice, they will only act according to their interests. British talk of "ethical foreign policy" in the late 1990's rang hollow with those of us who covered  the war in  Chechnya. Durng the decade after the end of the Cold War, the west was so keen to support a President, Boris Yeltsin, whom it viewed as an ally, that his faults were ignored, to the cost of countless civilian lives. No one was going risk a confrontation with Russia for their sake. 

The best reporting of conflict and oppression can change things. But, like the grimly realistic Palestinian I spoke to near Netzarim, we have to accept that the world is not always like that - and our power as journalists is limited.      
Tags: international reporting policy

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