March 8, 2007

News agencies shouldn’t serve as soapboxes to governments

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You know the adage “there are always two sides to every story”? It’s true for news reporting, too.Last month, news agencies worldwide reported the abduction of an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad. Most agencies’ stories shared a common ground of what, where, when and how. There was, however, some discrepancy about who and why.

It’s widely reported that masked men abducted Jalal Sharafi from his car at gunpoint Feb. 4. Exactly who orchestrated and conducted the kidnapping is disputed by Iranian and U.S. government officials.

While the United States has its hands tied in Iraq, several leaders around the world, including Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been busy asserting themselves on the world stage.

Ahmadinejad has nuclear ambition, he’s flexing his muscles by influencing Middle East politics and he’s not afraid to make nice with opponents of the United States, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Through all this assertiveness, he’s managed to keep a tight leash on the Iranian press. But, in the 21st century, it’s hard to excuse countries as rapidly developing as Iran for remaining in a state of authoritarian news reporting.

Read about Sharafi’s abduction according to the Islamic Republic News Agency, Iran’s official news source, and you’ll find several quotes from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

Mottaki said the kidnapping of Iranian diplomats in Iraq by U.S. troops is aimed to undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and disrupt Iran-Iraq ties. The United States has denied these claims in other publications.

But no rebuttal is given to American officials in the IRNA article.

Read the story on the British Broadcasting Corp. Web site, however, and you’ll hear from more than just one person. In fact, you’ll hear from no less than five, including representatives from both sides.

According to the Islamic Republic News Agency Web site, the agency serves as the “mother source of information dissemination” within Iran.

“The professional activities of the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) are based on and aimed at securing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s national interests,” according to its Web site.

With a goal as plainly stated as this, it’s hard to fault the agency for not presenting all sides of an argument, or even quoting the other side.

It’s no secret there are varying levels of quality in global news reporting; freedom of the press hasn’t yet gained a foothold everywhere.

But, if Ahmadinejad hopes to gain respect for both himself and his people, it would benefit him to explore a more lenient press, a press with less control.

It’s unrealistic to expect a complete transition from the current “mother source” to a free, unrestricted press, but some progress should be made.

The Islamic Republic News Agency isn’t the only news agency covering Sharafi’s kidnapping with bias; on the other side, the BBC is at fault for dedicating several paragraphs to U.S. and U.K. officials, while only minimal space to Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

In the BBC article, a U.S. commander, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Iraqi government are included in the story speaking on behalf of coalition innocence. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mohammad Ali Hosseini is quoted only once.

Governments shouldn’t use the media as a microphone to shout at one another; the media shouldn’t allow itself to become a bullhorn.

If we think of time as a continual march of progress toward something greater, then a free press, or free exchange of ideas, should be a stop along that long road.

All governments and news agencies worldwide should work together to ensure the media are a public forum and not a soapbox.

Managing editor John-Laurent Tronche is a senior news-editorial journalism major from Fort Worth.