THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA
Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Austria
Opening statement for the
Vienna, 3 June 2002
Secretary General Boutros-Ghali,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Paraphrasing the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, who said, "... whatever fosters peace makes for civilization", I should like to add: whatever fosters dialogue makes for peace.
With this thought I have the pleasure of welcoming all our distinguished guests and to thank you for agreeing to participate in this expert seminar on the role of the media in the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue between cultures and civilizations. I am especially grateful that Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, has accepted to open our seminar with a key note lecture. Also, I would like to welcome most cordially Ms. Concha Fernández de la Puente as the representative of the European Commission, which has contributed generously to making this seminar happen.
The Euro-Mediterranean partnership was launched in Barcelona in 1995. This seminar is a contribution to the Action Programme for the Dialogue between Cultures and Civilisations adopted at the Euro-Mediterranean Conference of Ministers for Foreign Affairs ("Barcelona V") in Valencia in April of this year. With this seminar we continue prior Austrian initiatives to further the dialogue between religions, cultures and civilisations through high level meetings of religious and political leaders, an effort that has become a traditional hallmark of Austrian policy.
The terrible events of September 11th made it obvious to me that we cannot keep this dialogue within a restricted circle of intellectual elites, generating only very little, if any, echo in public awareness.
September 11th has made me see clearly that we have to reach as many people as possible with our message - this is why the role of the media is of such primordial importance.
With our seminar, we also are in keeping with the concept of a Dialogue of Civilizations in the UN framework, an initiative of Iranian President Khatami supported by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and formally launched last year in St. Gilgen, Austria.
Today we take the process one important step further. My initiative, which I have taken together with the Spanish EU Presidency, to organise this seminar in Vienna is, therefore, based on the firm conviction that all political and religious efforts to promote a dialogue between cultures and civilisations must reach out to a wider public and that we have an obligation to give people a fair chance to understand and appreciate different cultures and civilisations. In order to involve our civil societies in this dialogue, we need the media, writers, and poets to help transmit the message of understanding.
Thus, we have invited you here today to discuss the enormous and still growing role of the media and literature in creating and transporting images of different cultures in the dialogue between the peoples from around the Mediterranean.
What we need is a change in paradigms: we have to work for our societies to regard "otherness" not as threat but to accept it as enrichment, not as something to be afraid of but as a chance to cooperate.
In order to achieve that we need understanding. In order to understand each other better, we need dialogue.
Empress Maria Theresa as early as the mid -18th Century realized exactly that, when she created the Oriental Academy in Vienna. She knew that it was necessary to understand the Oriental languages and to study Oriental cultures to find a way of co-existence and interchange. Since then the world has become much "smaller", so to speak, and much more interactive, which raises the important question: Do we have a dialogue strong enough to overcome misunderstandings and prejudice? - The answer is: We are far from it but we know that we have to get there.
I agree with Prince El Hassan bin Talal from Jordan, who said on the occasion of his visit to Vienna a few month ago and who wrote in a recent article for "Die Welt", that we might as well start out by defining what we understand by dialogue.
Dialogue means that we talk and listen, not as doctrinaire missionaries but as partners in mutual respect trying to define, where we differ and where we find common ground in order to improve the lives of all of us. Dialogue is defined our only means of constructively dealing with differences of opinion.
Dialogue has not only to take place between religions and cultures but also WITHIN religions, societies, and cultures. In this dialogue we should not disregard the potential inherent in our religious or ethnic minorities if they are encouraged to take part in it as bridges rather than outsiders. The Christian minorities and the Jewish minorities - for that matter - in the Islamic countries should be such bridges and the other way round. Muslims living in Europe for example can better explain to us what Islam is all about and to their Islamic brethren what Western civilization is all about. Just a few days ago I had the privilege of opening a round table on the dialogue of cultures in Sarajevo, where I could express exactly this sentiment in front of representatives of Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics.
Dialogue finally has to take place between human beings, between individuals, not just between institutions and their representatives. This is exactly the theme of our seminar. It is a task that we all share, governments, religious leaders, teachers, writers and journalists.
The media, as we are all aware, are among the most powerful creators and transmitters of cultural images today. The media are players in the Dialogue between Cultures and Civilisations. This places them in a special position. The answer is not censorship. We also understand that most media are businesses and therefore have to follow certain rules of the market. Only media who sell their product will survive economically and will have an impact on public opinion. But we also recognize that there is an ethical responsibility for intellectual honesty, for truth and for sensitivity to transport valid images and sentences that are not purposefully biased and prejudiced.
And there is abundant evidence that cultural differences can be at the root of bias and misunderstandings. - let me again give you an example from an earlier century how important the role of multipliers is and how easily it can be misunderstood: When Johann Wolfgang Goethe in 1814 published his collection of poems "Westöstlicher Diwan", his contemporaries, who could not immediately follow Goethe''''s intellectual grasp and vast interests, did not quite understand why Goethe praised the spiritual virtues of Islam. They first suspected that he might have clandestinely converted. It took some years for the public to appreciate the value of Goethe''''s efforts to familiarize his readers with another culture that was new to them.
Returning to the 21st Century, the events of 11th September reminded us more than ever of the need for a dialogue.
Of course, we are not naïve: With fanatic, global terrorists - the type of Osama bin Laden - there is no room for dialogue. Such a type of terrorism is tantamount to a declaration of war on civilisation as such and seeks destruction and capitulation, not accommodation or understanding. But there is a wider context with which we are dealing today.
It has become obvious that a common position and policy of the international community against terrorism has to include measures against the image of a supposedly inevitable "clash of civilisations", without denying the role of different cultural images and narratives. These measures can only be realised by taking into account the communication power of the media and by co-operating with the civil society in all states concerned.
Fear, frustration, prejudice, intolerance, hate, violence and terror are first and foremost the consequence of not understanding and of the lack of dialogue. Did the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks of September 11 have an adequate image of the Western world and Western values in mind, when they set out for their monstrous deeds, or had they been manipulated? Are we in the West, now that we have seen the spiteful videos of Osama bin Laden, supposed to think all Muslims think like him? The answers are obvious.
Media images and media presentation of different cultures and civilisations are of course decisive factors for how the public perceives cultural differences. Without them it is impossible to understand. Without them it is impossible to transport abstract concepts that we believe in, such as the universal character of human rights, tolerance, and the respect for cultural, religious and ethnical diversity. They have to become stories that people can relate to.
For this reason education for human rights and for tolerance form an important part of the Austrian agenda. We support tolerance education and training of methods for peaceful conflict resolution in the so-called "Graz Process" in the framework of the Stability Pact for the Balkans. Austria has also instituted training programmes in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League and with Israeli institutions.
Human rights education will also figure as an integral aspect of the "Human Security Network", a group of countries particularly dedicated to creating human security for all, a group whose presidency I shall assume next month at the annual conference of this Network in Santiago de Chile.
Ladies and Gentlemen, let us take the European integration process as an example showing that the democratic management of integration between different cultures may be difficult but is possible. Dialogue and cooperation have helped this continent, whose hatred and conflicts caused two World Wars, overcome these shadows of the past and find a way towards unity. What we Europeans can learn from this process for the dialogue with neighbouring regions is that the values and concepts of one partner will not be imposed on the other by any forceful means. The other experience is that we must not seek advantage in the disadvantage of others, that international relations are no longer a zero-sum game, but that we have to seek our own advantage in the common advantage with our partners.
For a sustainable peaceful coexistence of different cultures in the Euro-Mediterranean area and beyond we have to discuss which measures and activities can be undertaken to strengthen the role of the media in the 27 participating countries to promote understanding between their peoples and to improve their perception of each other. It is time to act now!
So let us use this seminar
- to raise awareness of the significance of images about different cultures
- elaborate ways of how to include the general public in the dialogue
- support media networking, exchange of programs and of journalists
- develop "best practices" for the media in the dialogue of civilizations
- find common "ethical codes" of how to deal with "otherness"
- identify model projects for media activities as part of the dialogue
- discuss ways of making the media dialogue of civilizations durable
To this end we have established for today working tables on "television", "print media" and "literature", which will analyse the role of media in creating and transporting images of different cultures and will propose ways to make better use of media as an effective means to reach out to the general public. Special emphasis will be put on how these communication processes can help to overcome stereotyped images of the "other".
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let us have a look at today''''s world and its conflicts and we shall all appreciate the urgency of the work we are trying to accomplish today: the international fight against terrorism and its causes, the violent conflict in the Middle East, the imminent danger of escalation over the conflict in Kashmir, which should concern us all, the necessity of overcoming the remnants and consequences of ethnic conflict on the Balkan Peninsula, in order to just mention a few, they all remind us how important the Dialogue of Cultures and Civilisations is.
In order to make the dialogue between cultures more inclusive we need the knowledge and skills of the media world. I hope that the following discussions on the objectives and constraints of communicators when they create and transport images of other cultures will help us in all Euro-Mediterranean countries to see chances for new policies and to convince people of a thought of Montesquieu: If you stereotype others, this means you ignore certain things, by doing so you even ignore your own self.