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Empathy, Sympathy and Objectivity

by Dictator Watch Wednesday, Oct. 08, 2003 at 12:35 AM

of global relevance


Contact: Roland Watson, roland@dictatorwatch.org

Please see www.dictatorwatch.org for links to the reports and photography described below.


7 October 2003

(Note: We have posted three summary relief mission reports, with photography, from Free Burma Rangers teams that recently returned from humanitarian missions to Pa-an and Muthraw districts of Northern Karen State; and a full mission report from an FBR team that visited Lahu areas of Eastern Shan State. The second summary report includes information on a seventeen year-old girl who was raped and murdered two months ago yesterday. The Lahu report contains information on a woman who was gang-raped by twenty Burmese soldiers on August 16; intelligence on the narcotics trade; and other information about SPDC human rights abuses, including forced labor and religious persecution.)

This is a follow-up comment to our last press release, in particular its points about media objectivity regarding the crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese dictatorship. We understand that journalists have little empathy for the suffering people of Burma, but we are surprised at the lack of sympathy. Empathy requires shared experience. Few of the journalists who cover Burma are combat reporters, and have faced death and hysteria in the field. Nor it seems have such reporters lost a family member or a close friend to a violent death, particularly a criminal one.

Sympathy, on the other hand, requires only common human sensitivity and understanding. We can all feel pain, therefore, when we see someone experiencing great pain, such as from the loss of a loved one, we can sympathize with it. Or so you would think.

Apparently, this is not the case with many of the reporters who cover Burma (in particular the press in neighboring nations). Sympathy in this case would involve the recognition that the relatives of the victims cannot forget, that to them the deaths of their loved ones cannot disappear as if they had never happened, and that there has to be a balancing act, some day, to yield justice. Sympathy, not to mention objectivity, would also demand that you do not talk to the perpetrators, the murderers, and report their every word as if it were legitimate and unassailably true.

What is surprising, then, is that the latter is exactly what is happening. The obsequious press transcribe every word of junta spokesmen and supporters, they report verbatim the quotes of murderers and their co-conspirators, which comments actually demand the strongest of disclaimers if not open denunciation. This is certainly not justice. Rather, it is complicity.

As for such supporters, diplomats worldwide regularly accept the commission of mass murder as if it were nothing more than a minor negotiation stumbling block. Indeed, mass murder is even viewed in a positive way if the diplomats perceive that it serves their nations’ interests. This certainly holds true with the politicians of ASEAN, for whom the crimes committed by the Burmese generals constitute only barriers to trade. Indeed, the murders and other crimes are themselves viewed as inconsequential, and also fully the prerogative of the illegal military regime. They are only important to the extent that other governments, notably the United States, respond with sanctions and other actions such that trade is disrupted.

This is to be expected. In government in general and in diplomacy in particular, immorality rises up. The least moral individuals regularly obtain the greatest power. An honorable diplomat, or diplomatic honor, are oxymora. But the aforementioned response of the media is unexpected, particularly given their professed objectivity. Perhaps the media have evolved into a form of social government, with the same trend manifested as in politics.

An even deeper question regarding dictatorship and crimes against humanity is: Is “objectivity,” the type of objectivity that grants the words of criminals equal weight to that of their victims, even desirable? Indeed, in many cases the press actually give far greater weight to the words of the criminals, since most of their victims, certainly in Burma, have no voice at all. (For the May 30th Depayin massacre, we still do not even know the “names” of the victims.) In practical terms, the voices in support of dictatorship get far greater airtime and numbers of column inches.

Said another way, we would ask the press: Do you report on the democracy movement, or are you part of democracy movement? What seems to be the case is that you report on the democracy movement, largely from the perspective of the dictators.

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