All the news that’s fit for us not to read

The conflict in Chechnya receives very little coverage in Australia. AAP

The rules of being a conflict reporter are largely unchanged and very simple. According to Fairfax’s correspondent, Paul McGeough: “You’ve got to get in. You’ve got to get the story”.

The present uprising in the Middle East is a timely reminder of the importance of Australian journalists covering international conflict in an industry that is chronically under-resourced.

Two genocides, the Holocaust and East Timor, illuminate how mass murder can be concealed without foreign access to the frontline and by the indifference of some media organisations.

Although the tendency to value Western media perspectives above the insights of citizens living under dictatorships is problematic and our faith in media power can be inflated, without international media attention, genocide and the abuse of power can continue unmonitored.

While the Holocaust still captures the media’s imagination; it had not always been the case. Since the end of World War II, there has been widespread conjecture about press complicity in exposing the persecution and ultimate murder of the Jews and other minorities.

There are numerous reasons why the accounts were not prioritised by the Australian press: the demands of covering a world war; failure to grasp that the brutal persecution had extended to a systematic policy of mass murder with a view to exterminating the entire Jewish race and the Jewish plight was considered another story of wartime suffering, often incorporated into other accounts of killings in Nazi-occupied countries.

Less defensible was the dereliction of the Australian press. The liberation of the concentration camps in 1945 was not the first revelation in Australia of the Nazis’ fatal mix of racist and national ideology. Since 1933, reports of Jewish persecution had been accumulating.

By early 1940, the Australian press was publishing fragmented accounts of “Nazi terror”: the slaughter of hostages, the deportations to Poland, the creation of ghettoes and the widespread executions.

In 1942 the Australian press estimated that two million Jews had perished since 1939, and accurately described the methods of killing, even the use of gas chambers. None of these reports warranted editorial comment.

The Australian press remained largely indifferent about the news of the mass extermination of the Jews. Allied journalists could not gain access to the occupied territories so most of the accounts came from a handful of Jews who had escaped; from underground sources; from anonymous German informants; and from the Soviet government, rather than from Western journalists.

Without official verification and extensive photographic evidence, editors greeted much of the information with cynicism, even apathy, and a belief that, at best, it was a secondary story. Even the horrific revelations about Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau camps were overlooked at the time because Soviet soldiers liberated the camps.

It was only in April 1945 when the US and British forces entered Belsen- Bergen, Buchenwald and Dachau camps, that news of genocide was no longer deemed secondary. Fifteen Australian journalists accompanied the troops and wrote about the “amazing disclosures” of horror camps, as they were then described.

But it was the ghastly visual evidence of mass killing, the newsreels and photographs circulated worldwide, which made the Nazi genocide starkly real and came to synonymous inhumanity.

The Nuremberg Tribunal estimated that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

The genocide of the East Timorese committed by the Indonesians after the invasion of the tiny Portuguese colony in 1975, differed in many ways.

The scale and era were vastly different and the violence culminated in 1999 when news was now “live to air” with the advent of 24-hour news, the internet and satellite and mobile phones.

Complicating matters further was Australia had been the only country to internationally recognise East Timor as part of Indonesia. Yet East Timor paralleled the Holocaust in several important ways: journalists were not permitted access, Western testimony was privileged over the East Timorese (the Communist Fretilin were as distrusted as the Soviets) and media organisations were largely disinterested in their fate.

The only constant news about East Timor were reports about the “ghosts of Balibo”, an allusion to the intentional killings of five journalists, Australians Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and New Zealand–born cameraman Gary Cunningham and Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, both originally British, by the invading force at Balibo in 1975.

The murders of the journalists, now known as the Balibo Five, were committed to prevent them from reporting on the invasion of East Timor. The sixth victim, Australian Roger East was murdered on 8 December 1975 while investigating the fate of the Balibo Five and covering the attack on the East Timorese capital.

Jill Jolliffe, who subsequently devoted much of her career to covering the Indonesian occupation, wrote that a curtain fell in 1975.

After the invasion, the reporting was marked by lack of access for foreign journalists so many of the mass killings either went unreported or were subject to uncorroborated speculation. Furthermore, the Indonesian militia consistently monitored and intimidated the few foreign journalists who wrote about East Timor.

Media indifference was also a factor. The intermittent reports of mass murder were rarely published in Australia. After the Holocaust it should have been impossible to say of genocide, “we did not know”.

John Martinkus, a freelancer who initially went to East Timor in 1994 and became its first resident foreign journalist in August 1998, explains that the Australian government and some editors invariably accepted the Indonesians at their word and there was a traditional mistrust of Timorese sources.

“In general the media didn’t care about Timor,” Tony Maniaty who first visited East Timor in 1975 and fled immediately before the invasion, said in early 1999. “They didn’t care what happened there. It was frankly, a sideshow.”

The interest changed when a number of events garnered international attention; all transpired in the 1990s, as a new generation of activists pursued independence, and peaked in 1999, in the aftermath of the historic autonomy ballot.

The shift also occurred because tourists were finally able to travel to East Timor and so a small number of foreign journalists, mostly freelance, used tourist visas to visit.

The initial catalyst occurred when British cinematographer Max Stahl filmed the Indonesian forces opening fire on over 2000 unarmed pro-democracy supporters at a funeral procession in Dili’s Santa Cruz cemetery, killing more than 100 people on 12 November 1991.

On the same day two American journalists who reported on the funeral procession were beaten. The reaction to Stahl’s film and the journalists’ first-hand accounts suggested that Western testimony was given far greater credence than the East Timorese insight, and that the visual had a more enduring impact and greater legitimacy than print.

In anticipation of the UN-sponsored ballot on independence in August that would end Indonesian’s annexation and after the Howard government revised its foreign policy and recognised the East Timorese people’s right to self-determination, the Australian media flocked to the country in 1999.

A bloody, violent conflict followed where many East Timorese lost their lives to a resistant Indonesian militia and journalists were intimidated, beaten and murdered. In the subsequent period after the announcement that Australia would be involved in the UN-mandated multinational peacekeeping taskforce, East Timor finally and briefly became the most reported country in the world.

Conflict reporting has changed dramatically. Protests against brutal regimes are now powered by YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Twitpic and online channels are launched.

One of the most resourceful practitioners was Mohammed al-Nabbous, a young Libyan journalist whose web channel covered the escalating violence in his home country until his death on 21 March. Invariably regimes block the social networking sites and journalists are often silenced. Western media remains crucial.

Unfortunately journalists are hostage to their media outlet’s dedication to cover international events. Foreign assignments are costly and the public has a greater appetite for domestic news and tabloid gossip.

Michael Ware, formerly of CNN, maintains that international news has never been a winner with the punter. “We’re a sufferance on the body of the media business, because the stuff we do very rarely translates into extra advertisers,” he said. “It’s almost like a penance.”

As the reporting of the Holocaust and East Timor shows, Australian media organisations have always ignored huge swathes of the globe.

Editors and managers decide which conflicts are newsworthy and for how long. They then provide the foreign correspondents and the resources to cover them.

While news of the democratic uprisings in the Middle East rightly attract widespread focus, mass murder and oppression in other regions such as the Congo, Darfur, Burma, Zimbabwe and Chechnya continue unabated and with little media attention.