Crisis/Media Conference :: Marni Cordell

3rd-5th March 2003 :: Delhi, India

Crisis/Media: The Uncertain States of Reportage was jointly organised by the Sarai Programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, together with the Waag Society for Old and New Media, Amsterdam, and held at Sarai-CSDS in Delhi, India.


Crystal Orderson (Young Africa Television. Johannesburg) & Marni Cordell (, Melbourne)

Crystal Orderson (Young Africa Television. Johannesburg) & Marni Cordell (, Melbourne)


The conference brought together writers, journalists, activists, academics and independent media makers to discuss, reflect on and debate the state, role and response of media in times of seemingly escalating crises.

The conference brought together local speakers from Gujarat, Kashmir, Delhi, Manipur and Mumbai, as well as international guests from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Australia, the Netherlands, former-Yugoslavia and the United States. Many speakers had direct experience reporting from situations of conflict, while others spoke of their involvement with issues that have had an historically problematic relationship with the corporate media.

The conference highlighted the need for, as co-organiser Shuddhabrata Sengupta refers to it, “sober reflection”, not only on the crises that are gripping the world today, but also on the way that we, as media producers and consumers, play a role in the discourse of crisis, and therefore in the eventuation of it. Crisis/Media addressed the need (and allowed the space) for media practitioners and communicators to reach beyond the simple dialogue that is circulated and perpetuated by the corporate media, and to complicate matters; to discuss issues in a deep, complex and contextualised way, with space for comment, argument and rebuttal.

I was invited to speak at Crisis/Media to talk about my work as an independent writer and media maker in Australia, my involvement with independent newspaper The Paper and my experiences traveling throughout Indonesia and East Timor undertaking the online Small Voices project.

I spoke briefly about the Australian media’s representation of Indonesia, and the biases and stereotypes that exist within the Australian population toward the world’s largest Muslim population, but also about the problems currently being faced by Indonesian media institutions. Since Suharto fell in 1998, and media restrictions were lifted, there have been major problems with the development of a democratic media in Indonesia. Attacks on media practitioners are common practice as a population grapples with the notion of media democracy – and media workers attempt to achieve ‘balance’ after years of repressed expression.

One of the most interesting arguments and divisions I believe that came out of Crisis/Media was whether it was necessary to distinguish between an ‘activist’ and a ‘journalist’, and whether one person can simultaneously be both. Is it necessary to turn off your activist sensibilities when reporting from a situation of conflict? Refreshingly, the notion of ‘objectivity’ was not even presumed to be an option by many of the conference participants, but instead, speakers spoke of their innate connection to and biases toward certain issues, and discussed the ways in which they dealt with these in an honest and socially responsible manner when reporting on conflicts between social or religious groups.

Keynote speaker Arundhati Roy spoke of the danger inherent in the notion of crisis: by definition, she said, the point of ‘crisis’ is short, and because of this “whole countries become old news…and then the darkness becomes deeper than it was before the (media) spotlight was shone on them.” She believed, she said, that the media machine had almost become more real than life itself, so that “…if you don’t have a crisis to call your own, you’re not in the news, and if you’re not in the news, you don’t exist.” She reiterated that people should rebel against the media’s tendency toward fads and trends and“…not feed the media’s desire for theatre”.

It was refreshing to hear Arundhati distinguish between the use of words in news and literature: “We (as writers) are trying to lessen the distance between language and thought,” while those creating ‘spin’ are “…engaged in creating a language to mask real thought”. When you are writing, you give time and focus to normality; “if your literature was full of crises,” she commented, “it would be a cheap document”.

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