Media Wars and the Humanitarian (non-)Interventions: Interview with Tom Keenan from 1997

Found in the nettime archives: At Hybrid Workspace, Documenta X, in 1997 Geert Lovink made an interview with Tom Keenan on "Media Wars and the Humanitarian (non-)Interventions". Back then, Tom Keenan was one of the organizers of the Data Conflicts conference on (new) media and politics in Eastern Europe which took place in Potsdam in December 1996. Tom's 100 days lecture was entitled: "Publicity and Indifference: Live from Sarajevo"

Geert Lovink: At this moment the bandwidth campaign is going on here. What is your view of this claim?

Tom Keenan: It is a good idea to stress the topic of the politics of cyberspace. Not merely the ritual formulations about the need for universal access, which has become a slogan in the United States. Not just 'We Want More Bandwidth' but 'Bandwidth' as such. Last night, Saskia Sassen spoke about electronic space and the formation of new claims. She talked about a host of new political actors, both of the corporate multinational type and the local disadvantaged groups. But I was troubled by her notion of presence, which I understood as the public space, the city, as a space of presence into which actors enter and present themselves. But the idea of 'self-presentation' brings up all the questions of the Self, identity and essence. 'Because I am who I am, I make this demand for articulation, expression, access... bandwidth.' After 30 years of philosophical criticism, the fabled deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence, maybe we have developed new ways of [defining] what a claim is. For me 'We Want' means: precisely because I don't have and take for granted something that is mine as a naturally given posession. Because it is not here now, I want it. That is a claim without any ground or basis in the present. It is a projection, a desire, articulated in relation to something absent. It does not mean that I just want it for me. It would be an achivement, an attainment, a conquest to get bandwidth. It will be the object of political struggle. It will be a creation, not something which was already yours, but which you just did not have yet. It will cause trouble, it will invent something, distrupt; it will fabricate something new.

GL: What will be the topic of your 100 days lecture?

TK: Tonight I will be talking about the role of the television news media in the conflict in Bosnia. We now understand that fighting takes place not just on the street, between bunkers, with artillery, but with the 'artillery of the press'. The media as weapon. I am trying to understand two conflicting interpretations of the role of media in contemporary warfare. One school bases its claim on the Gulf War and the conflict in Somalia. People understand this as the causal power of images. If I show something on television, then something is bound to happen. Sarajevo seem to present the counter to that argument. The more things were shown on television, the less anything happpened. There was this notion that television induced a narcosis, a stupor or voyeurism, which deprived us of the capacity for action, rather than spurring us. An example would be Snipers Alley in Sarajevo where several cameras and reporters of the international news media waited for people who were certain to be shot if they walked across this street in daylight. Both the camera team and the UN was in the same voyeuristic position as we were. There is a generalized pleasure in viewing. A strange kind of intervention. One has a sense here of an omnipresence of media as entertainment, even for the so-called victims.

GL: The War in Bosnia did not have a mobilizing effect. People could not identify themselves with any one of the parties. They all seemed victims and guilty at the same time. There was a similarity between the 'passive' behaviour of the television viewers and the incapability of France, the UK and the UN to stop this war.

TK: There is a direct analogy between the semi-distanced position that defines that of the news media. That is part of a 'journalistic' ideology and self-understanding to not get too involved. Certainly in Bosnia journalists played with this. A lot of them became less than detached. A feeling of involvement emerged, but structurally, the position of the media remained analogous to a military force that intervenes on humanitarian grounds, claiming strict neutrality among all the parties. We treat this one the same as that one, which is exactly the structure of the camera which looks at all potential subjects with a leveling force. It does not distinguish between the images that it presents. We need to refine the notion of passivity. There is no such thing as passivity or inaction. The arrival of the cameras, like the arrival of thousands of soldiers, hundreds of NGOs, relief agencies, Red Crosses. All of those interventions transformed the situation on the ground and on the screen. In the same way as the presence of the camera induces certain events. There is a magnetic appeal there for things to happen. Likewise, the passivity of the humanitarian, inadvertently, leads to a transformation of the situation.

GL: Still, we have to face the fact there was no large anti-war movement as there was in the days of Vietnam.

TK: The outcry did not occur. What energy there was, was immediately rechanneled into a humanitarian response. Rather than saying, 'We need to intervene, we need to stop the genocide', we said, 'Poor, suffering people need food, help, shelter, tents. There was an opportunity, a vehicle of expression, but it inadvertently become a pro-war movement. It began prolonging the war by stabilizing certain zones of conflict, by rewarding the clearing of populations on ethnic grounds. By financing and feeding, the humantarian efforts rendered unnecessary a military and political intervention and offered an alibi.

GL: The situation in Bosnia is contained now, but a lot of the issues are still open, not only the media question. New facts are being brought up, as in the case of Srebrenica, where the Dutch battalion 'witnessed' the slaughter of thousands of civilians. Or the topic of the rising power of NGOs and their involvement in those conflicts.

TM: It is interesting that this very weekend we see once again the return of the international news media to Bosnia in the days following the arrest of one indicted criminal and the killing of another. The purest indicator being the return to Sarajevo of Christiane Amanpour of CNN. There is the story that in the Central Operations Room of the Pentagon there is a map, with little pushpins, to keep constant track of Christiane Amanpour. As a military event, the location of this reporter is considered an item of national security. NGOs represent a very radical step: the notion that international politics can be conducted by non-state actors. Foreign relations are no longer the province only of states, diplomats, militaries or of transnational corporations. Other parties can cross borders in an organized way and intervene. The risk that brings with it is the ideology of humanitarian neutrality or non-partisanship. When they intervene they always take sides which gives the most to the dominant regional force, the bad actor. One has to compromise with the dominant power. What is astonishing is their profound immunity from critique. If there is a contemporary sacred cow, it is humanitarianism. The only ground, at least in the United States, for criticizing a humanitarian agency is that it wastes money. For every dollar we gave to save the children, 50% of it went to pay staff. In fact, many organisations are too effective. Their effectivity consists in handing over relief goods to the parties that are by and large responsible for causing the shortage of food and medicine. And in the willfull blindness for the non-intervention intervention strategy. That is where a critique would have to begin. To their credit, there are maybe one or two brave human rights organisations. I would mention African Rights in London, which published in November 1994 an important and still underrecognized white paper called 'Humanitarianism Unbound', which tries to understand the lack of accountability of NGOs in crises like Bosnia or Rwanda. There is an increasing state-like behaviour of non-state actors.

One of the places to organize this kind of critique would be around the notion of 'independant media'. We are in a conceptual bind right now. We have inherited the notion from the campaigns against communist dictatorships where the state was seen as absorbing or preventing the creation of any public sphere or civil society. Western or transnational agencies invented the notion of independance in relation to the state, which was seen as a totalizing force. Independent media became simply anti-state press agencies. Now the number of actors in the former communist states has multiplied in a way which is hard to calculate. UN, EC or Soros have a very hard time understanding what independant might mean in relation to a state which is no longer simply totalitarian. In Rwanda, which was not a communist state but a one party state for a long time, independant media were created and fostered after the 1991 agreement between the warring parties. Roughly 90% of the money went to incalculable extreme political movements, mostly radio, run by the most militantly fundamentalist (Hutu) militia. Year after year, there were reports back to the Untited Nations about the success of the independant media project. Many voices were represented, etc. And it was precisely those media that fostered, and in some cases even organized genocide in Rwanda.

(edited by David Hudson)