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2006-03-27

Blood Money? As Divestiture Movement Heats Up, Sudan Government Pays Close to $1 Million for New York Times Supplement Advocating Investment and Praising "Peaceful, Prosperous and Democratic Future"

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As a student-led campaign urging divestment from companies doing business in Sudan gains momentum in the U.S., the Sudanese government pays close to $1 million for an eight-page supplement in the paper. The ad advocates investing in companies operating in Sudan. In response, Sudan activists flooded the New York Times with demands for an apology. [includes rush transcript]

On Saturday, the government of Sudan urged the United Nations to stop sending what they called "negative signals" to rebel groups in the country’s Darfur region. While anti-Khartoum rebels have long urged UN involvement to counter what many consider state-sponsored genocide, the Sudanese government has claimed a UN presence would only worsen the conflict. Over the past three years tens of thousands of people have been killed in the region and over two million displaced. The violence in Darfur has worsened in recent months, and has now crossed into the neighboring country of Chad.

While the international response has been criticized as lethargic, it was recently exposed that a man accused of being a key architect of the Darfur genocide met secretly with senior British and American officials in London earlier this month. Major-General Salah Abdullah Gosh was granted a British visa to receive "medical treatment" but it was later acknowledged that while in London Gosh met with U.S. and British officials.

Meanwhile, a largely student-run divestment campaign is gaining significant momentum. The mutual fund Citizens Advisers recently became the first US fund to back a growing campaign urging divestment from companies doing business in Sudan. The decision followed the University of California’s decision two weeks ago to divest from all companies working with the Sudanese government.

There’s at least one company that apparently has not joined the Sudan divestment campaign. Last week, the New York Times ran an eight-page advertisement taken out by the Sudanese government. The ad advocates investing in companies operating in Sudan. It appears as a news article with a small disclaimer across the top of the page. It praises Sudan’s "peaceful, prosperous and democratic future" and complains about international media coverage that is "focused almost exclusively on the fighting between rebels and Arab militias" in Darfur.

In response, Sudan activists flooded the New York Times with demands for an apology. They have so far refused. The New York Times also declined to appear on Democracy Now!, but did give us this statement: "The Times has vigorously reported on the Sudan and our editorials have condemned the actions the Sudanese government has taken against its citizens. We accepted this special advertising section, however, in our strong belief that all pages of the paper’s news, editorial and advertising must remain open to the free flow of ideas. In accepting it, we do not endorse the politics, trade practices or actions of the country or the character of its leaders. Just as we print advertisements that rebut New York Times editorials, news articles or critical reviews, we print ads that differ from our editorial position. We do so in the belief that it is in the best interests of our readers for our pages to be as open as possible."

The ad cost close to a million dollars, and was produced by the PR company Summit Communications. Summit claims to hold an exclusive agreement with the Times, where it has ran ads for several foreign governments.

  • Felix Salmon, writer and media critic. Covered the relationship between the New York Times and Summit Communications on his weblog, www.FelixSalmon.Com.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us to discuss the situation in Sudan and the response here in the U.S. is Iain Levine, program director for Human Rights Watch. Joining us on the phone from San Francisco, Jason Miller, a graduate student at the University of California and co-director of the U.C. Sudan Divestment Task Force. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Iain, let’s start with you. Can you talk about the latest in Darfur, in the significance of Ghosh coming to London?

IAIN LEVINE: The situation on the ground remains extremely grave. War crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed daily, attacks, killings, rapes, are continuing. Major General Salah Abdullah Ghosh has been named by us and others as being one of the architects of the atrocities being committed. So the fact that he’s being received in the U.K. and the U.S., supposedly because he’s providing extremely important intelligence on counterterrorism, is somewhat troubling. We know that his name has been recommended by a U.N. sanctions panel, for targeted sanctions against him, and we very much want to see those sanctions put into place.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the latest in Darfur?

IAIN LEVINE: Well, the latest in Darfur is extremely critical. The conflict spills over into Chad. The humanitarian access is worsening. The Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs recently said that he was extremely concerned about the ability of his workers to access the millions of people now in need of humanitarian assistance, and as you said in your introduction, the Sudanese government continues to block the idea of a U.N. force that would provide effective protection for civilians. We currently have 7,000 African Union troops on the ground, who are doing a good job, but they can’t possibly, in an area the size of Texas and extremely remote and isolated, provide the kind of effective protection needed by over two million displaced people.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to one of the students who has led the divestment campaign in this country, Jason Miller. You are with the University of California. Talk about what you’ve done.

JASON MILLER: So, back when I first learned about the genocide, I wanted to think about effective ways to counter the Sudanese government’s actions, and on a historical review, it looked like Sudan had been largely unresponsive to political pressure regarding the Darfur situation, but history had shown that it had been responsive to economic pressure, and since I was part of a University of California system which included ten campuses and the largest endowment of any university system in the world at $66 billion, I was interested in knowing what our university’s involvement were in the companies doing business in Sudan.

And through about a year-long process, we discovered that there were indeed several companies that we were invested in, that heavily contributed to government revenue and provided minimal benefit to ordinary Sudanese citizens, outside of government circles, and so we engaged in a — what we called a targeted divestment campaign. Instead of just divesting from every company doing business in Sudan, recognizing that some companies were doing substantial good, we tried to investigate what each company was doing, understand how it contributed to both the government’s ability to perpetrate genocide, but also to the general infrastructure development in the country, and then divest from only those companies that we felt were most contributing to the genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Jason Miller, can you talk about other universities in the country that are involved in different stages of students pushing their universities not to do business with companies in Sudan?

JASON MILLER: I think the exciting part about this divestment movement is actually, as you’ve implied, has gained true national momentum. In fact, it’s probably arguably now the largest divestment movement since the South Africa divestment movement, and it encompasses dozens of universities, several of which have already divested, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Amherst, but also, multiple more that are interested in divesting. And this also extends to the state level, where the states of New Jersey, Oregon and Illinois have already divested. Maine is extremely close, and there are many other states that are considering or have divestment legislation pending at the current moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Jason Miller with the University of California, which is the first university to divest from companies doing business in the Sudan. Well there’s at least one company that apparently has not joined the Sudan divestment campaign. Last week, the New York Times ran an eight-page advertisement taken out by the Sudanese government. The ad advocates investing in companies operating in Sudan. It appears as a news article with a small disclaimer across the top of the page. The ad praises Sudan’s, quote, "peaceful, prosperous and democratic future" and complains about international media coverage that has, quote, "focused almost exclusively on the fighting between rebels and Arab militias in Darfur."

In response, Sudan activists flooded the New York Times with demands for an apology. They have so far refused. The New York Times also declined to appear on Democracy Now! but did give us this statement: "The Times has vigorously reported on the Sudan, and our editorials have condemned the actions the Sudanese government has taken against its citizens. We accepted this special advertising section, however, in our strong belief that all pages of the paper’s news, editorial and advertising must remain open to the free flow of ideas. In accepting it, we do not endorse the politics, trade practices or actions of the country or the character of its leaders. Just as we print advertisements that rebut New York Times editorials, news articles or critical reviews, we print ads that differ from our editorial position. We do so in the belief that it’s in the best interests of our readers for our pages to be as open as possible." That statement was given to us by the New York Times.

Well, the advertisement, which is really a special ad supplement of the New York Times, cost close to $1 million. It was produced by the P.R. company, Summit Communications. Summit claims to hold a, quote, "exclusive" agreement with the Times, where it has run ads for several foreign governments.

We’re joined on the line by Felix Salmon. He is a writer and media critic who has covered the relationship between the New York Times and Summit Communications on his weblog at felixsalmon.com, speaking to us from New Mexico. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Felix.

FELIX SALMON: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how this works? I mean, this supplement — and we’ve seen it before — is an eight-page — looks like a section of the Times. At the top, though, it says, in small letters "Special Advertising Supplement," big words "Sudan," and then it says "The Peace Dividend, Prosperity Could Lie Ahead After Years of Conflict," and it looks like an article.

FELIX SALMON: Yes, that’s the idea, that while, obviously, media sophisticates in New York are well aware that this is an advertisement, there is confusion among a certain proportion of the New York Times readers as to whether or not — they don’t really stop to think whether it is an ad or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain then what happens. This Summit Communications has on its website it has an exclusive relationship with the New York Times.

FELIX SALMON: Summit Communications is essentially parasitical on the New York Times. As far as I can make out, their only business is placing advertising in the New York Times. This is a business which many publications around the world do in-house. They go out to foreign governments or other entities and produce advertising sections to be inserted into the publication. Those advertising sections are not produced by the editorial side of the publication, but they are produced by the advertising side of the publication. The New York Times, were it to do that, would thereby be dealing directly with the governments of Sudan and taking the government of Sudan’s money, and that would look a bit nasty. So, what they’ve managed to do is place themselves at one removed, by accepting money, instead, from Summit Communications.

AMY GOODMAN: Iain Levine, of Human Rights Watch, this section, this supplement came out last Monday in the Times. How did you see it?

IAIN LEVINE: I found it deeply, deeply shocking that the Times has been one of the few media outlets in this country which has done a good job in covering Sudan and Darfur and has pointed out what’s going on. For them to take nearly a million dollars, for money, much of which obtained through violations of human rights, since the oil work in Sudan has involved forced displacement of civilians, massive killings, seems extremely troubling. This really is blood money, and it’s surprising that the Times chose to take it.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read from the content guidelines of the New York Times for ads, what they’ll take and what they won’t take. Just a few of the guidelines: "Number one, general advertisements that contain fraudulent, deceptive or misleading statements or illustrations, attacks of a personal nature, advertisements that are overly competitive or that refer abusively to the goods or services of others, too offensive to good taste, indecent, vulgar, suggestive or other advertising that in the opinion of the New York Times on the web may be offensive to good taste." And then it goes on from there, refers, for example, "Guideline eight, endangered species advertisements offering furs or products made from the furs or hides of animals included on government endangered species lists."

IAIN LEVINE: It’s extraordinary that the Times is concerned about endangered animal species but seems to show much less concern for endangered human beings. So much of the money that the Sudanese government is making from the oil industry, is being channeled into the military budget. Back in 2001, it was something like 60%. So to be concerned about animals and not to be concerned about the impact of oil revenue on the people of Darfur seems to be a somewhat misplaced concern there.

AMY GOODMAN: How many letters do you understand have gone to the Times? Or do you know?

IAIN LEVINE: I know that last week, the Save Darfur Coalition, which really mobilized its supporters on this, mobilized something like 2,600 letters in the space of 24 hours. I had a chance to see some of them, and they were very powerful, very moving, many of them. They’re not written by kind of professional human rights activists, but by people who just care about what’s going on. So it’s interesting that the Times has still not chosen to reply properly.

AMY GOODMAN: You saw them by reading in the Times, the letters?

IAIN LEVINE: No, no, sorry. I saw from the Save Darfur Coalition.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they appear in the New York Times?

IAIN LEVINE: No, to my knowledge, I have not seen one yet in the New York Times, and the only response I’ve seen from the Times, is, in fact, the one that you read out earlier.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece in something called Pacific magazine, that’s a kind of tourism magazine, and I wanted to ask you about this, Felix Salmon. It says, "P.N.G. — New York Times to Expose P.N.G. Abroad. The Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea will be featured prominently in the New York Times Magazine this year, the National reports. Two reporters, Aida Velon and Luke Heine, from Summit Communications told the Morobe governor yesterday that it would give P.N.G. the opportunity to improve its image, which has been tarnished abroad. Summit Communications is a multimedia organization linked to the New York Times," and it goes on from there. What are they talking about when they say "reporters"?

FELIX SALMON: They’re talking about people who write the copy for Summit Communications. They are certainly not talking about reporters for the New York Times, but frankly, it’s in Summit Communications’ best interest to confuse that distinction, when they’re trying to sell ads to people like the government of Papua, New Guinea.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, is that the _Times_’ responsibility, Felix Salmon?

FELIX SALMON: Summit Communications could not exist without the New York Times, so the Times works extremely closely with Summit Communications, or at least it should, in order to insure that what Summit Communications does does not bring the New York Times into any kind of disrepute. On the other hand, the Times does get many millions of dollars from Summit Communications and is, therefore, financially interested in Summit selling as many of these supplements as it can.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you, Felix Salmon, work for a publication called Euro Money?

FELIX SALMON: Yes, I do.

AMY GOODMAN: How does that operate? And does it have similar supplements that are paid for by, well, governments like the Sudan?

FELIX SALMON: It has supplements, which are paid for by governments; I’m pretty sure that Sudan is not one of them.

AMY GOODMAN: And does it work in the same way?

FELIX SALMON: It does most of its — well, most of its supplements come against editorial. So if there’s going to be a supplement on a country, the advertising is going to appear against independent editorial about that country.

AMY GOODMAN: In the same issue?

FELIX SALMON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they look at the ad, and they respond to it in the magazine?

FELIX SALMON: There’s independent journalism about the country, and then there is also the advertising about the country, and they appear together.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how you feel the New York Times is different?

FELIX SALMON: The New York Times is different because it does not feel any need to match editorial content against advertising, which in many ways is a good thing, because it means that the editorial content is dictated entirely by the views of the editors about what is newsworthy and not so much by the contents of the advertising. On the other hand, that means that if you get these supplements about countries like Sudan or Libya or whoever, then they appear on their own, without any enveloping context explaining that this is really just government propaganda and that there is another side to the story.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, presumably these ads are approved by, you know, by the Times in an editorial division, whether it’s in the publisher’s office somewhere, because they do make decisions. The Times rejected a religious ad, saying many readers would find it offensive in 2002. In 2004, the Times rejected an artistic commentary on race and gender, by citing a policy that all advocacy ads must clearly state an opinion. Just this month, the Times rejected a theater advertisement for its depiction of two cupids engaging in a sex act. Iain Levine of Human Rights Watch, do you think the Times should refuse to take money from the Sudanese government? I mean, specifically, it’s probably Sudanese government pays Summit Communications, who then pays the Times, though I’m not sure how it works.

IAIN LEVINE: I’m assuming that is the case. If the Times feels that two cupids engaging in a sex act is offensive to its readers, I think it should be really much more careful about taking money from a government which many have accused of genocide, others have accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It’s extremely offensive to the people of Sudan, to human rights activists anywhere. They are providing a propaganda space for the government of Sudan, and it’s a very important propaganda space. This is not any paper. This is the New York Times, and for the New York Times to be providing such a platform for the government is deeply offensive.

AMY GOODMAN: And their argument that might be that you look at reporters like Nicholas Kristof who writes very harshly of what’s going on in Sudan?

IAIN LEVINE: Well, Nick Kristof has done great work, and all credit to Nick. He’s pushed and pushed and pushed on Darfur and on Chad, and he’s really helped to keep the flame alive for those who have been working on this issue, but to cite Nick as a justification for running eight pages of very questionable propaganda with a lot of falsehoods, that’s — I don’t think that makes up for the fact that they’re putting out this supplement, and it’s wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Iain Levine, for joining us from Human Rights Watch; Felix Salmon, felixsalmon.com is his blog; and Jason Miller at University of California, though not the first university to cut off dealings with companies doing business with the Sudan, was one of the largest, and it just happened.

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