Messages of hope

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2007, 12:00am

The Asian Human Rights Commission's communications officer, Bruce Van Voorhis, has a tricky job on his hands. With abuses of all kinds taking place across the region to document and highlight, his aim is to get the attention of people whose thoughts are more often focused on their own problems. Mr Van Voorhis' obvious first point of call is the mainstream media, but therein lies a challenge. His organisation is just one of hundreds of thousands of non-governmental groups the world over vying for media coverage.

As important as the issues may be, the urgent appeals for action and press releases that the commission puts out each day only infrequently find their way into newspapers or on to radio or television. This newspaper, for example, has published items relating to the commission only nine times this year.

Compare that with how the much bigger players in the field fared - London-based Amnesty International got 125 mentions and the American organisation Human Rights Watch, 68 - and you sense that Mr Van Voorhis must be feeling a tad frustrated. With 24 on staff, his organisation is, after all, one of the biggest non-governmental groups in Hong Kong. Not having the million-dollar budgets of the major players, he is forced to look at his job as being as much about public education as media coverage.

'When there's a big issue like Pakistan or Burma, my job is easier because there's obviously a captive audience in the media, as they're quite interested in that topic,' he said. 'Where it becomes problematic is when it's not an issue, yet we feel that it is important enough that people need to know about it.'

Consider then, the even bigger battle for public attention of the 650 groups represented by the Washington-based Genetic Alliance. Each is dedicated to getting the message out about 'orphan diseases' - rare disorders that may affect a handful or several hundred people around the world. Genetic Alliance's president and chief executive, Sharon Terry, has the philosophy that the groups are not going to get mainstream media attention. 'I don't look for any major media attention or spend any time trying to get it, even with there being 7,000 rare diseases,' she told me. 'I don't think it's realistic at all to think that it's ever going to happen and it seems to be a crazy waste of resources to even chase it.' It is better, she contended, to focus on grass-roots media such as small-town newspapers. Perhaps, as a result, a national or international agency would pick up the story. Even better was to find a wealthy benefactor or an actor or pop star to take up their cause.

Their dream is to be as fortunate as the Progeria Research Foundation, which represents the 51 known children the world over who suffer from a disease that will cause them to die at or around the age of 13 as a result of accelerated ageing. Actor Ted Danson and Academy-Award winning actress Mary Steenburgen are helping to raise the disease's profile.

So, that leaves the internet. Ms Terry and Mr Van Voorhis swear by it and do not know how they got by before. The beauty of the internet is that it is still a Pandora's box of communications possibilities, always changing and evolving. While newspapers, radio and TV are a known quantity, the internet is not.

Google's video giant, YouTube, recently launched a section for charities and non-governmental groups to put up their offerings and will link them to a payment system so they can receive donations. The idea has won praise from all those struggling to get their heads above the media parapet.

Having just confined another of the Asian Human Rights Commission's e-mailed press releases to the deleted items folder, I can see how this sort of tool will help revolutionise the human rights sector. Instead of trying to imagine, from the words, the mayhem or abuses being carried out, we will be able to see and hear them for ourselves in digital video and sound.

This is not to say that such groups should ignore the mainstream media. More, it is another technological step that will make journalists think harder about their story agendas.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor