Media, our best hope

Published May 3, 2017

THE 2016 media freedom report card makes for uncomfortable reading. Impunity for those who kill journalists continues to undermine attempts by legal systems worldwide to deliver justice and ensure the rule of law. Read alongside rising numbers of physical attacks and an increasingly hostile online space, we remain far from guaranteeing a safe environment for media professionals, across any domain.

The persistent application of national security laws to punish media or further tighten limitations on freedom of expression has sent a chill through global newsrooms

According to CPJ’s annual prison census, the world’s jails were home to some 259 journalists in 2016, the highest number on record. Just how many stories never make it into the public record as a result we shall never know. The evidence we do have suggests silence is spreading, the imperative to think twice before publishing more commonplace than ever. With the intertwining complexity of commercial interests and the precarious financial situations of media houses, those red lines are becoming more like red boxes into which so much is dumped, labelled ‘off limits’ to journalism.

Media must be aware of the power of collective action.

As we mark another World Press Freedom Day and make the habitual — yet necessary — condemnations of all of the above, we must also acknowledge the efforts to counteract the slide. It is perhaps the one positive in an otherwise bleak 12 months for media freedom. Pressures on journalists and media organisations are designed to reduce transparency and accountability in society. Usu­ally it means powerful interests have some­thing to hide from public view. Ultimately, media need to do more to convince public opinion that such targeting is an attack on common values and will not be tolerated.

In the meantime, media are obliged to advocate on their own behalf. The organisations, institutions, NGOs and support agencies designed to help in this are vital, but they are not enough. They are not effective unless media themselves are actively participating in defining the issues, steering the agenda, implementing the goals, and mobilising together to tackle the issues that directly affect them.

Paradoxical as this may sound, we must own our faults — act to change the disproportionate lack of women in senior positions and address the way many newsrooms treat young people of both sexes; arrest the decline in desirability of taking a job in media; create the conditions and flexibility that attract — and retain — the best talent; make our editorial standards the most rigorous and our business operations worthy of the deepest trust.

It is common sense to suggest a strong profession has more chance of fighting off the epidemic it faces if first its own house is in order.

Simply knowing your rights and the legal limitations that have been placed on your freedom as a journalist is a vital starting point; educating ourselves, so that we may educate others to be stronger professionals, better informed of the options we have, of the support that is out there, is crucial. But most importantly, it is about being aware of the power of collective action, of mobilising as professionals, for professionals, on whatever issue is put in our path.

WAN-IFRA works directly with media organisations in over 20 countries to support these dual efforts. Beyond sensitisation of the importance of a free press, media in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are taking concrete steps to ensure they are at the forefront when it comes to advocating their own freedoms.

Our media freedom committees are empowering media to lead advocacy on each continent. Coor­dinated and run by media professionals, they set their agenda and define what they as a collective body can achieve — in partnership with exis­ting initiatives, or as a body unique unto themselves.

A year into the experiment, we’re already seeing how the strategy can provide a way forward. In Uganda, a network of over 250 journalists are connected countrywide to discuss safety, good practice, offer advice, and identify where colleagues need support and training.

In Egypt, our committee is conducting public research into just why society is turning away from media, offering suggestions as to how the profession can reverse this trend. In Indonesia, collaboration between nine leading news organisations brought the Jakarta-centric news industry to the outlying province of Papua to expose issues the local media felt received little or no coverage in the national agenda.

In Palestine, Botswana, Malaysia, Colombia, Zambia, Cambodia, Kenya and a dozen other countries, WAN-IFRA is ensuring media are in control of similar advocacy efforts that will impact the overall state of freedom of expression, so that maybe next year, or in five years, or beyond, the opinion pieces published on May 3 won’t make for such grim reading.

The writer is director, Media Freedom WAN-IFRA .

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2017



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