Freedom of the press
14 days with 26 journalists
Two journalists from Tunisia, one from Lebanon, two from Turkey, one German-English, one from Tanzania, one from Sri Lanka. A famous T.V. host from Kenya, one from Zimbabwe, one from Pakistan, and one from Palestine. One from South Africa, two from Ivory Coast, a Romanian, a Ukrainian, a reporter from Thailand, a Nepalese business journalist. A colleague from Georgia, one from Argentina, and one more from Ecuador. A young journalist from Colombia, an experienced editor from Macedonia, a Mexican colleague, and a Jordanian.
I lived with them for fourteen days in Germany at the Naumann Foundation Academy. This liberal foundation hired me to help during a press freedom seminar. This foundation gave me the extraordinary gift of letting me discover and examine the challenges faced by my colleagues from nations so distant and different from my own.
Countries at war. Countries with autocrats. Countries attacked and occupied. Countries under the shadow of others, still fighting against the colonial mentality. Democratic countries, with populists or with protests. Countries whose only topic is inflation. In their different contexts, these countries did not seem to have something in common.
In Tunisia, journalists have jurisdiction. In Ivory Coast, my new friends tell me, there is a kind of INAI of journalists, an autonomous body that serves to pressure and protect the press. It is not perfect, but it is an achievement compared to the previous situation. I tell him twelve journalists have been killed this year in Mexico. ‘For posting something uncomfortable?’ Everyone asks me. ‘No one will know’, I answer them; their cases are not solved yet.
In Pakistan, colleagues are constantly sued, and organizations of lawyers take up the defense in high-profile cases in a task that, more than legal, is educational. They show society what can be done in that country. In Turkey, President Erdogan increases his wealth with civil lawsuits that he wins against reporters and journalists.
In Sri Lanka, the Secretary of Security owns one of the most important media channels. It is not clear whether this helps him to push his political career or whether his political career helps keep the media company working. The other possibility is that his position allows him to silence journalists who report on protests.
In Palestine, there is no formal censorship written in the law but permanent and consensual censorship on the religious topic. This topic is carefully avoided in the media. The political dispute is always present, but somehow they manage not to talk about the God of each side, which is a general practice.
In Argentina, there is no topic that does not have to do with inflation and the Secretary of Finances in turn, so all journalists become economists or come from that field and spend their time calculating the debt’s impact.
Each journalist told me about their main concerns and the strategies they have found in their union to protect the industry, protect themselves, protect press freedom and use that freedom with responsibility.
The foundation has a unique program that enhances and encourages experience exchange. No journalist went there to tell the truth, but the director of a local German newspaper shared his experience about the negative social impact of a story that they could not avoid and with which they feel in some way responsible for the polarization it caused. The director of a powerful European group invited us to follow the example of Canada and Australia to combat the economic abuse of large digital platforms such as Google and Facebook.
A European reporter in China warned us about the perverse pressure methods of controlling governments that pretend they are not. I am scared to give ideas to autocrats, but it is better to be prepared, so I select here one of the examples she gave: civil demands of interviewed citizens to the journalists or reporters. These demands are artificially generated with government pressure or bribes to a citizen or source consulted by a journalist. ‘Yes, I agreed to do the interview, but I don’t agree with the way it was published’, the sources say. But they are not the sources. It is the government.
In Lebanon, to my surprise, no one is disconcerted to see female journalists with a powerful critical voice. But it is not because the context allows it: they are heroines and constantly prefer to report from Turkey. Lebanon has more than 18 political parties, all with an armed side and connected with dogmatic religious factions. In addition, the car bombs against journalists in the first decade of the 2000s, when they dared to be critical of Syria, are still fresh in the regional memory. ‘Non-governmental organizations have been critical in improving the media environment, but the political scene is scary’, says my young Lebanese friend. At any moment, that bomb explodes either for the situation with Syria, the religion, or the economy.
Talking with journalists is talking about the collective reality and the challenges to keep this profession ongoing; this profession that knows the methods to build up impartiality about any topic: vaccines, war, government actions, deaths, laws, inflation, machismo, or drug problems. Journalists have the pulse of the world. That is precisely what is needed today when the truth is turned upside down and the influential people and institutions have ‘other data’.
Journalism and freedom
Last May, I read an interesting article written by Anne Applebaum, which warned about the fragility of the values of the liberal State and the incompetence shown so far to protect and spread them. There is the belief that freedom and science are worthy and self-sustainable. But no, reminds us Applebaum, they are not self-sustainable. They don’t follow a natural order.
Now, if freedom is not self-sustainable, who protects it? Applebaum argues that it must be a task of the liberal States in education and propaganda. I disagree. Freedom does not need someone —collective or individual— to stand up for it with propaganda like the one used by autocrats worldwide. It is not the president, the political parties, or the mighty foreign armies who are responsible for handling this critical value. The liberal order is sustained not by specific individuals but by ideas and functions that work as pile foundations, columns, and arches of a cathedral capable of surviving governmental changes and tornadoes.
One of the foundations of the cathedral is in the newsrooms where the journalists languish today. Journalism as we know (or knew) it is diminished before the onslaught of social media, the pauperization of the job, the seduction of the powerful, and, in the worst case, the threats against its very existence.
The level of danger of the challenges confronted by the press varies worldwide, but no journalist is safe from getting stuck in the mud, losing their life or their way, or even losing the notion of what being a journalist means.
This is not just a guild problem but a worldwide issue and a freedom matter. Without journalists, there is no possible freedom, and freedom does not exist without the possibility to choose. This, in turn, does not occur without the ability to register a phenomenon with certainty and credibility before making decisions. And without the ability to choose, there is no pluralism, democracy, or damn individual guarantee.
Journalism is a matter of public interest and must be taken seriously. There are dumb, corrupted, and mediocre journalists, I am not blind, but that is no reason to let this job die because it helps, without even trying, the liberal order to work better.
For this, there are four significant possible actions. First, to retrieve the credibility and supremacy of journalists before celebrities and influencers. This method of knowledge makes it more useful in a polarized society where post-truth is a subject of conversation.
Second, to defend journalism from economic vulnerability. Content is still being sold and consumed, but the big digital platforms sell it without paying a penny to the reporters and using the consumer’s data as a product.
Third, to save journalists from individual vulnerability. Without impunity, with unique mechanisms of protection and transparency in the methods, but above all, with the guild and audience participation.
Fourth, to protect the audience from the weaknesses and deviations of professional journalism with guild verification mechanisms, not with government regulations.
This is just a glimpse of the ideas that emerged in the intense family formed, for 14 days, of 27 journalists who are aware of their implicit task, the one that comes with their pen, their microphone, and their responsibility; that task is to keep freedom alive in this world.