‘Journalism is Threatened by Populist Governments, the Corporate World’

By San Yamin Aung 3 April 2019

SEOUL, South Korea— More than 70 journalists from 50 countries attended the World Journalists Conference 2019 in South Korea, held in the last week of March, with the theme of “The Role of Journalists in Ensuring Peace on the Korean Peninsula.” At this annual international conference hosted by the Journalists Association of Korea, journalists, editors, and media workers from across the globe contributed to discussions about the most pressing challenges and threats journalists are facing globally and regionally, as well as the future of journalism.

The Irrawaddy spoke with two senior executive committee members of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a global organization of journalists representing 187 unions and associations in more than 140 countries, who attended the conference, on the current status of press freedom, freedom of speech and the safety and protection of journalists worldwide.

Sabina Inderjit, elected vice-president of the IFJ

We are here at the World Journalists Conference. Journalists and different media outlets are discussing and sharing their thoughts on the role of media and the challenges and threats posed to their work. What do you think of the current situation of press freedom around the world?

Journalism has changed over a period of time. Earlier there was print journalism. It changed to electronic. Now it changed to digital. And journalism as a public service, unfortunately, has been impacted because with competition, with the growth of the media, the corporate world has gotten involved in the ownership of the media across the world. It can be different from [country to country] but it has got involved. Now journalism has changed its role from a public service to a business model. Its role as the fourth estate or as journalists building public opinion gets diminished because business interests take over. Now what we are seeing is with this competition and with this growth of the media what happened is journalistic ethical standards have had a blow. Newspapers are competing with television. The television is competing with digital media. Everybody is in a rush, so the quality of the journalism has gone down. More importantly, maybe it should be the first [point] is that press freedom has been impacted. Let’s say countries like the United States and India, the largest democracies in the world—they both would claim they have press freedom.  In reality, that’s not the case today. There are pressures on the media. Government control is not there at the front but it is [acting] from behind the scenes.

And the third thing, which again is frightening, is that journalists are being targeted. Journalists across the world are being killed for their reporting. When there is an attack on the journalist, it is not only an individual, we see it as an attack on freedom of speech and expression.

The other thing that concerns us today is social media, fake news. Social media can play havoc in countries or in cities [and it] can lead to protests. Wrong news can evoke emotions. We have seen in [India] something on social media can create a lot of problems. I don’t understand why we call it social media. We can’t call it “media.” We shouldn’t call it media because it is not media. It does not verify the facts. It is not giving the facts.

On these concerns and challenges including on fake news and business models in journalism that you mentioned, how do you see the future of journalism in a decade?

Well, it has to be corrected. I still do have faith that we will complete a full circle. I don’t know whether you find this in your country, but in my country and amongst my journalist friends, we are having this feeling of dissatisfaction. We are getting frustrated in our profession because there is the clampdown. And it’s not spoken out. I think together we have to fight. It is easier said than done, but you have to stick your job to ensure that you can write and speak whatever you want to. But, it must change. I am optimistic. Maybe in a decade to come, there will be a change.

Fake news is also bothering—not just journalists—but it is bothering people. At some stages it is even bothering governments. I think there will be a solution.

There are many controversial laws used to arrest journalists for their reporting. Most governments don’t appreciate the role of journalists. They only care when the election is near. What you would like to say to the governments which keep those repressive laws?

I think the message to the government is very clear: the press is not your enemy; media is not your enemy; media is your go-between [connecting] you and the people so you have to allow the media to have a free run because media is going to inform you of your functioning. It is going to tell you what the priority areas you should have are. Media should be allowed to function freely and responsibly. Laws which clamp down on media are [not good]. They must refrain from [using them] because if they genuinely want to serve the people, they must allow the media to speak for the people.

And we also have a responsibility. I am not blaming the government alone. There is private media and channels which are now taking sides. We also have problems with the credibility of media. I do still remember when I said I am a journalist 30 years ago my friends would say, “Wow, you are a journalist. Such a great profession.” But today when you say you are a journalist there is a big question mark. I mean they are not impressed by you. You have 20 channels and the same incidents are reported with different content, so people really don’t know who to believe. The credibility of the media also is a big issue. We have to go back to good standards, to ethical journalism. Not this cut-throat competition. We are not selling jeans—we are disseminating news. So this cut-throat competition is impacting our reputation even as journalists.

There are now many women journalists working in the field as well as in the war zones. What you would like to say in regards to their rights?

Women journalist are [emerging] in various countries. We have seen there is the movement of women journalists in the profession. But we do find survey [results] suggesting that the women journalists find it difficult to reach the top posts in their newsroom. It is very difficult. The second thing we are facing is the sexual harassment of women journalists by their seniors. It wasn’t spoken about before, but with the #MeToo movement happening, now even the IFJ has a campaign on against violence towards women. It doesn’t happen in my country but a large number of countries pay women less than a male colleague for the same work she does. So gender equality is a concept which IFJ is fully involved in.

I only have one regret. Women have joined the profession of journalism, but very few join trade unions. What they say is they have [difficult] meeting times. Some of the men are drinking while we have to look after our family and home. But you have to join the trade unions because the more women in the trade unions, the more women-related issues the union will pick up. We have to be part of it. We have to make our place there. And it is not that difficult. I have done it.

Paul Murphy, adviser to the IFJ

How do you see the current situation of press freedom?

I think there are many threats to press freedom around the world. The situation has become more dangerous for journalists in recent years because we have seen the growth of governments around the world don’t value journalists, don’t respect journalists and journalist organizations. That, I think, has been made worse since the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Because the United States was always seen as a champion of free press, free speech, liberal democracy. His attacks on the media and his attacks on journalists, I think, encourage other governments around the world to do the same. That’s seen many journalists imprisoned. Many journalists facing threats. Unfortunately, many journalists being killed all around the world, including in Asia-Pacific.

With journalists facing greater threats and dangers, how does this affect the right to information and democracy internationally?

I think we have seen democracy go backwards in a lot of countries in the West and in the Asia-Pacific since the rise of politicians that are very populist. They have populist right-wing agendas and they seek a way to get power by dividing the country, by turning one part of the population against another. When journalists and organizations call them to account, and call out what they are doing, [journalists] find themselves in the firing line from attacks by governments, from attacks by police and security forces.

What can the IFJ do to improve that situation?

The IFJ works very closely with all their affiliates to provide practical support to journalists facing threats, to lobby governments around the world for the protection of journalists. We’ve also just launched the campaign for a new United Nations convention on the safety of journalists and media professionals because we are concerned that the current UN conventions don’t recognize the situation we are in. At the moment, the UN conventions in warzones provide the same sort of protection to journalists as it provides to citizens. That doesn’t recognize the fact that increasingly journalists are becoming a target for violence. Combatants in war zones are targeting the journalists. We believe that there needs to be a stronger UN convention to put requirements on governments to provide greater protection to journalists and media workers.

The IFJ is proposing the establishment of an Asia-Pacific federation of journalists. Do you see any differences or a worsening of press freedom in the region?

The Asia-Pacific region has some of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. In Afghanistan, the situation remains very bad. Pakistan’s situation is very bad. Obviously, we’ve got concerns about the position of journalists in Myanmar. At the moment Philippine President Duterte seems to have no respect for the role of journalists and democratic forces. We think a more active federation of journalists in the Asia-Pacific can play an important role in supporting journalists and protecting their safety.

What would be your message to the governments of the Asia-Pacific region regarding journalism and press freedom?

Journalism is a fundamental part of a democratic system. It’s almost impossible to have a proper, functioning democracy without the free press and without the journalists who report fearlessly to bring to light corruption and mistreatment to their fellow citizens. Journalists have to be respected in their role and there has to be respect for truth. That’s something the governments, all governments, should recognize and protect.