Journalism under friendly fire?

It was a day of stark contrasts and mixed emotions when some 600 NGO staffers and activists gathered in Oslo on 3 June for the truly Global Forum on Freedom of Expression 2009, representing more than 120 nations.

Journalists were portrayed as heroes, defending truth and an open public sphere under conditions of severe political oppression, persecution, and many times even at risk of torture and death. Yet journalists were also criticised for doing sloppy research, for being sensationalistic and sticking to a simplistic black-and-white approach, as well as for frequently adhering to a merely commercial rationale.

After a keynote delivered by the Norwegian foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, who outlined his government’s impressive track record of active support for freedom of opinion worldwide, the conference opened with intense testimonials by three women, all victims of oppressive governments or societies. All of them had brought unwelcome issues to the public attention in their respective home countries, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan, and said how they would not let themselves be deterred from their causes by threats, assassination attempts, imprisonment and mistreatment.

While the organisers may have laid emotions on a bit thick at this point, the opening ceremony served as a reminder that infringements on press freedom discussed in Europe and North America are still merely the tip of a worldwide iceberg. Journalists, writers and opposition forces in many countries need protection and support from democratic societies, irrespective of whether they take a political line that meets the Western consensus or not. Jonas Gahr Støre’s earlier demand that “dialogue means seizing the middle ground” is only the second, yet no less important, step after that.

Or, as Lydia Cacho Ribero, the Mexican journalist, put it: “When I saw the famous Ibsen quote on a sidewalk here in Oslo, ‘The minority is always right’, I couldn’t help but smile and think: Yes, we are.”

A different picture of the journalistic profession was, however, painted during one of the first regular conference sessions. Said Susan Dente Ross, a journalism professor from Washington State University: “The media are more often guilty of crimes of omission than commission.” What she meant was that journalists and the media are easily susceptible to what today is deceptively called “media management”, in other words: the modern and smart version of propaganda.

Norwegian reporter Ingeborg Eliasson illustrated this with her personal experience during the 2008 Gaza war. Israeli authorities, she said, had learned from the 2006 experience in the Lebanon conflict, when the media were all over the place. This time, according to Eliasson, Israel did not allow any journalists into the Gaza strip and kept the media representatives so busy with press conferences, visits to impact sites of Hamas rockets, and interview opportunities with high-level politicians, that they did not even think of exploring the Palestinian point of view, let alone try and get first-hand information out of the Gaza strip. Thus, Israel managed to control the message that went out to the world’s media without actually applying open censorship.

Journalists encountered a similar experience during the Iraq war as well, where the US military exercised strict control of where press representatives could go, what they were allowed to see, and where “embedded journalists” could by default report from the US point of view only while ostensibly witnessing battle in an authentic fashion.

Ross suggested to counteract such tendencies with four basic requirements to what she calls “peace journalism”: Journalists should reflect on their own professional methods and practices, should develop an informed cultural sensibility (also for the “opposite” party), should be aware of and scrutinise their dependence on official sources, and should make sure that they put things into the appropriate broader context. This is her concept against “parachute journalism”, where correspondents are dropped into a crisis zone without proper preparation and background knowledge and therefore are highly likely to simply adopt the perspective of the powers that be.

Another unsettling story was told by the Sri Lankan newspaper editor Raknish Sava Wijewardene. His boss was murdered in January 2009. However, Wijewardene seemed to conclude that violence against media representatives was only the most radical form of repression, supported by a comprehensive strategy for state opinion control.

During the recently ended civil war in his country, he said, the government succeeded with an affordable yet effective strategy to influence domestic public opinion in its favour: Commercial media outlets were easily pressured to comply with the official political line through the threat of withdrawal of advertising money. At the same time the state systematically used pop culture and state-of-the-art Web 2.0 techniques to appeal to patriotic, anti-Tamil separatist feelings of Sri Lankan citizens and to neutralise the impact of international media. “You could even download a battle map to your mobile”, Wijewardene reported.

Apparently, the tools which are otherwise praised for making widespread public participation in the opinion-forming process possible in the first place have in this case turned against pluralism.

It does not, however, come as a surprise that governments of all persuasions embrace the new technological opportunities in the same way as citizens, and on second thought, it seems quite unlikely that the case of Sri Lanka is the first one.

The lesson learned from this is that it would be naive to expect Web 2.0 and community media to be per se pluralistic and immune to deceptive tactics of autocratic governments or indeed any pressure groups. They require the same kind of public scrutiny and debate as conventional publishing outlets, and call for an advanced level of media literacy to empower citizens to figure them out correctly. This process requires international events in neutral places, such as the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression.