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Answering the public's question "why do they do it?"

Answering the public's question "why do they do it?"

Article ID:

19591

"Unless our societies fully appreciate the value of professional journalism - and that it contributes directly to their betterment - then our own efforts will always be limited to reacting to attacks and insecurity rather than by being proactive in eliminating the causes of it."

Remarks by Larry Kilman, Secretary General, at the UNESCO conference, "News organizations standing up for the safety of media professionals"
UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, 5 February 2016

 

 

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, colleagues;

As one of the partners in this event, I would like to thank you once again on behalf of WAN-IFRA for your participation here today. We've heard many thoughtful, practical and valuable ideas and approaches on how to better protect journalists and media organizations, and on the challenges that remain.

I'd like to wrap up but focusing on one particular issue that I believe deserves additional attention, because in some ways it is right at the heart of these discussions.

In preparing for this conference, I was re-reading Michael Herr's classic Vietnam war memoir, "Dispatches." In his book, Herr is confronted by soldiers who simply can't believe he is there voluntarily. When they learn he is accompanying them by choice, they don't understand what compels him to put himself in the line of fire, or why anyone who wasn't severely disturbed would voluntarily go to war.

I've also been thinking about a conversation from some years ago between Pedro Ramirez, then editor in chief of El Mundo in Spain, and Gebran Tueni, who was then the Editor and Publisher of An-Nahar in Lebanon. Both of them were required to have armor-plated cars, and they were nonchalantly discussing the merits of various armor configurations, as others might talk about the benefits of different makes of tires, or engines, as if armor plate was just another option.

Years later, Gebran was killed by a roadside bomb in Beirut as he was being driven to work. He had been warned he was a target, had briefly fled to Paris for safety, but he returned home despite the danger, because, as he said, he couldn't do his job from afar.

For most of us in this room, and for media professionals around the world, the answer to the question of why they do it, despite personal danger, is self-evident. But, unfortunately, there isn't the same level of understanding among the audiences they serve.

Far too often, instead of being celebrated for the watchdog role they play and their direct role in societal development, journalists are vilified and their work criticised and demeaned. We are all dismayed that, in many countries, news organizations are often listed among the least respected institutions.

If journalists are to be better protected, this fundamental attitude must change. Answering the public's question, "why do they do it", and, by extension, "why should we care," needs to be addressed in a more profound manner. News organizations and their representatives simply must do a better job of advocating, educating and defending, and building an understanding among the public.

When a large segment of this public is unaware or misinformed about where news and information originates, when they no longer think they need professional journalists -- that digital media turns everyone into a reporter, when people think news comes from companies like Google and Facebook -- it becomes necessary for professionals to make the case for themselves. And we need to do this not only for ourselves, but for the same reason that we cover any other story -- the public needs to know, that attacks on professional journalists reduces the ability to provide the news and information they need to make informed decisions in democratic society.

Again, this is self-evident to media professionals, but often not to the public at large. There is a historic and traditional reticence among news media about reporting on themselves, on being the story. We need to make a case that the adversarial role of news media is necessary in democracy, and that, by definition, it can be a dangerous profession -- uncovering repression, corruption, violence, crime and other wrongdoing if often met with attacks and murder to intimidate and silence, and this constitutes a direct attack on people's right to know.

Governments and other authorities also need convincing that it is in their own best interests, and in the interest of their citizens, to embrace this adversarial but essential role. With respect to our host UNESCO, conferences like this are undermined by some of its very members, who criminalize legitimate journalism or equate coverage with promoting terrorism. It is not only those countries that impose these laws as a mechanism of repression, but also those who do so perhaps inadvertently, by failing to provide a journalistic exemption to anti-terrorism legislation.

It is also not helpful when government officials and others give lip-service to the need for free media, but always add the qualifier, "but the media must be responsible." These are often code words for, 'don't make waves, don't cover what I don't think you should cover and do not embarrass me.' It is the rare public figure who understands that the greater good requires some to be embarrassed, or worse, and that public figures are required to give up a degree of personal privacy in the public interest. More often, public figures disparage and demean the media to draw attention away from themselves, and they encourage the public to do so too.

We also need to better confront the excuses we hear about the near impunity that accompanies attacks and murders of journalists. We heard much today about impunity itself, and what must be done. But far too often, our efforts are met with excuses that suggest that many or even most of the journalists who are killed are not, in fact, killed because of their journalistic work. It is outrageous to be asked to believe that so many were killed because of a personal vendetta or even because of some wrongdoing by the journalists themselves. Once again, the public is being told to blame the victim.

So, unless our societies fully appreciate the value of professional journalism -- and that it contributes directly to their betterment -- then our own efforts will always be limited to reacting to attacks and insecurity rather than by being proactive in eliminating the causes of it.

There is much to be done, and this conference has been excellent step in the right direction. As a next step -- one we hope will be one of many -- WAN-IFRA, along with the International Federation of Journalists and the International Women's Media Foundation, is convening a small meeting of our member editors and publishers tomorrow at AFP headquarters to discuss greater engagement and possible next steps. We will be reporting back to you on the outcome, and we are looking forward to your continuing contribution to this process.

Thank you for your attention.

Author

Andrew Heslop's picture

Andrew Heslop

Date

2016-02-05 17:49

Contact information

In countless countries, journalists, editors and publishers are physically attacked, imprisoned, censored, suspended or harassed for their work. WAN-IFRA is committed to defending freedom of expression by promoting a free and independent press around the world. Read more ...