‘Media freedom is everybody’s challenge’

Matt Winkler interacts with ACJ students.

In the present ecosystem, media organizations have an obligation to take care of journalists, said Matt Winkler, Co-founder of Bloomberg News, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Emeritus, recently.

He was participating in a discussion which was followed by an interactive session that covered a wide range of topics – from Michael Bloomberg in the US presidential race to the evolving media eco-system around the world. The event, held at the Asian College of Journalism, was hosted by Sashi Kumar, Chairman of the Media Development Foundation.

Winkler, who is also a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for over a decade, was apprehensive about the challenges the mainstream media faces due to the advent of social media, especially with authoritative and totalitarian people in power.

Speaking of the different media eco-systems and the privileges journalists from only certain parts of the world enjoy he said, “we make a mistake if we assume that the protection which are arguably unique in the United States with respect to the first amendment can be applied everywhere else. It is a much more challenging role that we have every-time we go and work in a country where we don’t have the protections. It is not just our challenge it is everybody’s challenge.”

In such an eco-system, Winkler said, Bloomberg has an obligation to take care of journalists who are citizens in all these countries. We cannot, “just think about the consequences of what we write and report, it is a much more robust challenge for us wherever we are, because we are invested in all of these countries as much as we are covering them,” he added.

Winkler believes, Michael Bloomberg was the ideal presidential candidate in the US Elections. His boss’s contribution as Mayor of New-York city, which is an equivalent of a small country, was in itself an ‘incredible renaissance’. Expressing his preference of Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate Winkler noted,“ the most important thing at this point is that the United States has someone who can unite and not divide and there is no question that Bernie Sanders is running on a campaign to divide people”.

Endorsing the subscription model over the advertisement model in the way journalism must be consumed, “the subscription model is the ‘model of models’… If u cannot figure out how to support your journalists, you are not going to have journalists. So supporting the subscription model is the right way to go,” he said.

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End impunity for crimes against journalists

On the occasion of the International Day to ‘End Impunity For Crimes Against Journalists’, a global discussion on ‘Press Freedom’ was organised by the Asian College of Journalism.

The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed November 2 as the ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’. The date was chosen in commemoration of the assassination of two French journalists in 2013. The Asian College of Journalism organised a virtual event which was moderated by Sashi Kumar, Chairman of the Media Development Foundation. A number of prominent journalists and media practitioners from around the world shared their insights into understanding press freedom and media practices prevalent across the globe.

Focusing on the challenges that lie before the fourth estate, the state of the free press and journalism in the global context, media practitioners from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Australia, Lebanon, United Kingdom, Bangladesh and the United States of America convened together for this global conversation.

Speaking from India, N Ram, Former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu Group of Newspapers, pointed to research and reports of a worldwide decline in freedom of the news media. India ranks 138th out of 180 countries according to a recent report by ‘Reporters Without Borders’. “Several decades ago we used to think we (India) were in an enviable position. After the authoritarian emergency in 1975 the press emerged as liberated, energised, independent and on a path of growth. Today if you claim that India is in an enviable position you will be accused of purveying fake news,” he said. The most vulnerable are journalists covering politics, corruption, crime and human rights, “Around 1,354 journalists were killed worldwide including 50 in India since 1992, says documented reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ),” he added.

Talking about the paradigm shift in Journalism, Sri Lankan journalist Amantha Perera, Asia Pacific coordinator of the Dart Centre of Journalism and Trauma, believes journalism today has lost its exclusivity and the trust of the people as well. While the loss of trust could be due to partisan journalism, exclusivity faces a different challenge as most news and information today in Sri Lanka come from ordinary citizens neutralising the exclusivity of the media. Journalism’s relevance in this paradigm shift is authenticity he said, and added, “ in this climate of fake news, misinformation and disinformation, journalism has a role to show authentic valid information. Trust and authenticity is the need of the hour.”

Boasting of a vibrant media since the introduction of the freedom of press framework in 1990 in Nepal, Namrata Sharma, Editor of nariswor (woman’s voice), talks about the challenges for journalism in the country. Attempts to control the media by the government is increasing, often denying information pertaining to public interest in the name of right to privacy. “In the beginning the leaders of today fought against the autocratic system but now slowly that autocracy is coming back,” she said. “The media has been corporatised now, and not only the state but private sector’s interest also influences editorial choices,” she added.

Andrew Whitehead, former BBC correspondent and visiting Professor at the ACJ, speaking about the concerns of journalism in the United Kingdom, elaborated on the lack of protection to whistle-blowers, excessive invocation of national security to stop investigative journalism, lack of a good business model for independent journalism, an increasing malign corporate influence particularly in the national newspaper industry, and the great divisive issue of Brexit that has polarised the press, resulting in declining levels of confidence in the mainstream media. However digital journalism is expanding, except for the absence of a successful business model. Comparing Indian media with the UK media, he said, “there is more buying of editorial influence and news space by both political parties and corporate in India, which is shameful. But on the contrary, there is some very good journalism as well. When I am in India I watch ‘NDTV’, I read ‘The Hindu’, I go everyday to ‘The Wire’ and I teach at ‘ACJ’, the students really understand what good journalism is, and I think there is a lot of good journalism in India. On the whole I am resilient and optimistic about the future.”

Moving on to Uganda, Canary Mugume, investigative journalist from NBS Television, explains the state of freedom of press in east Africa. Physical assault on the press is a common phenomenon in Uganda. “The freedom of the press in east Africa is in an absolute crisis.  For the 10th consecutive year, Ugandan police and the army were ranked as the highest abuser’s of media rights according to the ‘Human Rights Network for Journalists’ in Uganda .The state is supposed to be protecting us and not abuse us,” said Mugume.

Robin Jeffrey, a media scholar from Australia explained in detail the collective retaliation of the Australian media against government actions limiting the Freedom of Information Act. “A unified campaign called ‘Australia’s Right to Know’ had 15 mainstream media organisations coming together in solidarity against raids at the ‘Australian Broadcasting Corporation’ for running a story on the excesses of the Australian Taxation Office.” The campaign asks for a legislation, some decent guarantees from the government preventing such intimidations,” he said.

Lebanese Journalist, Asser Khattab from The Washington Post, Beirut Bureau, deconstructs the current political atmosphere in Lebanon and the implications this environment has on the media. “ Lebanon has always took pride in being the incubator of the only democracy in the Middle East until the Arab Spring in 2011. In the following years there has been many authoritarian rulers overthrown and many incidents against freedom of expression continue including arrests, detentions and State-led clampdown on journalism,” said Khattab.

From the United States, Tim Drachlis, veteran journalist and professor, California State University, speaking of the resilience of the free press which is constitutionally enshrined in the US, also mentions advocacy journalism is on the rise in recent times. “Ethical standards are very weak. A person in California, who wrote the story on a website damaging the mayor’s opponent, actually works for the mayor. He is pretending to be unbiased while writing the story but there is clear partisanship, and this confuses people,” he said.

The last guest of this Global live discussion was Humayun Kabir Bhuiyan, reporter and professor from Bangladesh. Speaking about the chilling effect owing to crimes against journalists in Bangladesh, he said, “journalists have developed self censorship and self censorship is the biggest problem we are facing. This harms our nation.” He added, “Our journalists have failed to understand and realise the strength of unity.” Concluding this global conversation on ‘Press Freedom’ on the International Day to ‘End Impunity For Crimes Against Journalists’,“ journalists have given their lives merely because they wanted to speak truth to power, speak truth to those who wanted truth suppressed. Because they wanted to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” said Sashi Kumar.

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