Reporting barriers in East and West – subtle, obvious, sometimes fatal. How media freedom shapes politics everywhere

Posted on February 1st, 2010 by William Horsley

Spending ten days in East Asia prompts me to these thoughts about the variety of methods that governments and other powerful forces employ to stop journalists from reporting things they are determined to suppress. It’s the same the whole world over.

The irony is that reliable information about violence, harassment and legal or practical barriers to reporting is plentiful and well-known. Yet inquiring journalism remains dangerous or difficult, in varying degrees, almost everywhere, in the east and west alike. CFOM was set up a year ago at the University of Sheffield with the aim of contributing to better understanding of the destructive effect of these abuses, and to work with others, including governments wherever possible, to remedy them — through better laws, restraints on misuses of state power, proper administration of justice, and support for independent journalism.

Souheast Asia: Last December’s massacre of 31 media workers, among the 57 people killed in Maguindanao province in the southern Philippines, is the most brutal method of suppression of all. The International News Safety Institute calls it the highest death toll of journalists in any single incident in recorded history.

Gunmen adbucted and apparently killed everyone in a large party of people travelling through Maguindanao, including a woman filing her husband’s nomination to run for provincial governor of the area in forthcoming elections. The carnage pushed up the total number of targeted killings of journalists in 2009 to 132 in 35 countries, making last year one of the worst on record, INSI said.

Why then has the international community not agreed and implemented ways of investigating such atrocities quickly and thoroughly, and bringing the perpetrators to justice? Why especially in view of the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1738, passed unanimously in 2006? That text calls on all states to protect media professionals in armed conflicts and to prosecute those responsible for serious violations of international law. It is not formally binding, but it is a political commitment by which every country has agreed to be measured. A matter of justice and honour. A pledge honoured, too often, in the breach but not in the observance.

By all accounts the investigations into the Philippines massacre were neither as prompt, well-resourced or well coordinated as they should have been to be effective. An experienced British professional, Chris Cobb-Smith, who took part in one of several parallel invesigations on the ground after the massacre, told an audience at the Frontline Club in London in January that the lack of clarity or of any coordinating authority resulted in confusion, and severely limited the usefulness of the efforts of national and international bodies.

The Philippines has one of the bloodiest records of any country in the world for the murder of media workers in recent times.

South Asia: As I write, the evidence is piling up by the day of intolerable pressures and alleged abuses of authority against journalists in Sri Lanka. The Committee to Protect Journalists says journalists there have been subjected to government intimidation, arrests, censorship, and harassment in the aftermath of the recent presidential election.

“We are receiving reports of government retribution against journalists who sided with the opposition in the election”, the CPJ says in a statement. It cites reports of government retribution against journalists who sided with the opposition in the election.

The Commonwealth heads of government’s annual summit meeting, held in Trinidad and Tobago last November, was an opportunity for an open and constructive debate on some of the chronic abuses of human rights, good governance and freedom of expression that mar the societies of many Commonwealth states. Instead, the closing statement trod a safe and un-self-critical path. It focused on climate change, terrorism and Zimbabwe.

Europe: And the hard truth is that Europe can no longer claim to be a haven from large-scale or violent assaults on journalists and on the media as watchdogs on those who wield state power.

On 27 January the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) passed a Recommendation http://assembly.coe.int/Mainf.asp?link=/Documents/AdoptedText/ta10/EREC1897.htm
which it sent to the governments of the 47 member states, condemning the murder of at least 20 journalists in the European region since 2006, when Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in an apparent contract killing in Moscow.

The elected parliamentary representatives from across Europe called on governments, in effect, to stop evading their responsibilities, and to end the climate of impunity for those responsible for killing or attacking journalists — not only in Russia where at least thirteen journalists have died in what are suspected to be targeted attacks, but wherever evidence points to weak or inadequate criminal and judicial investigations.

The PACE also asked the Council of Europe’s new Secretary-General, Thorbjorn Jagland, to set up a continuous monitoring system, to mark the cards of all member states with regard to serious violations of media freedom of all kinds, and step up pressure on them to live up to their pledges. The monitoring is to cover more than 20 specific aspects of media freedom and media-government interaction –including suspected cases of judicial impunity, the need to abolish criminal libel, and national reviews of national anti-terrorism laws to challenge measures that contradict Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

China: Here in East Asia the repurcussions of Google’s dispute with the Chinese authorities, over their attempt to entrench their own state-imposed limits on the population’s access to Internet information, has assumed the dimensions of a major clash of civilisations in much international media coverage. I for one don’t doubt that the path that China takes in the coming years with regard to freedom of information and public debate will be crucial to the issue of whether or not its wider political development goes towards accountability and openness, or the reverse.

Japan: Meanwhile the Japanese have sprung a surprise. A new government, which last year won a landslide election victory and so ended the half-century of unbroken rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has promised a shakeup of entrenched political power structures (especially the pervasive power of the unelected civil servants, heirs to the Tokugawa tradition of mandarin rule with an iron hand).

As part of the shake-up, it has announced it is also pulling down (at least part of) the pervasive Japanese system of exclusive reporters’ clubs (“kisha clubs”) which have delivered something close to a monopoly on real-time government-related news to the privileged, mainly national, media ever since the end of World War Two. Smaller fry, freelances and foreigners have thereby often been denied access not only to press conferences but also to key sources of information.

The proposed reforms of the government’s information and media policy may or may not turn out to be real. But in my view — and I reported from Japan for many years myself — the influence of the kisha club system on the evolution of Japan’s unique (and in many ways baffling) political culture has been enormous. So much so that I venture to say that the privileged mainstream Japanese media, beneficiaries of the kisha club system and working closely with the political establishment for all these years, can be said to have played a real part in the maintenance of the one-party, LDP-dominated, system for so long.

The proposition is worth further examination. For now I just quote a highly independent Journalist, Tetsuo Jimbo, the founder of one of Japan’s first online news broadcasting companies. He told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan recently: “The kisha club system has spoiled the Japanese media, as it means they don’t go out and do investigaive journalism.”

In each of the cases I’ve touched on in this eclectic east-west tour, the degree of vigour and independence of those who investigate, report and analyse public affairs — journalists, editors, scholars, think-tankers and the rest — is closely linked to the the freedom and independence of the politicians and policy-makers — in other words, the governments themselves.

Britain: It’s time to wrap up this blogspot. But not without a mention of the lively debate about news media as a central element in civil society in the UK. I look forward to the final report of the Carnegie Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, which is due out in March 2010.

As a taster, one of the commissioners, Joyce McMillan of The Scotsman, spoke cogently at a big-tent media event, the Oxford Media Convention, on 22 January. Her theme: the vital link between independent and inquiring local reporting … and the future of democracy.

I wrote about Joyce’s insights, and those of other Convention speakers, on the website of the BBC’s College of Journalism. (I’s accessible only to those using a .uk domain I fear

http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/blog/2010/01/hearing-the-sos-for-watchdog-j.shtml

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