Journalism at a Crossroads: Highlights from the 2015 World Press Freedom Day celebrations

Youth newsroom during World Press Freedom Day in May, 2015. [Photo courtesy of UNESCO]

Youth newsroom during World Press Freedom Day in May, 2015. [Photo courtesy of UNESCO]

On May 3 and 4, I attended the World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Riga, Latvia. Co-hosted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Latvia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the theme of this year’s event was “Let Journalism Thrive! Towards Better Reporting, Gender Equality & Media Safety in the Digital Age.”

Hundreds of journalists, editors, academics, lawyers, media owners and managers from all over the world converged to discuss how to critically handle the challenges facing the industry, while building on the success stories. It was such a stimulating and inspired gathering, enveloped by a feeling of solidarity and camaraderie found amongst people who share a great profession.

Yet, despite the diverse representation in the conference, there was unity in the problems media practitioners faced on a daily basis. Even though the contextual analysis of the issues at hand differed, journalists, from Russia to Indonesia, and from Canada to Azerbaijan, expressed similar challenges in their day-to-day work. The task at hand was how to adhere to the old-age values of journalism, maneuver around the newfangled obstacles, while ensuring a financially viable, buoyant and progressive future for the profession in the digital age.

In the precarious, post-Charlie Hebdo moment, one critical topic highlighted at the conference was hate speech. The discussions surrounded mechanisms to reconcile press freedom with responsible journalism, and how to “encourage all communicators to be more ethical and to give perspective, context and humanity in their work.” These challenges ring true for those of us living in East Africa, where media agencies have found themselves oscillating between one extreme and another: as defenders of media pluralism and editorial independence, and as conduits for hate speech and discord, by labeling and dividing communities using the “us” and “them” dichotomy. The ongoing trial of Kenyan journalist Joshua arap Sang at the International Criminal Court; the indulgence of Somali media in clan rivalry and character assassination; and the role of the media in Rwanda’s genocide are illustrative of this trend.

Twenty years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, the relationship between women and media also remained a subject of hot debate. During one of the plenary sessions, there was a stark reminder of how much we have come and how far we have to go to tackle the marginalization of women in newsroom decision-making, besides the promotion of a “non-stereotyped” image of women in media circles.

In this age of social media and 140 character journalistic practices, there was also genuine concern regarding the quality of journalism. The discussions milled around how to strengthen investigative journalism and in-depth reporting, increase audience participation, support literacy and training programs, and even raise standards amongst those using new platforms to break and report stories. Nonetheless, the digital age has also limited the viability of traditional news outlets, and commercial influence is now more prevalent in newsrooms than ever before. News outlets’ experimentation with native advertising is just one example of how independent news creation and delivery is facing a major strain today.

Speaking of strains and struggles, it was the grisly details of human – and journalistic – sacrifice that united many who attended the conference in Riga. In a year that saw the public beheading of journalists such as James Foley and Kenji Goto, the risks faced by practitioners was the predominant discussion through the breakout sessions. Beatings, intimidation, kidnapping, arrests, censorship, and extrajudicial killings are just some of the hazards that journalists face while doing their jobs. It wasn’t lost on anyone the presence of Al Jazeera English journalist Peter Greste who spent 400 days in Egyptian presence, or Hamid Mir, the famous Pakistani journalist who survived an assassination attempt last year. “I was hit by six bullets, two of which are still in my body,” he told a room ful of journalists.

More problematic were the ways in which journalists were caught between the heavy-handedness of government regulatory frameworks and the bloody ways of non-state actors such as terrorist groups. In the end, it was a case of the personal being political, as journalists were being targeted for imparting information and ideas. That’s why it was only befitting that the Syrian journalist Mazen Darwish, who has been in jail since February 2012, was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

Despite all the gloom, the annual event was also a space to celebrate journalism and recognize its importance as an enabler of human development. Participants noted the need for a “healthy cooperation and coordination” between media owners, journalists, governments and human rights defenders as one of the ways to create a diverse and independent media environment. It was also refreshing to listen to and talk to some of the media managers who were engaged in supporting and developing sustainable, quality and innovative media products. And to cap it all, Latvia, which this year is also presiding over the Council of the European Union, launched what was essentially dubbed as the first postage stamp in the world dedicated to media freedom.

Journalism is at a very crucial crossroads. Press freedom is at its lowest point in over a decade, according to Freedom House, with only 1 in 7 people – that’s 14 percent of the world’s population – living in countries with a free press. And if the biggest gathering of those who practice it brought out anything for me, it is that the more things change, the more they will remain the same.

Follow Abdi Latif Dahir on Twitter @Lattif.

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