Freedom of the press and a perfect storm

Friday, December 2nd 2016

Reliable public information is under threat by social trends and by people in power who are exploiting vulnerabilities in the media around the globe.  That is the gist of comments from yesterday’s panel discussion sponsored by the Center for International Media Assistance.

The panel – titled “Democracy and the Media Challenge in the 21st Century” -- painted a picture brought to mind that movie “The Perfect Storm:” a set of conditions that add up to a lethal mix.   The old paradigm of government repression is only one part of the picture, according to panelists.

·         New media have taken readership away from traditional print and broadcast outlets, but the social media and websites – many of them with hidden agendas – have no standards.  The independent media that the Committee to Protect Journalists tries to protect used to be the only way for repressive governments to get out their message, said Joel Simon, Executive Director.  Now, they’re “dispensable,” without leverage.  Governments get their news out in other ways.

·         More people around the world are getting more of their news from these internet sites, where their “friends” share a mix of stories from legitimate sources and bogus reports.

·         The digitization of publishing has squeezed out the profit from reporting news.  That is drying up the well of verified, professionally written and edited information.  “The market basis is collapsing” for responsible journalism, Jeanne Bourgault of Internews said.

·         The ease of posting comments on these sites has enabled bigots and has brought out all readers’ worst instincts.  Bourgault remarked that in the Philippines, Facebook has acquired the nickname “Hatebook.”

·         Autocrats are on the “counter-attack” against purveyors of news that may complicate their authority, said.  Simon predicted that the committee’s census of journalists killed and imprisoned in 2016 would set a record.

These massive shifts in culture and commerce have tipped the balance of power to autocrats and others who want to propagandize the public, creating an “information dystopia” (Bourgault’s word.)  While the panel’s overall outlook was bleak, and no general solutions were presented, a few bright spots emerged.  Some provide insights for public diplomacy practitioners involved in press freedom issues.

·         Internews got the public in Ukraine to identify false news stories by creating a contest.

·         Panel moderator Dana Priest, who now teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, has discovered that her students benefit from training in the use of search engines to check sources and actively find genuine news.  It doesn’t come naturally, apparently.  (Several years ago, the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul sponsored an educational initiative on internet literacy.)

·         Mark Helmke, from the University of Indiana, stressed the importance of good local news as the basis for informed citizens; Brougault pointed out that local media are thriving in Afghanistan.

·         Elizabeth Stein is pursuing a global listing of media owners, which may reveal patterns in how independent, factual and balanced different media outlets can be.  (One questioner posed this question: among Al Jazeera, BBC and the Voice of America, which is more independent?)

Stein’s project is the result of a new partnership between CIMA and Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies.  She holds the Mark Helmke post-doctoral scholarship on Global Media, Development, and Democracy at Indiana’s School of Global and International Studies.  Yesterday’s event was to publicize that partnership, and among the VIP guests was former Senator Richard Lugar, who served on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy for nine years and helped create CIMA.

Senator Lugar remembered the late Mark Helmke, his late senior advisor and aide.  Rep. Adam Schiff, who opened the discussion, noted that he and Vice President-Elect Mike Pence co-sponsored the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press in 2006.

Since the Caucus’ founding, the world has changed.  And the sponsors of this event, who are sustained by government contracts, were careful to address press freedom from the viewpoint of international assistance.

However, it’s hard not to notice that the cultural and economic conditions they described are battering our U.S. domestic news organizations, and that politicians in our nation are questioning the legitimacy of independent national media.

Some would even say that we’re in the center of that perfect storm.  If the United States is to retain its own credibility as a supporter of democracy abroad, it needs a bipartisan consensus on the value of independent, factual reporting.

Joe B. Johnson

Board member

 

Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy.

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Author: Joe Johnson

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