Surviving the new media
PICTURED: Starcom Network’s regional manager, news and public affairs, David Ellis (centre) has the full attention of his colleagues. From left are Kaymar Jordan, NATION Editor-In-Chief; Clinton Reynolds, president of the media association of St Lucia; Glen Lall, publisher and CEO of Kaieteur News in Guyana; and Enrico Woolford (sitting), managing editor of Capitol News Guyana.
WHILE CHRIS SINCKLER was putting the finishing touches to his national Budget presentation last week, several senior journalists from Barbados – myself included – as well as my Chief Executive Officer and Publisher Vivian Anne Gittens and colleagues from around the world were gathering in Trinidad and Tobago for the International Press Institute’s (IPI) 63rd annual World Congress.
It was the first time the Vienna-based IPI was holding its Congress in the Caribbean and a strong local delegation participated, including Nation Associate Managing Editor Eric Smith, David Ellis, of sister station Starcom Network Inc., Roy Morris, of Barbados Today, Jewel Forde, president of the Barbados Association of Journalists, and Ian Bourne, the Bajan Reporter.
The full Caribbean media posse was in attendance; so too were delegates, journalists and Press freedom advocates from the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia, including places such as Azerbaijan, Russia, India, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Nepal, Pakistan, Somoa, Slovakia, Tanzania, Quatar, The Netherlands and Nigeria.
What a rich cultural potpourri it proved to be, putting paid to the notion that it is a dog-eat-dog world out there and that journalists, owing to the nature of the competitive business environment, simply do not get along.
In this neutral atmosphere, where there was no “mighty scoop” up for grabs, we simply shared experiences and spoke frankly about the challenges and issues confronting our sector.
In the case of the newspaper industry, there is a real and present danger of extinction that already has many sounding the death knell. From New Delhi to Bridgetown, the day of reckoning is being strongly forecast. Some say it will take ten to 15 years, others say it may even happen before, but no one can say for sure.
So, reposition ourselves we must! But, do we go full throttle, as others have, into cyberspace? That too is proving quite treacherous for those who have chosen to boldly go where no others have gone before.
Right business model
Yes, the Internet is exciting and a place we all need to be, but the business model must be right. Current participants are finding it very hard to stay out of the red, with online revenues for the majority of reputable media companies still falling below ten per cent.
As we in the mainstream media increasingly find ourselves competing with the Internet and as new technologies and social networking give rise to new forms of journalism, we also have to ask ourselves how are the core values of traditional journalism such as accuracy, impartiality and editorial oversight being affected.
Are existing ethical codes suitable for today’s online platforms? And how do we promote and protect ethical, quality journalism in a changing media landscape?
What Monday’s session confirmed is that these are issues that media companies all over the world are trying to come to terms with, just as most are still trying to wrap their fingers around the issue of monetizing their online presence.
In India, for example, there are 30 000 plus newspapers in 22 official and other languages. Out of the total population of 1.22 billion, there are 895 million literates, according to the 2011 Census.
One representative of a newspaper, which boasts of a total readership of 350 million, reported that only ten per cent of its revenues were from online and that was “on a good day”, leaving us to continue to ponder over business strategy.
Jim Clancy, of CNN, moderated a very lively and interactive session on the use of advertising to manipulate the media and influence news coverage.
Governments are also getting into the habit of rewarding certain media companies for “positive coverage” and pulling their ads from “negative” media. The proverbial piper therefore poses a significant threat to Press freedom.
The situation is especially worrisome in places such as Venezuela and Ecuador. This is not to say that the use of state media as a propaganda tool is not an equally bothersome phenomena in our neck of the woods; or the growing use of our journalists as political mouthpieces for the government.
But unarguably, the grimmest news shared at the meeting was that 2012 was shaping up to be the worst on record for journalist killings since IPI began keeping records 15 years ago.
IPI executive director Allison Bethel-McKenzie told delegates from more than 120 countries that so far this year 72 journalists have been killed because of their work.
In addition, the global financial crisis that is ravaging the media industry continued to take a toll on the profession with reporters being laid off, bureaus closed and advertising revenue dropping as news budgets shrink.
She said journalists were finding it ever more difficult to fulfill that most noble of duties of satisfying the people’s right to know.
“From Somalia to Syria, the Philippines to Mexico and Iraq to Pakistan, reporters are being brutally targeted for death in unparalleled numbers,” a visibly emotional Bethel-McKenzie said.
“Last year was the second worst on record, with 102 journalists killed. And 2009 was the grimmest ever with 110 deaths, 32 of them in a single election convoy massacre in the Philippines in which another 26 civilians were slain.”
Thankfully, none of those deaths last year occurred in the Caribbean, but we have had the misfortune of mourning the loss of colleagues in Haiti and the Dominican Republic who were killed for speaking out against wrongdoers.
It is the sort of news that makes one actively consider his or her own fate, as does hearing the horror stories of other journalists – including Eynulla
Fatullayev, of Azerbaijan, and Nedim Sener, of Turkey, who were imprisoned in 2007 and 2011, respectively.
Fatullayev was detained for alleged violations of the anti-terrorism law after he reported on the potential ramifications of Azerbaijan’s support for the United States if the US went to war with Iran.
Following an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, he was sentenced to additional prison time when authorities in December 2009 said they found heroin in his prison cell – a charge which many believe was fabricated to prevent his release.
He was eventually granted a presidential pardon on May 26, 2011 following advocacy on his behalf by IPI and others who also lobbied successfully for the release of Sener after he was detained on March 3, 2011 following a raid by security services targeting journalists and others connected with nationalist news website, Oda TV.
During their very touching presentations, one of my colleagues leaned over and quipped: “We should be careful how we report on these things, lest we give our politicians any ideas!”
Indeed, we have had no arrests so far but as long as criminal defamation remains on the statute books, it poses a threat to us all.
The Defamation Act (1997) provides for a fine or jail time of up to 12 months for criminal libel.
The ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) included in its 2008 election manifesto a pledge to amend the law as part of the introduction of “Integrity Legislation” within the first 100 days in office.
So far, it has only established an Advisory Board on Governance tasked with drafting the changes.
All it takes is one tyrant to permanently damage our good record on Press freedom.
While deaths are not the order of the day, intimidation certainly is, as evidenced in recent weeks by the raiding of the Express in Trinidad and the search of the bedroom of one media worker.
In the words of Kwame Boafo, of UNESCO, journalists are not always angels but they are certainly not criminals and while we do not condone irresponsible acts, we should not be jailed for what we do.
We therefore strongly support the mandate of the IPI to have criminal defamation removed from the statute books and take a measure of comfort in the assurances given by Prime Minister Freundel Stuart that he would “look into it” during his recent meeting here with an IPI delegation.