JWF UNGA77 ROUNDTABLE ON JOURNALISM
The Journalists and Writers Foundation organized an in-person Roundtable Discussion on “Global Perspectives on Journalism and Trust in News” and “Protecting Journalists from Assaults, Arrests, and Press Freedom Violations” on the occasion of the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on 20 September 2022, Tuesday at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Round 1 on “Global Perspectives” was moderated by Ian Williams, President of the Foreign Press Association (USA). The discussion revolved around journalism and the challenges of increasing forms of different media outlets. Journalists are public opinion builders who play a critical role in informing people about what is happening in the world. Despite numerous challenges, news media is still considered the most reliable independent source for accessible, timely, and relevant information about public and global affairs. However, there is growing skepticism about news and trust in an increasingly pluralistic media environment. Declining trust in news prevents citizens from making informed decisions and holding leaders accountable. In many countries, people are experiencing a dilemma about what is real from what is fake. While some media companies and politicians are responsible for these problems, some journalists also contribute to mistrust in news with false or misleading information.
Round 2 on “Protecting Journalists from Assaults, Arrests, and Press Freedom Violations” was moderated by Philippa McDonald GAICD, an Award-Winning Journalist (Australia). Journalists have become targets being observers in recent years. Many reporters face assaults and arrests or even being injured by police while covering news or protests in public spaces. Attacks on the press played a key role in a new chapter for press freedom as a horrible example for the population to incite against the press and blame reporters for unfavorable coverage of political tactics. Mass arrests and assaults on the rights of journalists covering these protests lead to violent disregard and trust for the practice of journalism. There is a shift in the treatment of journalists and press freedom globally. Journalists across the globe have faced record numbers of physical attacks, arrests, and cases of equipment damage, as well as many other press freedom violations. There is a shocking increase in the number of journalists arrested not only in authoritarian regimes but also in democratic countries.
In his opening remarks, Mehmet Kilic, the President of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, welcomed all the journalists from different parts of the world and underlined that JWF has a mission to create platforms for different stakeholders to work on innovative policy suggestions to resolve the challenges that are addressed at the UNGA77 as the JWF Global Partners convene in New York. The keynote speaker of the Roundtable Discussion was Abdulhamit Bilici, Journalist and Board Member of the Journalists and Writers Foundation. Mr. Bilici presented an overview of the crackdown on press freedom in Turkey and briefed the audience on the increasing violations of human rights against journalists in Turkey. He stressed the fact that Turkey must be studied as a country case to better understand the interaction between democracy, human rights and media freedom.
Round 1: Global Perspectives in Journalism and Trust in News
The moderator of the first round of discussion, Ian Williams, President of the Foreign Press Association (USA) presented his opening remarks as an introduction to the topic of discussion. He addressed the question: “Why should we distrust the media?” and underlined that, “Because so much of what comes through is distorted.”
Mr. Williams said that the majority of the mainstream media outlets may not be trustable. He stated that most mainstream media journalists are motivated by the fundamental values of journalism and added that “Media owners corrupt journalism itself.” Mr. Williams spoke of the concentration of media power as one of the utmost challenges; “We have a few media moguls controlling the media,” he said. Despite the rising power imbalances in this arena, Mr. Williams still believes there is some hope in the face of the media infrastructure.
Opening the floor for an interactive discussion, Mr. Williams asked the panelists about the solution on how to resolve the concentration of power in the media. “Do you want legislation for true media?” he questioned. “I am not a fan of legislators. The rich will get away with it, and the poor will get the brunt of it.” Mr. Williams spoke of the war in Ukraine and observed the media coverage from two different sides. “It is as if there are two different parallel universes. How do we have those universes converge?” Mr. Williams ended his introductory remarks with the encouragement of creative suggestions and stated, “Telling the truth is a dangerous pursuit.”
The first speaker of the session, Phillipa McDonald from Australia, reiterated the point of media concentration and Meta Facebook as a “disseminator of misinformation.” She spoke of “turning the tide to misinformation.” Ms. McDonald then added, “We have so many assurances from Meta that they are doing all they can.” Moderator Mr. Williams responded that he does not “trust mega millionaires.”
Following Ms. McDonald’s remarks, Branislav Brkic, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Maverick from South Africa, said that journalists “are not exactly the best friends of the social media.” He shared his views on algorithms and technology. Mr. Brkic then stated that the ones in the power of social media should be held responsible for their output just as the media is held responsible. “I go to bed every night with a knot in my stomach hoping that I did not make a mistake from the previous night,” Mr. Brkic said. “Facebook goes to bed thinking how much money they made.” A solution Mr. Brkic proposes is that Facebook hires “four million fact-checkers” to confirm social media content is not misinformation or disinformation.
Abdulhamit Bilici, Journalist and Board Member of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, indicated that he finds himself “in the middle” of this status quo. He believes that social media should not be as established as media institutions and said, “It will be a crazy world if we do not have BBC, if we do not have the New York Times.” It is an inevitable fact that social media does play a very crucial role in the interconnectedness of the world. Yet, Mr. Bilici continued, “President Biden won the U.S. election; however, there may be 50 million Americans that do not trust that information. They trust Youtubers, they trust Facebook posts instead.” In terms of misinformation and disinformation, Mr. Blici spoke of the urgency of lost trust in the mainstream outlets and added; “We have to take this risk very seriously. This is not a joke.” Mr. Bilici spoke of how not to lose democracy and press freedom. He cited Turkey as an example: “rulers attack the media, who create their regime or system. Media is the first obstacle.”
The next speaker, Marianna Kakaounaki, Journalist for eKathimerini, presented an overview of the challenges that journalists in Greece encounter. She spoke of investigative stories, and how they cannot proceed as fast as news in other forms of digital outlets. Investigative analysis needs time “which is a great luxury.” Reporters can work on a story for three months. She said trustworthy investigative stories hold weight. “A well-researched story is always the best if someone wants to weaponize your story,” Ms. Kakounaki said.
Sotirios Livas, Attorney at Law and General Manager of the Gefira Foundation, was the next speaker. “There is a need for trustable media and there is also a need for social media,” he said. “They should not be enemies.” Mr. Livas referred to the positive impact that social media has by citing its role in countries like Syria and Iran, where media is state controlled. “It was through social media that people learned about the truth,” he underlined.
Ranjeni Munusamy, the Head of Media Relations at Government and Public Policy, said that she was thinking about what “binds” all panelists at the Roundtable. The stories all participating journalist covers are different. Yet what unites all panelists is that they all are in a “ring of fire.”
Ms. Munusamy asked, “When you have a major war, when you have climate change, when you have such intense levels of poverty; do others care that journalists are in the fire? And how is its relation to all those other contemporary issues?” Ms. Munusamy continued that what all the journalists around the table have in common is that they have each been under attack. “But we roll with it, as if it does not matter. But it does matter,” she said. Journalists have become fair game for attacks, like in Turkey. In South Africa, they demonize and dehumanize us. However, our society continues as if it does not matter, continued Ms. Munusamy. “Maybe we are the reason why others do not see the threats against us, because we did not tell people that we were in the fire.”
Mondli Makhanya, Editor-in-Chief of the City Press in South Africa, said, “It is about what we do about [the state of journalism].” He continued, asking who is prepared to stand up for journalism. Mr. Makhanya added that those dangers will exist, but he thinks there will be a democratization of space. “We should be prepared to fight and remain true to the truth,” Mr. Makhanya said. “It’s not about our paychecks only, it’s about democracy and the people that we serve.”
The next speaker was Pule Molebeledi, the Managing Director of Arena Holdings in South Africa. He said, “We did not repel social media. We took it as proprietors.” He mentioned the fact that newspapers no longer break a story. Now it is “tweet first; write the story later.” He said that the journalism business model is antiquated. It is not realistic to depend on a full page of advertising. “We have let the news be free, be worthless. We did not protect it,” said Mr. Molebeledi. “The prize investigation is not handled with the sensitivity it requires.” Yet Mr. Molebeledi was optimistic. He believes that true journalism still exists. “In South Africa, the one matter that gives me hope is that we have an active and engaged civil society. As the media, if we continue to work with civil society, we are good. But we need to look at the business model.”
Round 2: Protecting Journalists from Assaults, Arrests, and Press Freedom Violations
The moderator of the second round of discussion, Philippa McDonald GAICD, an Award-winning Journalist (Australia) presented her opening remarks introducing the topic of discussion. Ms. McDonald asked everyone to bow their heads in remembrance of journalists around the world who have died, who have been in exile, or imprisoned. She cited the challenges, some life-threatening, that journalists face including threatening and intimidation, censorship, detaining, imprisoning journalists often with impunity, the wrath of media violations and laws, and the other barriers that are imposed on journalists.
In Tunisia, journalists are being tried in military courts. This raises the following question, “How do we protect journalists?” Ms. McDonald made a reference to Maria Ressa, an award-winning journalist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. “What happens on social media does not stay on social media,” said Ms. McDonald. “What happens in social media happens in the real world.” Journalists are just doing their job. Yet 51 journalists have been killed this year. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported the death of 12 journalists in Ukraine since February 2022. The number of journalists in jails has increased: there are 365 journalists detained or jailed in over 30 countries. Journalists have either been killed or imprisoned in 40 countries.
Katerina Markou, the General Manager of Papazisis Publication from Greece, took the floor to present her points. Ms. Markou said that journalistic entities must be examined. She questioned the kinds of journalism and stated that there is no code of conduct that is being upheld when it comes to the treatment of journalists. Ms. Markou said that assaults and violations against journalists and media freedom “threatens democracy.”
Behzad Fatmi, the Secretary General of the Indialogue Foundation, talked about the status quo in India. “We tend to point to authoritarian regimes, how they are not being tolerant enough.” However, Mr. Fatmi continued, there is “a group of journalists actually activating these social situations.” He said that if there is a problem society is facing, some journalists promote hatred and promote bigotry. “That leads to a loss of credibility, and it becomes easy for governments to discredit the profession of journalism, and that is happening in India.” Ovais Sultan Khan, Independent Human Rights Activist, also spoke about media freedom in India. Mr. Khan stated that across countries, there are similar patterns of silencing. It is not unique to Greece, India, or Turkey. “What is lacking is at the international level. There is no binding framework defending journalists, and I think that is what we required,” said Mr. Khan.
Turkmen Terzi, Journalist from South Africa, asked for the floor as the next speaker. Mr. Terzi talked about the power of unions. “We need a strong media union. We need to protect ourselves,” he said. Ranjeni Munusamy responded; “We should not focus on where the solutions are less than the crisis.” Ian Williams, President of the Foreign Press Association, added, “UNESCO has a sense of guidelines, but they are not very often applied,” he said.
Phillipa McDonald concluded the discussion as moderator by encouraging all panelists to review the new press freedom tracker in Australia. She spoke of the belief that media freedom is enshrined in law. Ms. McDonald underlined Ms. Markou’s remarks revolving around the legislative framework to protect journalists and transparency to protect journalists. She referred to the perspectives of those representing India and underlined the one perspective of the commentators who incite racial hatred, and how journalists can sometimes provoke it. Then Ms. McDonald cited the other side, which was a perspective that journalists exposed crimes.
Ms. McDonald then summarized the perspectives from South Africa saying that sometimes there is persecution for journalists in other countries, and sometimes journalists are identified only by the union they are a member of. She called everyone to “stand with solidarity. We need to call out press freedom violations.” Yet, it is a cautionary tale for South Africa. Ms. McDonald said, “We need to be careful we don’t overregulate, where journalists could be persecuted for complaints.”
In his concluding remarks, Mehmet Kilic, the President of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, thanked all panelists for their insights and perspectives. Mr. Kilic then invited questions from the audience. Dr. Macharia Munene, a Professor at the United States International University in Kenya, asked, “Is the threat to the media self-induced?” He said that the media industry itself is a threat. He questioned whether journalists are instruments or tools of the journalism industry, and if they are, do they have independence out of that industry. Dr. Munene concluded with, “Can the journalism industry be saved from itself?” Reginald Nalugala, a Professor at the Tangaza University College in Kenya, spoke of the optimism and pessimism present in the different perspectives shared during the discussion. He also referred to the combination of democracy and journalism.
The parallel event hosted notable journalists from Australia (Philippa McDonald GAICD, Journalist, Anchorwoman) and the delegation of Greece (Katerina Markou, General Manager of Papazisis Publication, Marianna Kakaounaki, Journalist, eKathimerini, Sotirios Livas, Attorney at Law, General Manager of Gefira Foundation), delegation of South Africa (Mondli Makhanya, Editor-In-Chief, City Press, Branislav Brkic, Editor-in-Chief, Daily Maverick, Ranjeni Munusamy, Head of Media Relations, Government and Public Policy, Pule Molebeledi, Managing Director, Arena Holdings, Turkmen Terzi, Journalist) delegation of India (Behzad Fatmi, Journalist, Ovais Sultan Khan, Independent Human Rights Activist), the delegation of USA (Abdulhamit Bilici, Journalist, Ian Williams, President of the Foreign Press Association), the delegation of Kenya (Dr. Reginald Nalugala, Professor, Tangaza University College, Dr. Macharia Munene, Professor, United States International University).