Today, I was thinking about how I would start this blog post on journalistic freedom, and found myself standing on my driveway for several minutes holding my local paper in my hand. My neighbors leaving for work must have thought I was crazy. What stopped me was the renewed realization that the news in that morning paper was made possible by the dedication and sacrifice of thousands of journalists around the world, many of whom are struggling to have the freedom of speech we take for granted.
At the World Media Summit, I had the good fortune to meet several journalists who had been leaders in the fight for journalistic freedom in their own countries, in the face of oppression and censorship. Their stories, dedication and creativity under fire were uniformly inspiring.
I talked at some length with Adel Ghonim, the Board Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of the Middle East News Agency (MENA) in Cairo. He told me privately that MENA stands for free speech, and will as long as he runs the agency. MENA journalists were at the forefront of the Egyptian Spring uprising, and reported what was really happening in Tahrir Square without censorship – frequently at the risk of their lives, in many cases using social media channels. When those were blocked, they did whatever they could to get the word out. Adel later reinforced this idea through an interpreter to the WMS delegates during his speech in one of the breakout sessions: “Censorship must be fought… We must continue to search for new techniques that are interactive between the media and the mass public.”
Cherif Rezki, the CEO/Publisher of El Khabar in Algeria echoed this sentiment. El Khabar is an independent newspaper that started in 1990, after the fall of the repressive one-party government in 1988. El Khabar’s Arabic and French editions are frequently critical of the government. During the civil war in 1992, many of El Khabar’s journalists were jailed, and were targets of fundamentalists in their country. To Cherif, he is proud of the ability his staff has in journalistic freedom because it was fought for so desperately.
Mujtaba Ayan, the Senior Program Manager of Internews, a radio station operating under the USAID Afghanistan Media Development and Empowerment Program, had another interesting story. Journalistic freedom is a new concept in their country, and in many cases truthful but unpopular messages can result in danger to their local correspondents. Still, Internews prides itself on its integrity, and truthful reporting. Terrorists are in almost every village, and keeping their journalists safe require some very difficult measures. Even then, it doesn’t always work. Last year, Internews lost 17 of their number in the line of duty. The sincere way Mujtaba told me his story was very moving.
I also talked with representatives from the Croatian and Montenegrin news agencies about their experiences before, during and after the Balkan war. Both were journalists during this period, and both had similar stories about censorship, repression and eventual journalistic freedom.
There was considerable discussion during the Summit on this topic as well. On the third day of the conference, during a speech by Peter Horrocks of the BBC Worldwide where he commented that the government of Iran has threatened and imprisoned family members of his journalist team and jammed the BBC Farsi signal, Ali Akbar Javanfekr Shahri, the Managing Director of the Islamic Republic News Agency (Iran) challenged Horrocks , saying through an interpreter that what the media is reporting in Iran is not truth, but “the global hegemonic powers have always worked to carry out their imperialistic goals and through skilled methods have caused fear in my country.” Horrocks then invited Shahri to come on his BBC Farsi television show in person and refute those claims. The discussion got more heated before the session ended. During the break, Horrocks was mobbed by other journalists who wanted to shake his hand.
The highlight of that day was being able to spend a few minutes with Yassen Zassoursky, the prestigious Moscow State University’s Department of Journalism. Zassoursky survived extreme censorship and repression under the Stalin regime, and has seen the changes over the last 60 years in Russia. An educator since 1957, Mr. Zassoursky has trained the most prominent journalists in the Russian Federation, and an outspoken critic of journalistic openness in Russia. He holds numerous awards, including the prestigious Mahatma Ghandi medal from UNESCO. In the few minutes I was able to speak to him, he told me the Russian Federation has too few independent media, and not enough journalists . Russia will not have true journalistic freedom until there is greater diversity and ‘too many voices to silence’. He is an amazing old gentleman, and it was a great honor to meet such a legend in the field of journalism.
All of this was running through my head as I stood on my driveway. I thought of the challenges these people, and those like them have faced in their careers, and still face every day.
I’ll never look at my morning paper the same way again.
Author Colleen Pizarev is PR Newswire’s vice president of communications strategy. She is a global media expert and is available to consult with PR Newswire clients on global press release distribution.