Examining the Realities of Press Freedom

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The UN General Assembly declared May 3 of every year as World Press Freedom Day. To mark this year’s event, the United States Consulate in Lagos examined the realities of press freedom and how the media landscape impacts the mission of today’s journalists, Chiemelie Ezeobi reports

Yearly, the World Press Freedom Day is commemorated on May 3. The day which was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993, was based on the recommendation of UNESCO. According to Wikipedia, the UN declared the day to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and marking the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, a statement of free press principles put together by African newspaper journalists in Windhoek in 1991.

To mark this year’s day, the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Consulate General Lagos, partnered the School of Media and Communications, Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, to offer broadcast training, engage with the local media, and interact with journalism faculty and students.

Goals of US Mission

Highlighting the goal of the US Mission, the US Consulate Public Affairs Officer, Russell Brooks reiterated that it is to promote democracy and strengthen democratic institutions here in Nigeria and around the world.

Noting that it was important to utilise the World Press Freedom Day to honour colleagues in the media and know what they were doing to uphold democracy, he said: “A free and responsible press is part of promoting democracy and the media represents the fourth estate of any democracy. We are all familiar with the executive, judiciary and legislative branch therefore, it is crucial that the media plays a significant role in holding the other three branches accountable”.

While urging journalists to double check their sources of information before publishing stories in other to avoid promoting fake news, he also charged the government to do more to protect journalists from harm’s way.

Keynote Address

Dealing on ‘Are we really Free? How the Media Landscape Impacts the Mission of Today’s Journalist’, the Assistant Professor

Howard University Department of Media, Journalism and Film, Jennifer C Thomas, in her keynote address first acknowledged the Dean, Dr. Ikechukwu Obiaya, Professor Emevwo Biakolo, the faculty, colleagues in the journalism field and especially the students at the event.

While commending Mr. Russell Brooks and team, for making her stay memorable being her first time in Nigeria, she likened the hustle and bustle of Lagos to New York. The Nigerian cuisine got a favourable mention too as she described it as delicious.

In her speech, she went on to say that when she first received the email and then the call from the U.S. State Department about the invitation by the US Consulate in Lagos, “I must say I was surprised. I recognise that there could be so many other capable people who could be standing behind this lectern this morning, but for some reason you chose me, and for this I say thank you.

“And after my initial shock and excitement wore off, and the reality of this notable occasion sunk in, I realised this was not a happenstance. Today is World Press Freedom Day- which was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO.

The date of May 3 was selected for World Press Freedom Day because it is the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, Namibia.

“Namibia is the first country in Africa I visited three years ago during an academic research conference. While there I was able to visit the beautifully designed national museum which pays homage to the small yet vigilant country’spath towards freedom. And today we ask “ARE WE REALLY FREE” – today’s media landscape with convergence and new technology, the impact of organisations’ needs to satisfy the bottom line, and the resurgence of disinformation campaigns targeted at the press around the world and the dangers facing those who are protecting the public’s right to know.. all cause one to pause and consider that question.

“However I would ascertain that from Lagos to Los Angeles the journalist is needed now more than ever. We begin with a quote by Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, “Press freedom is the cornerstone of democratic societies. All states, all nations are strengthened by information, debate and the exchange of opinions. At a time of growing discourse of mistrust and delegitimisation of the press and journalism, it is essential that we guarantee freedom of opinion through the free exchange of ideas and information based on factual truths. The theme of this 26th media celebration is ‘Media for democracy: Journalism and elections in times of disinformation’.”

Addressing Disinformation

According to her, disinformation or what many around the world dub as “fake news” and the subsequent demonising of the media, have created a political and pedagogical poser for not just members of the media, but for professors who are tasked with teaching would-be millennial journalists.

She noted that the current climate for the news industry is synonymous to a thunderstorm, with the convection being the calamity of the “Fourth Estate” as “Fake News.” Add the unpredictability of social media, and it becomes the perfect storm.

In order to quell this tempest, she posited that journalists must ride out the storm and steady the ship through adhering to the fundamental principles of the profession. In turn, journalism professors were tasked to be vigilant at teaching media history, literacy, and ethics while underscoring excitement for the profession.

Threats

Admitting that it is a daunting, yet surmountable task, she added, “but even before a discussion of journalists quelling the storm against disinformation, we cannot ignore the dire situation facing journalists in Africa and other continents around the world. Journalism is under attack and in unfortunately too many instances that is literal– journalists themselves are under attack.

“According to UNESCO, on average, every five days a journalist is killed for bringing information to the public. These attacks are often perpetrated in non-conflict situations by organised crime groups, militia, security personnel, and even local police. That makes local journalists among the most vulnerable.

The report also says these attacks include murder, abductions, harassment, intimidation, illegal arrest, and arbitrary detention.

“While these types of attacked are not common in America- this is not breaking news here. While in Lagos I’ve had the pleasure of meeting 25 or so working journalists on the local, as well as national levels.. from Punch newspaper, Channels TVand TVC to CNN, AFP and the Associated Press. From this group, at least four of them shared with me incidents of detention and intimidation. While the incidents shook them, each one returned to the job, to continue their work.”

Action Plan

The United Nations has a Plan of Action to combat crimes against the press which addresses six areas: academic research; standard-setting and policy making; awareness-raising; monitoring and reporting; capacity building; and coalition building.

This complex crisis is one of the focal points being addressed during official World Press Freedom Day events in Addis Ababa Ethiopia.. with this year’s recognition being organised by UNESCO, the African Union Commission and the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Several global journalism organisations have online safety kits for journalists who cover stories in dangerous territory. This was a focal point for a virtual conversation I had last year with 30 investigative journalists in the DRC… as well as during my visit all across South Africa for Media Freedom Week last October. It is a complex situation that creates a complicated conundrum for journalists who must at times decide between their stories, or their personal safety.

The American Situation

Using America as a case in point she said the nation is in unheralded territory. “In the U.S., journalists have been coined as the “enemy of the people” and arbitrators of “fake news.” While the relationship between the president in the press has traditionally been a “frosty one,” the recent verbal attacks have led to increased incidents of intimidation and sometimes even violence against journalists by citizens.

“In fact, Black female journalists have been blatantly disrespectedjust for doing their fundamental role- as defenders of democracy and freedom fighters of the First Amendment. One of these journalists, Abby Philip, was a panelist at a forumat Howard University sponsored by the Howard University Association of Black Journalists- which took place before the most recent events. During this session, in which the journalists shared their experiences of covering the White House, Philip underscored her commitment to doing her job with integrity, while trying to block out the other “noise” from the naysayers.

“Let me be clear– journalists are not the enemy of the people; we are the advocates for the people. Yet the constant barrage of the term “fake news” is apparently having an impact on the public’s perception of the industry,” she noted.

The attack on the press seems to be yielding fruit as buttressed by the 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, which shows Americans have only moderate trust in most news sources. Quoting Former deputy secretary of state for the Obama administration, Antony Blinken, who says that, quote, “In times of crisis, credibility is an American president’s most valuable currency”, Thomas said in this regard, some may say that America’s currency is worthless, but the press’ role is more priceless than ever.

Smart Journalists

Therefore, she said as media professionals, they must put a renewed effort at being a ‘Smart Journalist’ in the Era of “Fake News.

She added, “When I conduct media workshops, I begin with an exercise that asks the participants to complete the following sentence: I regard the media as….The choices are: fair and balanced journalists; vulchers; fake news; and people with jobs in the industry. In every case, I receive responses for each choice except– ‘fair and balanced journalists’.

“Last year on World Press Freedom Day, I was honored to take part in a virtual panel at the studios of the U.S. Departmentof State in Washington. That panel was focused on ways in which people can detect “Fake news.”

My basic advice: be skeptical, consider the source, check the URL, look at the byline and quotes, review the photo. Be acurious journalist- question everything. “

Fact-checking

In this era of fake news, fact-checking is key, a move which is firmly supported by Thomas.

“Today there are websites dedicated to separating fact from fiction and even for quizzing readers to see how savvy they are at detecting such information. At Howard we have a site called Truth Be Told that dispels tropes and stereotypes about people of color.

Even with these measures in place, we know that a tweet can become world headlines before a spellcheck is even conducted and a rant on a blog post may be repeated as a lead story on a newscast, without the news outlet doing its due diligence.

“The need for focused fact-checking and balance in telling both sides of the story, and doing so with great accuracy, is more important now than ever before- especially for journalists. A surprising fact- when it comes to identifying fake news, millennials know better.

In a Pew study, 1/3 of 18- to 49-year-olds (32 per cent)!correctly identified all five of the factual statements in the survey as factual, compared with two-in-ten among those ages 50 and older. The study says the younger generation is more digitally savvy, less political, have higher political awareness and more trust in the information from the national news media,” Thomas revealed.

Journalism at its Core

On the need to enlighten the future crop of journalists on why journalism was first referred to as the Fourth Estate, Thomas said each semester, her senior capstone students take a trip a few miles away from campus to the museum dedicated to the news and journalists: the Newseum.

She revealed that “the visit becomes a culmination of the objectives they have learned during their matriculation through the Department of Media, Journalism and Film (MJFC)—from the impact of the First Amendment, to how many journalists defended those freedoms with their lives.

“The exhibit, “Civil Rights at 50” was one such exhibit. The students discuss how they may have covered the now-historic events as student journalists, or whether they would have participated as student leaders 50 years ago. They also view a video on the role of the black press, and then put into context the quote by Civil Rights icon, U.S. Representative John Lewis: “If it not been for the press, the [Civil Rights] movement would have been like a bird without wings.” After the tour, the students are assigned to write multimedia blogs on their ePortfolios encapsulating their experiences.

“When journalism students leave the university they should understand why journalism is so deeply woven into the fabric of this county and the world, and they should be compelled to tell the stories of those whose voices might otherwise not be heard. There is a reason that journalism was first referred to as the Fourth Estate. We are to hold the government accountable and keep the public aptly informed. Despite the challenges, naysayers, and name-callers, journalism students should be excited to add their names to the noble profession when embarking on their careers.”

Personal Experience

Sharing her personal experience in the line of duty she said, “When I first graduated from Howard University and started my first job in television news two weeks later- I had no idea of the experiences I would have and the stories I would cover that would impact so many. Please allow me to share a few: first newsroom Job- at a local news affiliate in Alabama- It was to be my first day producing when the city was struck by a terrible tornado- Instead of building the rundown for the newscast, I was calling the morgue.

“Second newsroom job- Gulf War/ Operation Desert Shield- it was the first time experiencing a war for my generation. I took on the role of reporter to get reaction from locals to the news. Third job- was one of the most difficult personally- I was working at a stationed operated and owned by ABC News. Three sports journalists- and the pilot- all took off in helicopter to cover “Friday night football” – when their helicopter crashed. The accident killed three of the four. All were engaged to be married. One survived and ran for miles on a broken ankle to get help. We still had to do the story.

“When with NBC- (NBC Nightside overnight newscast) I had the opportunity to cover the one year Oklahoma City Bombing- anniversary and speak to the firefighters and familiesinvolved in that terrible act of domestic terrorism. I was touched to receive thank you cards. Then of course CNN- started off as a sunny “slow” news day… I was the 9am show producer so had been there since 3am. All was going as planned, when all of a sudden we heard what sounded like thunder coming down from the stairs. There were colleagues and managers who were in the morning editorial meeting; running downstairs to the newsroom to tell us a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. I grabbed my headset and our news team ran into the control room.. and as they say – the rest is history.

“These are just some of the thousands of stories that underscored quote: Journalists are the first rough draft of history (Philip L. Graham). I am at the core a Midwest, southern girl who loved to write, ask a lot of questions, speak up to what I felt was wrong, and generally a good leader. What I didn’t realise is that even from a small child, I had the makings of a journalist. Today, after working for more than 25 years been blessed to return to my alma mater Howard University and hopefully change the trajectories of my students as they transition from classroom to newsroom or control room, while underscoring a phrase I penned a few years ago: Journalists are the defenders of democracy – freedom fighters of the First Amendment and Savvy and sophisticated storytellers.”

Charge

In closing, she charged the students at the hall to read everything – be prepared, professional and most importantly passionate. Those in academia were not left out. To them she charged to provide much needed research, stay committed to their vital role at producing the next generation of responsible and ethical reporters, producers, editors and multi-media journalists. She also charged journalists to continue to fight the good fight, ride out the turbulent waves because a new day is dawning, and someone has to steer the ship! “Journalism is a calling. Today let’s collectively renew the calling”, she enthused.