Reporting from a closed country such as Burma can be a life-or-death business. Yet, despite great personal risk, a group of brave citizens defied the odds to bring the images of their society’s struggles to the outside world. Acclaimed filmmaker Anders Østergaard tells their story in his powerful documentary Burma VJ, screened earlier this week at the National Endowment for Democracy. Winner of over 40 international awards, the film traces the work of Burmese video journalists who, using small handycams and cell phone cameras, have provided invaluable footage of crucial events in Burma to the world. That unique on-the-ground source was particularly invaluable during the information blockade accompanying massive protests of Buddhist monks in 2007. See the trailer here:
We’ve arrived in Manila for our first-ever partner conference in SE Asia. CIPE partners from all around the region—China, Mongolia, Indonesia, Philippines, Burma—have gathered to share experiences and refine strategies for moving forward in their countries. Already on the first morning, one word that has been used several times by partners to describe their initial efforts is “quixotic.” They feel strongly about the issues they address, and in many cases are making great strides, but many of them undertook their efforts initially as a leap of faith—based on a belief that something had to be done, though it may have seemed like tilting at windmills to do so.
Just on arrival here in the Philippines, it doesn’t take long to see that, even as an active democracy, Philippines nonetheless faces serious challenges. The issues appear front and center in the daily papers and link directly to the issues CIPE addresses: corruption, governance, and access to information, among others. On the first day of our partner meeting, one of the presentations was from Melinda de Jesus, who has worked for years on press freedom issues in the Philippines.
Georgia dropped almost sixty spots in the latest media freedom report by Reporters Without Borders – going down from the 66th to the 120th place in the rankings. This could be one the larger drops in one year that the index has seen.
The conflict with Russia is mentioned as a key reason for Georgia’s poor performance in the report. It certainly contributed to the fall with the dangers to journalists in conflicts, but restrictions placed on media in Georgia have not helped either and, perhaps, have been the driving force. For example, when anti-government demonstrations were sweeping the country last year, the president simply shut down the independent media.
Earlier this month, this NY Times article painted a bleak picture of media freedom in Georgia. An ombudsman for human rights, for example, notes a gap between laws on paper and what the government actually does in regards to media freedom:
We have some of the best freedom-of-expression laws in the world, but in practice, the government is so afraid of criticism that it has felt compelled to raid media offices and to intimidate journalists and bash their equipment.
Another interesting trend highlighted in the report is that bloggers are targeted as much as journalists in the traditional media.
Significant growth in violence in Afghanistan has been capturing the headlines over the past few weeks. But somewhat beneath the surface, another type of attacks has become everpresent in the country — attacks on media. These attacks are carried out by government agencies unhappy with reporting. Interesting is the government’s position in regards to media, especially when reports clash with national security interests:
Some officials argue that these bounds are crossed when critical reporting weakens the central government and strengthens the Taliban. They point out that given present security conditions reporters also have an obligation to protect the national interest.
“The media does not reflect the achievements of the government,” Sadeq Mudaber, the deputy director of general policy, told reporters in November. “Although the media law guarantees freedom of press, the national interests of the country should be a priority over anything else.”
A few months ago, leading a training session for African journalists, I came across a similar issue. A presenter from the President’s press office noted that media should be responsible as far as not weakening the position of the fragile government through negative reporting. Interestingly, the response from journalists was quite mixed. While some noted that it is their responsibility to cover what happens in the country, others took to heart the idea that journalists should think about the shaky foundation that governments stand on before publishing their stories.
My take on this is that governments should be capable of dealing with criticism. The ethical responsibility of journalists in this regard is not withholding information for fear of their own well-being — it is to provide constructive criticism; highlight problems and the institutional sources of those problems to give governments some idea on how to address issues.
In the end of the day, journalists in countries like Afghanistan already have many more enemies than friends. Not having the government on your side (moreover, having the government after you for doing your job) does not help.
A few weeks ago I had a pleasure of attending a workshop for journalists from East Africa organized by IREN – a Kenyan free market think tank. Such events are usually held in Kenya, but due to the violence in the country journalists from Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya gathered in Tanzania this time around.
The workshop focused primarily on the role of journalists in spurring development in Africa – whether its democratic reforms, addressing poverty, or dealing with policy issues. Although nearly 30 participants did not always agree with each other (I did enjoy the debates) – they all had one thing on common: their commitment to highlighting Africa’s problems, figuring out domestic solutions, making democracy work, and staying true to their profession despite the inherent risks involved.
The CIPE Development Blog provides coverage of the Center for International Private Enterprise and its partner network at work -- highlighting successes, drawing out lessons from failure, and exploring the broader issues of political and economic development. For more information visit CIPE.org.