Image: Speaking out for press freedom and journalistic integrity are journalists Chiranuch Premchaiporn (L), Manu Joseph and MJ Akbar. Credit: Shirley Way.

Day 1, Storyology: Stories in the Asian Century

The journalist defined

Journalist (noun): A person who writes for newspapers or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio or television. – Oxford English Dictionary

The problem with this definition is that it defines us by who we work for, not what we do, said Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey.

Mr Anstey exhorted journalists at their national conference in Sydney to return to the ‘golden age of journalism’ – where journalists have the responsibility to inform and engage people locally and uphold freedom of speech.

“Everyone in the world has the right to learn and the right to be heard,” Mr Anstey said.

“The weakest are often the furthest from mainstream media [and] … the most powerful are often the most versed in manipulation.”

But we’re losing our way, he said.

With ownership changes to media corporations in the 1980s, the focus switched away from ‘harrowing events on the front cover’ to entertainment – because it sells.

“Commercialisation means we know less than ever before [because] diversity of content is not there,” Mr Anstey said.

As one example, Australia was focussed on the advent of a royal baby and not on the death of 25 Indian children due to food poisoning.

Whether as local or global citizen, the journalist’s role is ‘to highlight the shadows’, he said.

The responsibility to inform and engage

Panellists for Stories in the Asian century, day one of the national journalism conference, were journalists from India, Thailand, Korea and Malaysia – countries with varying degrees of press freedom.

Media corporations speak to consumers rather than readers, said Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of India’s Tehelka magazine.

Proving the point that tehelka means ‘to make waves’, Ms Chaudhury said the magazine may lose advertising even though corporations may admire their stance on anti-corruption issues.

As the internet becomes ‘the medium’, it is evolving to reflect the real world where governments and corporations dominate, she said.

Ms Chaudhury described global challenges to the responsibilities to inform and engage the people.

Fifty or sixty countries have been meeting under the auspices of the United Nations to discuss how governments (may) control the internet.

In India, the internet is a particularly right wing universe under ‘the draconian control’ of the government – and it is not the voice of the people, she said. Adding that opinion masquerades too often as news as governments and corporations hire social media directors to manage their web presence.

Ms Chaudhury said: “[As a journalist,] I am the credible or in-credible person responsible. Let’s not undermine what mediation means.”

Private speech is becoming confused with public speech, a different responsibility which requires the ‘moderation of integrity’.

“Democratic values are becoming extremely contingent,” she said.

Is freedom of speech under threat?

Malaysiakini editor Steven Gan, while acknowledging the lack of privacy online (“I don’t have a Facebook page”) said: “The internet also gives opportunity”.

“The battle between the weak and powerful is much different online. Those with little money can fight on the internet,” he said.

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of Thailand’s, has been imprisoned several times since the online publication began in 2004.

Her first arrest was reported above the Thai Prime Minister’s commitment to press freedom.

Thais assume they have a democratic country, she said, but there is a growing realisation that “the invisible hand” is the Chinese elite.

Publication Prachathai’s survival was due to accountability, engagement, independence, online and under-reported stories, Ms Premchaiporn said.

Whereas  Indian journalist and author MJ Akbar said: “[In India] press freedom is a fundamental right – not legislated, but often protected by the courts.”

Journalistic independence and integrity

Mr Akbar was blunt: “What worries me deeply is the death of the [news] story. The death of the story is the death of the editor”.

Describing the story as ‘comatosed’, Mr Akbar laid the blame with Marshall McLuhan’s statement in the 1960s: “The medium is the message”.

“We’ve confused the car with the destination, the vehicle with the journey. That’s why the journalist is in the background,” Mr Akbar said.

Taking aim at The Daily Telegraph’s “Let’s kick this mob out” cover, he said opinion had become confused with news.

It’s a challenge that the media is already in the corporate world and must run as a business.

In 1982, the Telegraph was the cost of a coke or coffee. In 2012, a coffee costs more than the paper.

Referencing the announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has purchased the Washington Post, Mr Akbar added: “Even Amazon cannot replace the book by being author and seller. Content is not really under the control of the journalists”.

“Integrity of journalists is important – more important than equity or shares.”

His (almost) final words for the gathered journalists: “As long as you find yourself funny, you’re OK. Do your job as honestly as you can and go out to dinner.”

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

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