Brussels, 5th November 2007. “Never before has journalism been in such deep difficulties,” said Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), as he opened the day’s “Stand Up for Journalism” event at the International Press Centre in Brussels. “That’s why today’s initiative has touched a raw nerve. Journalists are today standing together for the future of journalism, to create the right conditions for a new democracy in the profession.”
The debate had a specific human-rights focus, confirmed by the presence on the panel of Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human rights at the Council of Europe. “Journalism has always had a human-rights side,” he said, recalling the recent sentence of eight years for an Azerbaijani journalist he had visited.
Conditions becoming more difficult
“Conditions for journalists defending human rights cases are becoming more difficult by the day,” Hammarberg said, emphasising that journalists should not be mouthpieces but have to report facts as they are. He pointed to a recent Court of Human Rights ruling which stated that “freedom of the press” can also include dissemination of information that “offends, shocks and disturbs”, with the exception of material that incites hatred, violence and similar.
Hammarberg picked out the laws on defamation as an area which should be decriminalized and moved from the criminal to the civil law courts. In such cases, he said, “we need a mature response from the media and a self regulatory mechanism,” noting that “journalists have very little protection – telephones are routinely tapped for example – which is very alarming.”
One of the most disturbing aspects, he said, is the lack of democratic control over security agencies. But he pointed out that the threat to media comes not only from governments but also from media owners themselves, who are often put in place by governments. The example is Azerbaijan, he explained, where media are used to blackmail politicians in a criminal twist of the lobbying culture. Hammarberg therefore advocated maximum transparency in media ownership, saying that this would have a considerable impact on the quality of journalism.
Lorenzo Consoli, President of API-IPA (the International Press Association in Brussels) illustrated the work of foreign journalists in Brussels who are confronted every day with attempts at news manipulation. Their role should be to act as “watchdogs” against such attempted manipulation, he said. “We are asked to tell people what the truth is, not what they tell us to say”.
He illustrated his case with the REACH directive and how it was handled by the lobbies and by the press, going on to emphasize the importance of the traditional journalists’ rule, cross-check sources to avoid being manipulated by governments and institutions.
Growing insecurity of employment
Leigh Phillips of NUJ Brussels spoke of the problem of growing insecurity in employment for young journalists, which he said has created greater risk of manipulation. He listed several common scenarios, including working for no pay in the hope of a better future, the “fake freelancers” who are hired but not employed and can be fired at any time, and the use of interims to replace staff which he defined as “slave labour”.
Philips underlined several ways of countering the worst practices:
- For impartial reporting, there should be a “Berlin Wall” between the editorial and commercial interests of a publication.
- Stronger legislation is needed to protect freelancers. We do not want, he said, a situation where full-timers are set against freelancers.
- Crack down on “false independents”. A quarter of agency workers in the UK and Ireland belong to this category, with their security diminishing rapidly.
- A code of conduct “with teeth”, is needed.
After a lengthy (and lively) Q&A session, Aidan White concluded the session by stressing that quality reporting must be based on the perception of journalism as a public good, a notion that sometimes gets lost completely in the noise.
European Parliament lobbied
Other Brussels events on the day included a good-humoured demonstration in front of the European Parliament, and leafleting activities outside the building and at neighbouring metro stations. The whole event was organised by members from the EFJ/IFJ, the Belgian journalists’ union AGJPB/AVBB and NUJ Brussels, with the assistance of Journalists@YourService (J@YS).
YouTube videos of the event
Missed the whole thing? Follow the debate on YouTube:
- Stand Up for Journalism P.1 *** The Context
- Stand Up for Journalism P.2 *** API view
- Stand Up for Journalism P.3 *** API / NUJ Brussels
- Stand Up for Journalism P.4 *** NUJ Brussels
- Stand Up for Journalism P.5 *** Thomas Hammarberg p1
- Stand Up for Journalism P.6 *** Thomas Hammarberg p2
- Stand Up for Journalism P.7 *** Thomas Hammarberg p3.
© Philip Hunt, Maria Laura Franciosi, 2007. Photos Thierry Monasse, Oliver Money-Kyrle.