The Media Spring
After toppling dictators, flocks of Arab Spring revolutionaries are channeling their residual energy into journalism, which might seem at first a natural environment for those who want to stay in the “business of change”. But big media is a tricky business, and sometimes rebels can make the road even more slippery when trading guns for stories.
“The Atlantic” this month brings an account of a media training program in Libya that exemplifies the challenge. Correspondent Graeme Wood, who conducted the program in Benghazi, characterizes the about a hundred independent newspaper and magazines now being published in the city as “execrable”. Are the initiatives commendable? Of course. Does the effort deserve applause? No doubt. Is it a good start? Excellent. But how about what comes out of them? Humm.
The 50 young journalists trained by Wood seemed too close to the political flame to not get burned. On one occasion, nearly all said they would not publish a story that tainted in any way the image of the transition government. On another, while doing a (fictional) exercise on how to gather information from sources, the entire group preferred to run a false rumor than to go with the true story behind it, which was less appealing. The rumor was about the presence of Saif al Islam in the city; the trainees “wanted to find and execute” him “more than they wanted the story”, concluded the correspondent.
It seems that the closer the new journalist was to revolutionary action, the harder it will be for he or she to adhere to some of the tenets of the profession.
But that is not only true for transitioning countries: they merely display it more openly, and it goes without saying that many are just at the beginning of the process. No one expects perfection, there or anywhere else. It is obvious that no journalist checks his or her political preferences at the door before going to work. Even in the most democratic of societies, impartiality is an elusive concept that is sometimes best understood within a range than as something you either have or not. Just ask Fox News, or The New York Times for that matter. Standards vary from place to place: where I come from, it would be unthinkable to have a newspaper openly endorsing a presidential candidate like some do in the US.
But there are sound rules to keep journalists from straying too much from the road. Certain practices are, or should be, universal: sticking to veracity, crossing information through different and numerous sources, opening space for the other side to comment, investigating government and opposition alike, differentiating a news story from an opinion piece etc. There are things we can ask for and expect, in a full democracy as well as in a new one.
Libya is a particular case for new journalists. The new generation lived their entire lives under Gaddafi rule, which prevented any real journalism to be practiced and kept the country fairly closed to the outside media –much more so, for example, than it was the case of Tunisia, where from the ouster of Ben Ali until last December at least 20 newspapers were launched and 12 radio stations and five television stations applied for licenses. There are several media programs running there as well, but I have the impression that they begin at a different chapter, specially considering new technology.
For all those dilemmas, the fury of activity around journalism in these countries cannot be interpreted as anything but good news. It only means that there is great work to be done. And, as Graeme Wood wrote at the end of his tale at “The Atlantic”, there is at least one huge advantage of having as a journalist someone who was once a rebel: you can be sure he has the killer instinct.