Introductory address on the role of journalists and media in peace building
by Rudie van Meurs
First of all I want to tell you that I am a little bit confused.
Looking through my files, I realised that in the recent years journalists and media more and more are considerend as a panacea against all evil in society.
I realised that there were appeals to journalists to join programms against corruption
I saw reports about the task of a journalist as a promotor of good citizenship.
I found papers about the role of journalists on covering minorities and inter-ethnic relations.
There are serious documents pointing out journalists to preach up human rights.
I even saw a programm Media for Democracy
And now we are asked to discuss the role of the media in conflict prevention, conflict management and peace building. In one of the reports in the reader I discovered a proposal for again another new specialisme in journalism. Peace building. ‘Just like there are war correspondents we should also have journalists that cover peace building.’
Do all these desires not mean an unbearable burden on the shoulders of a simple reporter?
Does this discussion in fact not contain pleonasms? Because in fact, as a reporter and trainer going out in the Balkan-countries and the east-european countries, I only have to offer the basic journalistic principles: accuracy, integrity and fairness. I teach skills, how to write, how to collect information, how to investigate. But particularly, I act as a reporter, preaching the goal of good journalism as a weapon against corruption, discrimination and lies. Telling that journalisme is a state of mind. That’s all I have to offer.
And because my skepsis is growing, I wonder in what way we as journalists are constantly used by all the appeals to be good citizens. Teaching young reporters, I always quote the famous Izzy F.Stone: ‘Every government is headed by liars. Nothing what they tell has to be believed.’
Secret services are using us as ‘useful idiots’.
Governments try to win us for their propaganda.
Ten years ago they asked me to join as a trainer the Med-Media programme from the EEC. It was short after the Gulf-war. I remember myself how ironic it was that the European countries first supported to invade the Gulf area and than offered to finance a project for journalists in the region to (and I quote) ‘bring mutual understanding over sensitive issues such as responses to the Gulf-war, immigration and racisme’.
And later on, working in various countries, in very cynical moments, I sometimes thought that my role was distributing candy after an authoritarian father had chastised the country.
But I realise that you asked me to present cases in the Balkan.
Last year I visited on behalf of Press Now Zagreb. I was there five or six times, taking part in journalistic trainings. The first four times were really good. But then a generation of students came in without any selection. Except some girls – it is amazing that always women are very eager to make theirselves familiar with journalism – students were indifferent, careless, desinterested, without any discipline and dedication. There were even trainees who were communicators from the government – and as you know in general communicators are the ennemies of journalists. At that time, the media institute in Croatia was flourishing. Money came from all over and I suddenly realised that, to say it with a Dutch proverb, horses in a rich pasture are becoming lazy. So I told the general-manager of the course – not only the institues but also positions were flourishing – that I was very disappointed about the training. And I told him that it would be without point to come back. ‘No problem,’ he told me. Italian and Swiss NGO’s are ready to jump in and to replace you and Press Now.
So it happened.
What I try to say is that in some cases, journalistic trainings are of minor importance than the survival of institutions and NGO’s. Press Now once organised a round table discussion about the creation of NGO’s – a new mega-business. In ten years the number of NGO’s in the world increased from 6000 to almost 30.000. They are tumbling over each other in offering trainings and money to obtain returns. Staying in Pristina or Mitrovicca or Prizren or Gjilani, it is almost shocking seeing all these four wheel drive jeeps promoting exoting names of NGO’s, blocking the streets, making people angry about all that waste of money and energy. They pay such high salaries to their local staff that this disrupt local economy and that’s the reason that sometimes the best people leave journalism to find a job with the NGO’s
And I am very much aware that all these subjects like journalists against corruption, journalists for human rights, media and conflict prevention, media and democracy – that these subjects are in the first place in the interest of NGO’s. Every new subject means new money-channels and promises a growing turnover. It has nothing to do with journalism, as I said before. And you may feel confident that every piece of information in my story has been checked out.
Some months ago I visited Skopje to discuss a new journalistic training – yes Brutus also me. I met Branko Geroski from Dnevnik newspaper. He hates what he called NGO-tourism. All that people, flying in, sitting in the newsroom, making noise and flying out. And I felt myself very superfluous.
Branko expescially hates the situation that almost every week one or two elected journalists are leaving Macedonia to join another training or trip in a country far away. The US-embassy in Skopje is extremely negative about the possibilities to train journalists in Macedonia. So the people in charge select the best students in journalism and bring them to Boston – the walhalla of training in the States.
But Branko needs that people to work on the newspaper. And he needs, he told me, trainings on the spot.
But again I realised that you asked me to present cases in the Balkan.
Last year I spent four weeks in Prizren on behalf of UNDP. Suddenly the organisation had a lot of money left and they decided to ask me to run a course. To be honest, UNDP was not interested at all. I don’t think they read my reports. The organisation was bad but thanks to an extremely willing Media Press Officer from OSCE, I found a good training room and facilities.
It was the first journalistic training in that neighbourhood. Prizren is situated near the Albanian border, really countryside with a number of small radio stations, small newspapers and a local tv-station. It was really great. I met eager, honest, dedicated young journalists, ready to fight for the truth and eager to learn about journalistic skills. Sometimes we spent ten hours together, sometimes longer. The first day of the training two Serbian students arrived escorted by KFOR-soldiers. There was some reservation and hesitation in the class-room. So I decided to start the training with the Code of Bordeaux – the declaration of principles on the conduct of journalists. During the whole day we discussed respect for truth, fair journalistic methods, facts and facts only, ethics, hate speech and etnic minorities. Finally everyone accepted the code and promised to respect the declaration. At the end of week one, Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs thanked each other for mutual cooperation.
I trained on the spot in Drakash, een village far in the mountains, called the Sharri-mountains. The water was crystal clear, the nights pitch dark, the only sound came from flocks of sheep.
Radio Sharri is the name of the local radiostation. Situated in an old cold building, with four reporters-presentators working all day, without experience and with hardly any pay because there were no advertisements.
They did not need solemn words like war and peace and corruption and human rights. They needed to know how things work. They needed knowledge about the technics of journalism. They needed support in that cold old building in Drakash. And they needed to know how to behave theirselves against the constantly intimidatian of the political cliques in Kosovo and around Prizren
I don’t know if I answered your question about cases now.
I very much believe in local journalism.
I very much believe in female journalists
I believe in engagement with the problems of society
My experience is that after every course, you find always two or three students who have all the qualities to become excellent journalists. They have it in their genes. The secret is to keep in touch with these promising students. My idea always has been to establish in the different countries small gangs of young, dedicated and agressive journalists by setting up master-classes. Go with them inside the country and assist them to report about the real problems and the needs of society.
It will cost time and you need consistent organisations for support.
But at the end, we create a new army of young, angry, rebellious and anti-authoritarian journalists to fight corruption and to write the truth.
Seminar Dutch Union of Journalists(NVJ)/ministry of foreign affairs – february 20, 2002