By Chit Estella
May 6, 2007
IN A region crying out for leadership and change, what role should journalists play?
Asian journalists tried to come up with answers as they gathered in Manila on May 3 and 4 in a conference called by the Ateneo de Manila University’s Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism. Representatives of media came from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
Mahfuz Anam, publisher and editor in chief of The Daily Star in Bangladesh, told his audience of journalists to be prepared for a time of continuing tension between the press and the wielders of power.
“Media is going to be repressed in every society. I do not see a very rosy picture in the future but tension between media and those in power is a constant reality,” he said, adding that the better that the press does its job, the greater the pressure on it will be.
Anam added, however, that pressure will come not just from government but from advertisers as well.
Because of this, he said, media would do well to forge closer ties with civil society and the public. “We must have a friend and that is the people,” he said.
And while the press should have no agenda of its own, Anam said, it must be in touch with what the people want. He cited the need to raise alternative issues and to make human rights a mainstream concern.
“Human rights cannot be treated as a fringe issue. If media treats them as such, media will go down,” he said.
Vasana Wickremasena, director of the CICRA in Sri Lanka, said media institutions face many problems of their own, such as the lack of a united voice against violators of media freedom. He lamented the “petty differences” that divide media organizations and render them unable to meet more serious problems such as government regulation of the press.
In defining the role of the press in a changing society, Akhmad Kusaeni, deputy executive editor of Antara, the Indonesian national news agency, wondered if journalists should support the idea of media members becoming politicians.
Arlene Burgos of the Philippine Daily Inquirer said that for some journalists, it is not enough to be a watchdog. In the Philippines, at least two journalists have become leading politicians—Vice President Noli de Castro and former senator Loren Legarda, both of whom used to be broadcast journalists. Legarda will most likely succeed in her bid to return to the Senate because of her strong showing in the polls.
Anam replied, “Everyone can go into politics but there must be a distinction, a de-linking bet-ween media and government.”
He warned that journalists who become politicians cannot always be expected to keep their beliefs about the independence of the press. “We must have no illusion that former journalists will be media-friendly (once they become political leaders). Anyone who joins government ends up wanting to control the press,” Anam said.
He pointed out, however, that such occurrences are normal. “There is a natural tension between those who wield power and those who speak for the public,” he said.
Reiterating the need for drawing a line between journalism and governance, Anam said, “Multiple institutions with multiple interests are good for the people.”
At the same time, Anam said that being a watchdog should not prevent the press from taking part in national development. He claimed that the two functions can be combined.
Recalling that a form of journalism—development journalism—began in the Philippines a few decades ago, he said that even though the concept was much criticized at that time, the issues that fall under it remain valid. He cited as example environmental issues which, he said, should become part of media’s agenda.
Anam said that media companies should address this concern as they depend on social responsiveness for their survival.
He also stressed the need for journalists to continue educating themselves and building up their qualifications. Developing oneself, he said, can only come about by being humble.
“Don’t be arrogant. Journalists tend to be arrogant because they walk in the corridors of power,” he said.
A sense of modesty is important for media practi-tioners because this allows them to look at multiple facets of reality.
“We have to be modest but we must re-educate ourselves, know a bit of many things, go to the people,” Anam said.
At the same time, journalists should never lose their integrity. “If you have something to hide, you cannot write about other people. Your journalistic abilities have been compromised,” he said.
The long run
Notwithstanding the limits within which journalists must work, Anam said, “I feel so proud to be in a profession that demands so much of me.”
He expressed confidence that despite the mounting challenges faced by media, journalists are equipped with the means to overcome these.
“In the clash between government and the press, the government may win in the short run but a free press will win in the long run,” he said.
Societies that repress media, including those that have achieved economic prosperity, will one day have to face their people’s demand for greater freedom of expression, the journalists said.
Citing Malaysia as an example, Anam said the media model in that country will not last.
Kim Ying Pung, special projects editor of The Star in Malaysia, said the emergence of alternative media, notably through the Internet, has provided citizens with information that they could not get from mainstream media.
Anam recalled that, “In many countries like those in the old socialist bloc where the state provided education and other needs, the people nevertheless wanted more freedom. It is a natural thing.”
In the end, societies will change in favor of greater freedom. Such is welcomed by the journalists, one of whom said, “I’d still rather be a watchdog than a Hush Puppy.”
From CMFR, (http://www.cmfr-phil.org/2007/05/06/asian-media-journalists-mull-role-in-restrictive-societies/)