ICRC in Africa - an important 'international Geneva' player. (Photo: ICRC)

Letter from the Editor

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Some years back, three Swiss Foreign Ministry officials invited me for breakfast at the Hotel Mon Repos, a well-known Geneva haunt for visiting aid workers and diplomats. We were there to discuss potential support for ‘needs-based’ media projects aimed at informing war and crisis-affected civilian populations as well as more consistent coverage of development issues.

Ever since the mid-1990s, a number of Swiss and international journalists, including myself, have sought to persuade the Bern government to take public interest journalism seriously and to recognize the importance of “international Geneva” as a key hub for humanitarian action and development. There was limited interest and even less federal funding.

Furthermore, the Swiss government has never been comfortable with critical journalism. “We know exactly what you are doing,” maintained one of the diplomats with a faint smile. “You are pretending to be Swiss.” He was referring to my background as a Swiss-American journalist who has worked across the globe, mostly for news organisations in Britain and the United States. Apparently, my Anglo-Saxon approach was too upfront for their tastes. “We Swiss like to be discreet,” he said.

People have the right – and need – to be properly informed

I disagreed, noting that Switzerland had changed. It has become more diverse and cosmopolitan. It can no longer afford to stand outside the international community. This is the “Swissness” that I would prefer to extol. I also stressed the need to understand that trusted journalism, whether local or international, is one of the most effective ways to bring about change – and accountability. People have the right, and need, to be informed. This should be true for all international aid approaches. It is also a cornerstone of democracy. (See Global Geneva article)

The good news is that Bern finally appears to have grasped the importance of “international Geneva.” The same goes for the Geneva authorities. Their commitment to support a “journalism platform” is a step in the right direction.

Helping to make Geneva – and Switzerland – more relevant globally

There remains, however, a certain wariness of foreign journalists and journalistic independence. In 2012, Bern shut down World Radio Geneva (WRG), an English-language FM station run by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. WRG served as one of the Lake Geneva region’s only credible information sources for expatriates, most of whom do not read or watch Swiss media, yet help fuel the Swiss economy. Bern also refused to grant an FM wavelength to its commercial digital successor, World Radio Switzerland (WRS), thus cutting off most of its regular listeners. When I wrote a critical op-ed about this for SwissInfo, a government-funded news organization, it was taken down six hours later for being “inappropriate.” Posted on other news sites, the article received thousands of views. (See link)

Fortunately, attitudes are changing. Many Swiss, particularly the younger generation, but also the commercial, educational, and scientific communities, would like to see better reporting about what “international Geneva” represents globally. Several Swiss ambassadors have pointedly told me this, adding that it also makes good business sense. This includes focusing on key global issues such as climate change, access to health, world trade, peace and security, humanitarian response, conservation, scientific innovation, human rights, writing, and cultural heritage. Geneva-based international organisations working to solve these concerns is what makes Geneva – and Switzerland – relevant to the rest of the world.

The challenge today is how to define the purpose of such a platform. Are we talking about informing local audiences? Or should we be more concerned about highlighting the importance of International Geneva on a wider stage?

We believe it should be both.

The decision to fund Heidi News was reportedly based on a three-person advisory committee made up of two respected French-Swiss journalists and the head of the United Nations’ public information office. But “international Geneva” is not just about French-speaking Switzerland. Nor is it all about the UN. From Basel to Lake Geneva, it incorporates a gamut of influential Swiss and international players, from UN agencies, the Red Cross, NGOs, and academic institutions to think tanks, cultural initiatives and private corporations. International Geneva is also reflected by the work of numerous individuals, notably scientists, authors, artists, filmmakers and entrepreneurs. A more diverse, out-of-the-box advisory group would have made better sense. (See article by the Swiss online weekly Medienwoche in German on this initiative)

Swiss audiences need to know about international Geneva, so reporting in French, but also German and Italian, is imperative. To reach beyond requires a totally different approach. Most readers in Frankfurt, Bangkok, Nairobi, Mexico or Boston have little interest in Genevan or Swiss politics. But they do need to know why – and how – they should be interested in the issues and challenges facing international Geneva actors.

This is what Global Geneva, a primarily English-language print and online magazine based on informed insight rather than news, has been doing for three years. Started with minimal funding, but with rich and exceptional journalistic participation, we now reach tens of thousands of readers world-wide. This includes sponsored complimentary distribution of our print edition, offering a sense of seriousness that many internet-only media lack. Current trends suggest that while people skim articles online, increasingly they are reading stories in print publications. That is why it is important to have both.

Equally crucial, our Youth Writes programme gives young people a voice. We do this by helping to improve their writing skills and to understand the role of trusted journalism in this age of disinformation and social media manipulation. Without their involvement, there is no point in promoting an international Geneva platform.

To ensure global impact, we work closely with a world-wide network of over 2,000 journalists, photographers, cartoonists, filmmakers, and specialists. Emphasizing compelling storytelling, we focus on long reads about topics such as Cox’s Bazar, the planet’s largest refugee camp; the need for international mediation of Hong Kong’s ongoing protests; the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean; how African leaders but also FIFA have nurtured corruption; the environmental impact of invasive species; human rights abuses by the Turkish, Saudi, U.S. and other governments; the impact of climate change on polar and mountain regions; the irreverent role of cartoonists on the political frontline… These are all international Geneva themes that require more consistent reporting in the finest traditions of good journalism.

A far broader and collaborative vision

For such a press platform to be effective, it needs to be editorially independent, critically investigative, and solutions-oriented. It also needs to imaginatively embrace different approaches to reach different audiences. Simply translating articles from French into English will not work. For this reason, we believe that any initiative aimed at highlighting international Geneva should consist of a credible consortium of several or more journalism partners, each focusing on what they do best, but in collaboration with each other.

Many donors do not understand why quality public interest journalism is imperative to any democracy and that now, more than ever, it needs to be properly supported. Such a consortium could significantly facilitate greater awareness and fundraising. It could also lead to something far more significant and useful, notably the creation of a much-needed Global Fund for Public Interest Reporting to better cover key issues, including the Sustainable Development Goals. Such a fund should also be accessible to local and international journalists world-wide. This is where Switzerland could help make a difference. (See report by CIMA – the Center for International Media Assistance – published in January, 2020 – and based on an initial Global Geneva idea)

However, as quoted by this report, Corinne Huser of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation maintains that their country office staff “lack awareness of or fail to think more systemically [about media issues]” when setting priorities and allocating funding.” Other respondents described how awareness of media issues at the country level is variable and usually based on experiences with specific programs. The CIMA report further notes that “despite an increased acknowledgement of media’s vital role in good governance, support to media development still scarcely accounts for more than 0.3 percent of official development assistance coming from governments and multilateral agencies, or about $450 million per year.” Global Geneva proposes that a minimum one per cent (1%) be contributed automatically by all donors and aid agencies to such a Global Fund.

Time for more imaginative outreach

RTS, Switzerland’s French-language public broadcaster has already created its own International Geneva initiative, including the proposed development of an English-language podcast. Other media have declared similar approaches. The Swiss Press Club could help solicit media partnerships across the globe (something which Global Geneva is doing), but also become a focal point for journalists, diplomats, business people, and other key players along the lines of Frontline Club in London or the Foreign Correspondents’ clubs of Bangkok, Hongkong, and Singapore. This is precisely what is missing. Simply extolling Geneva’s virtues or providing conference and workshop facilities is not enough.

What is needed more than ever is a far broader and less parochial vision. This is where such a press consortium can make a huge difference. Only then can international Geneva’s global concerns become better known – and have a decisive impact.

Edward Girardet is editor of Global Geneva magazine and a veteran foreign correspondent and author covering humanitarian, conflict and related issues world-wide.

If you believe that Global Geneva (including our Youth Writes initiative) is doing a worthwhile job, then please DONATE. We urgently need your support for the sort of trusted public interest reporting we believe is imperative for democracy and to better inform people about key issues ranging from humanitarian action and climate change to human rights, environment and world trade. You can also ADVERTISE with us.

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