Red Crescent team recuperates body of victim in the Yemen war. (Photo: ICRC archive)

Global Geneva seeks to highlight the role of trusted, but critical solutions-oriented reporting and why it needs to be supported in the public interest.

 “Without local and international journalists getting out there every day to cover the revolts in Hong Kong, the Chinese would have got away with it,” recently noted one concerned long-time resident. “This is a new generation that cares about democracy and never experienced the colonial period. They will not simply accept what Beijing is trying to impose. ” (See Global Geneva piece)

One could say the same about Yemen, Syria, Burma, Ukraine, Nicaragua, Russia and a host of other situations across the globe, where credible reporting about bombed civilians, persecuted migrants, tortured political opponents, trafficked women and children, or poor access to health care has helped assure that they not be ignored.

Yet, apart from a lot of self-promotion, there was very little at the UN’s December, 2019 Global Refugee Forum in Geneva about the role of journalists in the reporting of refugee and migrant crises. According to Réporters sans Frontières, while the total number of journalists killed this year (49) has dropped – many of them in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and other conflict zones – 389 are currently in prison and 57 are being held hostage. Instead, both donors and aid agencies were clamouring for media attention. They should think more about how such coverage is produced and why. They also need to understand that unless more financial support is forthcoming, we can expect far less quality reporting in the future.

Times have changed. Until the 1990s and early 2000s, most major news organizations were still commissioning journalists to do what good reporters do best, notably to get the story. Foreign correspondents collaborated closely with aid workers in the field for information and logistical access, but also for alerting the world to crises, such as the Ethiopian famine, the Rwanda genocide, civilian massacres in Sri Lanka or the repression of the Kurds by the Iraqis, Syrians and Turks. (See Jonathan Randal piece in Global Geneva). Both journalists and aid workers knew each other, and also knew the ground rules about not ‘burning’ sources or endangering local populations.

Today, newspapers, magazines and broadcasters have cut back on their reporting, both local and foreign. Many communities in North America and Europe no longer have local press to consistently cover town hall politics. The same goes for international stories ranging from Zimbabwe to Nicaragua.

Media organizations such as Reporters sans Frontieres keep tabs on journalist casualties, kidnappings, arrests and other forms of repression around the world.

Dealing with a new media environment

Changing economics and technologies are partly to blame; but so is the manner with which social media platforms, such as Facebook and Google, have undermined independent reporting. They have used and abused journalism to their own advantage and have offered little in return. (See Global Geneva piece on Cyber Monsters) People no longer know what is credible, and what is not. Or they gullibly accept what they find online. The increasing consolidation of media outlets by corporations has also resulted in heavy cost-cutting to ensure better profit margins.

Of course, some major news organizations, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times and Guardian, are pointedly re-investing in journalism, having grasped the importance of providing trusted reporting. This is reflected in their rise of reader subscriptions. Likewise, the BBC, Al Jazeera, France24, Voice of America, Deutschewelle, NPR, RTS and other broadcasters all remain committed to solid reporting, but they too suffer from funding constraints.

How can journalism fund itself?

Society, however, is far better served by a free press that is diverse and independent. Key stories are often broken by local or freelance journalists, or non-profit news groups. To cover costs, these are increasingly reliant on crowd-funding or a relatively narrow pool of concerned foundations. The Geneva-based New Humanitarian, formerly IRIN, for example, a specialised online news service focusing on humanitarian and disaster coverage, operates with support from various foundations and donor grants. The same goes for organizations such as BBC Media Action, Internews or Fondation Hirondelle which focus on “needs-based” information aimed at local populations.

While such innovative approaches have helped improve reporting in the field, people are still far from receiving the independent – and above all critical – journalism they deserve. Not only is this having a dire impact on the way the international community perceives wars, disaster zones or migrant situations, but also countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom, whose democracies have been severely subverted by disinformation. (See Global Geneva piece by William Dowell)

A return to “bog-style” journalism to get the stories right

As Alan Rusbridger, chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, points out, only with good reporting can one counter blurred truths and falsehoods. He cites James Mitchinson, editor-in-chief of The Yorkshire Evening Post, who questioned the manipulation of a particular Brexit story, concluding that it was old-fashioned “bog standard journalism” that got it right. As Rusbridger adds: “It was a powerful statement of why good journalism – independent and decently crafted – should matter.” (See Guardian article)

Such standards need to be applied to international situations, particularly where foreign correspondents are few and far between. While we are witnessing a rise in good local journalism, most reporters in places like Uganda, Haiti or Bangladesh do not have the financial means to undertake any forms of real investigation. They also face severe constraints, such as death threats, jail or beatings, or advertising pressures by their own news companies. They thus tend to practise self-censorship in order to survive.

Cartoon by Gado, a Tanzanian, who has come under severe pressure for his political cartooning, particularly of corruption in the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments. (Courtesy Cartooning for Peace and Gado)

Take Tanzania, where the government is making blatant threats against anyone who dares criticise its corrupt political elite. (See Financial Times piece by Tom Wilson) People have disappeared, some turning up dead, their bodies tortured or beheaded. Local cartoonists, such as Gado, a laureate of Geneva’s Cartooning for Peace Awards, have also been threatened. (See Global Geneva story on Zunar) Then there are the difficulties of simply finding the money. For Kenyan film-maker Peter Murimi, it took months to obtain the support needed to produce his award-winning documentary: Suicide Stories: Are Kenyan Men in Crisis?  Commissioned by the BBC, it was a story that the mainstream media wasn’t covering. (See Global Geneva piece on freelance reporting from the frontlines by Tira Shubart)

A Global Fund for Public Interest Journalism: A simple way of providing support

So how to fund quality journalism, particularly of crises that concern most UN agencies, NGOs, companies or governments at the Geneva Refugee Forum? One suggestion that is gaining traction is the urgent need for a Global Fund for Public Interest Reporting. If there is a Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB with foundations and donor governments literally donating billions of dollars, then why not for trusted journalism?

The Swiss and Geneva governments have finally recognized that if we are to have better reporting of ‘international Geneva’ themes from humanitarian action to climate change and world trade, then it needs to be supported properly. Unfortunately, its current approach to its so-called “Independent Journalism Platform for International Geneva” is primarily parochial catering to local political interests and lacks vision. There is no effective backing for independent reporting of interest to world-wide readers along the lines proposed by Global Geneva.

But even this is a start. All players, regardless whether philanthropic foundations, companies, banks, aid agencies, or government donors, should be supporting public interest journalism. This is just as important as funding humanitarian relief, post-disaster reconstruction, protecting cultural heritage, high school education or sustainable development.

On the road going east from Mosul. People fleeing the fighting cross through Gogjali, a Kurdish village located on the way to Al Khazer displaced camp. (Photo: ICRC)

Aid agencies need to contribute

One way of doing this is to actively engage both donors and aid agencies. But this will mean a radical re-think. For one, donors should oblige all international aid agencies and NGOs, whether the International Red Cross, UNHCR or Oxfam, to contribute one per cent of their support to such a fund. They will have no editorial control over its content other than the knowledge that it will go toward providing grants for critical and independent reporting in the public interest. Such support can then provide reporters, photographers, film-makers and other bona fide journalists with funding to help report key issues of concern, such as wars, humanitarian crises, refugees, migrants….

Aid organizations would also be urged to collaborate by pooling logistical resources with other UN agencies and NGOs to help journalists in the field, whether on-the-ground transport, food and lodging. Some organizations, such as ICRC, UNICEF, UNHCR, MSF and others, have done this with considerable success. Unfortunately, however, too much emphasis appears to be on fund-raising and corporate vanity, such as directors or Goodwill Ambassadors visiting projects in the field. One major international organization, for example, has far more photographs and videos on its website about its director than its so-called ‘beneficiaries’.

In return, journalist grantees would make their content, such as articles, videos or photographs, publicly available once they have been produced for their own media. The aid agencies could then post such credible, independent items – regardless whether critical or not – on their websites. A report first published by The Guardian, New York Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Al Jazeera or Hindustan Times would have far more impact than sponsored in-house features, most of which are not taken seriously. Furthermore, the aid agency would not have to assume responsibility for reports critical of governments and other aspects of international relief or development. In the end, the public would be better informed, which should be the point.

Global Geneva editor Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent and author. He first began covering the world-wide refugee problem in 1980 with a 30,000-word series across five continents for The Christian Science Monitor newspaper based on four months of reporting. Today, most newspapers would no longer have the resources for such an in-depth report.

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