29 September 2009

International Broadcasters Call for End to Government Restrictions on Media

The directors of five leading international broadcasters, including the Voice of America (VOA), released the following statement today at the conclusion of their annual meeting in Berlin, Germany:

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, freedom of speech is still far from being a reality in many countries of the world and journalists have to face ever more sophisticated restrictions preventing them from reporting freely. While, for some of us, multimedia usage has become an almost indispensable part of everyday life, we should not forget that access to free information is still limited to just one third of the world`s population. The global economic downturn has also worsened the situation for many media outlets, especially smaller independent broadcasters.

In light of this, the five largest international broadcasters [VOA, BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle (DW), Radio France International ( RFI) and Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW)] call on governments worldwide to end restrictions on the media. The directors general of the group call on heads of state to implement Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The international broadcasters point out that countries' democratic credentials can be measured to the extent by which they permit freedom of information, and that this, in turn, is essential for a dialogue of cultures and free exchange of ideas to take place.

During the past year, restrictions on media, and in particular on international broadcasters, have peaked during national election campaigns. Tactics have included deliberate interference with transmissions, blocking and denial of service on the Internet, and harassment and imprisonment of journalists, notably in Afghanistan, Burma, and Iran.

Nevertheless, many courageous people in societies around the world are fighting for their right to express themselves and to be heard. Erik Bettermann, director of Deutsche Welle and current chair of the international broadcasters’ group, said, “We are impressed by the ingenuity and energy shown by audiences worldwide in using new digital media to facilitate cross-border communication. Their eyewitness accounts of events (many of which their own governments would prefer to go unreported), often accompanied by audio and visual material, have marked the beginning of a new era in communications, one from which we, as international broadcasters, can also benefit, supplementing our own coverage with authentic accounts supplied by citizens in the world's conflict zones keen to see the story told."

Some countries have extended restrictive regulations beyond broadcasting to the Internet and emerging new media, further limiting access to information. Authoritarian nations without the technical wherewithal to block or eliminate new media dissemination are resorting to traditional methods of repression and intimidation – expensive lawsuits, long prison terms, confiscation of property – to restrict the flow of news, both local and international.

Prior to the Berlin meeting, Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom advocate, issued a press release expressing concern about reports "that Internet Service Providers in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have installed a new filtering software called Landun (Blue Shield or Blue Dam in English) that is more powerful than its problematic predecessor Green Dam." As a result, the report said, “Access to independent news websites is liable to become more difficult and more risky."

Today, journalism must still be regarded as one of the world’s riskiest livelihoods. “Over the past year, hundreds of journalists worldwide – including some from our organizations - have been harassed, arrested, exiled, kidnapped or killed," the group pointed out.

“This only strengthens our resolve to jointly increase our efforts to set up a global civil society, where the free flow of information and the dialogue of cultures can take place unimpeded,” Bettermann said.

25 September 2009

Are the News Media Trustworthy?

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has released what can only be viewed by journalists as a depressing survey of the U.S. public’s assessment of the accuracy of news stories. The Pew Center, an independent, non-partisan public opinion research organization, says that assessment is now at its lowest level in the more than two decades of surveys.

The Pew study finds that only 29 percent of Americans now believe that U.S. news media get the facts straight. In 1985, when the first such survey was conducted, 55 percent said they felt news stories were generally accurate.

The study goes on to report that a majority of those surveyed believe news organizations are politically biased. Other evaluations in the study are also at all-time lows.

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, believes the results of the survey have been skewered by the surge in Internet and other outlets that substitute opinion for fact:

“The great flood that goes under the heading `news media' has been poisoned by junk blogs, gossip sheets, shout radio and cable-TV partisans that don't deserve to be trusted.”

Here’s another similar observation:

"I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding."

You might be surprised to learn that comment was not made by a top editor like Bill Keller, but by President Barack Obama in a discussion this month with reporters from two American newspapers, the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

We at VOA share the concern over the proliferation of opinion and argument in place of hard news reporting. Just consider the role of state-controlled or state-run media in many parts of the world: in our view, they do nothing to promote understanding either, existing only to promote support for a ruling government or party and to actually prevent alternative views -- or even the facts -- from being heard.

This is why we at Voice of America remain committed to straight reporting and fact-based analysis of news events as well as sharing responsible points of view on critical issues. It is why we have often made the case in speaking appearances that VOA is one of the last bastions of what we might call “pure journalism,” unadulterated by opinion or driven by political motives.

There is evidence that our audiences -- unlike those Americans surveyed in the Pew study -- believe VOA does get the facts straight. Two recent independent research surveys give VOA services high marks for trustworthiness. One survey conducted in Indonesia puts the trustworthiness rating at 94 percent. The other, carried out in Albania, puts the level of trust in VOA’s main news show, Ditari, at an extraordinary 99 percent.

High marks like those give us confidence that we are doing the right thing.