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No way to fight corruption without independent media’

File photo of Barbara Trionfi

Barbara Trionfi is the Executive Director of the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of journalists, editors and media executives in nearly 100 countries. Her field of expertise covers different areas related to press freedom and freedom of expression. Ms Trionfi is Italian by birth and presently lives with her family in Austria. She was recently in Dhaka, along with several other journalists from all over the world, to join in Prothom Alo’s 18th anniversary celebrations. In an interview during her visit, she spoke to Prothom Alo about the global challenges faced by media, the pressures on media in Bangladesh and the way ahead.


Prothom Alo: How do you see the present media scenario, including the challenges that are being faced globally?


Barbara Trionfi: We face very different situations around the world of course. Every country, every media outlet, every journalist faces different challenges. But certainly there are trends that we have been able to identify. One big concern is press freedom. At IPI we work for the defence of press freedom because we believe press freedom is a fundamental element of independent quality journalism.

One of the core issues which we also deal with is to ensure that the newspapers, the press, the media, journalism as a whole, is respected within society, that it can fulfill the role it has in society. And that is one of the great challenges of today.

Journalists do not always have the credibility that they need to have in order to carry out a job that is very challenging. The reason behind this is that journalists, and journalism as a profession, do not always have the support of the communities they serve. They need that support to be the fourth estate, for them to be powerful enough to scrutinize the government and other powers within society. The reasons behind lack of community support can be very different. In some cases they are accused of being too close to the power. In some cases journalists are accused of not behaving ethically. But the outcome is the same. It gives the government and anybody who wants to shut up the media, the upper hand. This is a great challenge.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to address press freedom restrictions. When I started at IPI just 15 years ago, we were facing challenges relating to laws limiting the rights of the press. These laws allowed for imprisonment of journalists, allowed for restrictions on content and interference by government in the content of the media, particularly broadcasting. Today many of these laws have been removed but the journalists are still under the same pressure because other laws are being abused to stop journalists.

There are countries like Azerbaijan, or Turkey or Zambia, many countries where anti-terrorism laws are being used. Cyber crime laws too are something that we are very worried about around the world because it is the new threat. When we talk to governments, they say it is not for journalists but for the criminals who operate online. The outcome is that these laws are being abused to limit critical journalism. They are being abused because very often, unfortunately, justice systems are not as independent as they should be. They are too close to the power, too close to governments. That becomes very difficult for us because it is normal for a country to have a cyber crime law, an anti-terrorism law. So we can’t fight the law itself. When we go to governments, they tell us it is not up to them. It is the justice system and the justice system operates independently. But we know it is not true. These are such subtle issues and it becomes extremely complex to address them.

On top of all this, you add economic pressure. Very often the advertising sector has an interest in tagging the government line. So you have immense economic pressure on the media because there are no alternative sources of income.

There are countries where two, three or four political parties are equally powerful, and also economically equally powerful. Basically each party owns a part of the business sector. That is a healthier environment for the media because the media can access different sources of income. But there are countries where the government is so strong that the economic sector is also close to the government and that affects the independence of the media. This is something very difficult for us to tackle because we are not going to tell the businesses whom they are going to give advertising to and whom they can’t. We are not going to tell the owners which editors they are going to hire. It’s their decision.

The only thing that an organisation like ours can do is raise awareness, work with the editors and the journalistic community to ensure that at least there is coverage of the fact that the media cannot be as independent as it should be. So the biggest challenge for us today as a press freedom organisation is that the threats to press freedom have become very subtle.

There are countries where journalists are being killed and where journalists are physically attacked. We will never know the identity of the attackers because the governments do not carry out independent investigations. They are not brought to justice. Journalists risk their lives. This generates self-censorship. So this is, broadly, what we are trying to navigate with.

A way to address the problem is really to try and encourage greater solidarity within the journalistic community. First of all, it is to ensure that competing media organisations do not start attacking each other because this will affect them both and will give the opportunity to those who do want to limit them, to do so. So they will remain competitors on the business side, but when it comes to the right to produce independent journalism, we try to create closer communities that go beyond political alignment, ethnicity, religious background and all that. These networks will also serve as support groups for journalists under attack.


Prothom Alo: Is your work at IPI steadily becoming more difficult, just as it is for journalists?


Barbara Trionfi: Yes, it reflects the challenges the journalists face. It is becoming more and more difficult to address. We used to live in a world where you had two blocs. There was the Cold War. You knew somehow who were the ones respecting the freedoms and who were the ones ideologically against the freedoms.

Today everybody, in theory, is in favour of press freedom. So the methods that have been found to stop critical coverage are much more subtle. We are trying to address it.


Prothom Alo: What about the technological challenges as in the Internet and social media?


Barbara Trionfi: There are positive developments. There is the Internet which is an immense and positive tool for freedom of expression.

However, this is also becoming a challenge for journalism. Social media can be a threat because nobody knows anymore who is a journalist and who is not. Nobody knows anymore what is good information and what is not good information. So this is a part of the transition. But, in itself, the Internet is a useful tool to disseminate information even further. It reaches out to rural areas. It is cheaper than other forms like broadcasting, for example. It does not require big amounts of funds. But at the same time, it is overcrowded and many of the readers are confused with the information they get.

The next challenge is to educate our readers to understand which sources they can trust, what is really journalism and what is not. I think the generation of my kids is the one that is going to go in that direction, to learn from an early age to recognise what is journalism and what is not.


Prothom Alo: Then there is the political challenge faced by the media in South Asian countries, in the developing world and in Bangladesh too. How do you look at that?


Barbara Trionfi: About Bangladesh in particular, I’ve been coming here once every couple of years for the past ten years approximately. What I see as wonderfully positive is a booming industry. So I believe journalism is booming. The sources of information are increasing. That is good.

If you look more in-depth, of course, you see a polarised society. This leads, as in many other countries, to a journalism that is not perceived as being entirely independent from the political forces. So there is always talk of media that is pro-government or media that is against the government. This is terrible for the profession because media should be there just to be independent, not pro or against, but just independent.

This has become even more problematic recently because on the one hand Bangladesh has a strong government that has a lot of support by the people. On the other hand, the fact that the opposition has become so weak has also challenged the possibility of a greater diversity of opinion. It is a challenge for people to access different opinions. The majority of the people are confronted with one dominant voice and that is very close to the government line.

And of course there is the government pressure. It is subtle. There is economic pressure. From what I heard, the primary interest of the owners, particularly in broadcast media, is not doing good independent journalism. Their primary interest is to promote their businesses. They see journalism as one of many businesses they have. So the editorial independence is not as valued as it should be. Editorial independence is the core value of independent journalism. Journalists need to be independent from the government, and also from those who give them money.

The last time I came, one of the owners of a television channel; and he told me, ‘I have a lot of businesses, all very successful. My television is the only one that is not successful as a business itself.’ He said that the reason of that is in Bangladesh there are no good managers. There is a need for good media managers to manage the newsrooms and the media operations independently. My hope is that this professional group will develop and be strong enough to understand that part of their good management is fighting for editorial independence from the ownership, knowing exactly how far to accept influence on content by the owners or by the advertisers, and what is absolutely not acceptable. Five years from now, can the managers of the broadcasters reach a point where they can fight for their independence? That is the hope.

Prothom Alo and the Daily Star are working towards having a more independent voice. I hear their advertising has been cut immensely. This obviously affects the quality and the ability to operate and necessarily leads to self-censorship.

When I was here last time I had the honour to speak to the minister of information. I said I think this government has done a lot of good things, finally starting the process of drafting a broadcast law and they are friendlier towards the media than other governments. However, there are issues that need to be addressed in order to become a modern democracy, in order to allow this booming industry to serve the interests of the country. The minister said, ‘We do not influence the market, we do not influence the judiciary.’ What do you say to that?

It is difficult. What we can do from outside and what you can do from inside is simply keep talking about it, raise awareness about this issue, raise awareness about the fact that your journalists are working under immense pressure..

We also believe in the possibility of working on one hand with the media industry and also working with governments. We want to make sure that in the end the government and those who have the power, know that it is in their interests to have a strong media sector.

One of the challenges faced by many countries around the world, and Bangladesh as well, is corruption. Corruption is one of the issues that can bring down a government. It can bring down an entire system. There is no way to fight corruption unless you allow the media to cover it independently, vigorously. You really need to defend the journalists that do that. How do you defend the journalists that do that? From a government position, a leadership position, it is in speaking up. The moment a journalist is attacked for covering corruption, you need to speak out and condemn the attack.

One of the great things about having such a strong government for Bangladesh at the moment is that they don’t have reason to fear. They should allow their critics and those who scrutinise them to do their job because it is only in their interests. IPI believes this is a unique moment to change things in Bangladesh for the best. This government can do it, but they need the political will to do that.


Prothom Alo: The government will need to speak from a high moral ground to welcome scrutiny and criticism.


Barbara Trionfi: Absolutely. The government, the prime minister, the information minister, need to come out and say we want the media to scrutinize us, to criticise us. They have no reason to fear. The moment they come out and say we want the scrutiny that is necessary in the society, then all other institutions, the local government, will also have to accept that. You may face some problems from the central government, but I am sure the reporters out in the provinces face even bigger problems with the local governments, the local authorities. It is always a bigger pressure. This is the moment for Bangladesh to change that.

When speaking about the draft of the cyber crime law, I told the information minister that the government has this opportunity to come up with a law which can be a model for the region, which can really show that Bangladesh is ahead of many of its neighbours in this. You have the political strengths to do that. All you need is the political will.

Our efforts with the present government are not to antagonize them because that is not IPI’s role at the moment. It is the role of the journalists, to criticize, to scrutinize. IPI’s role at the moment is to show the government that they have a unique opportunity to turn this government into a modern democracy.

We are trying to send a positive message, at the same time encouraging journalists, showing our greatest respect to the Prothom Alo, The Daily Star and the other journalists in the country who are trying to do their job in spite of the pressure they are under. We are aware of the pressure. They are doing an amazing job. We will try to do what we can do to address some of these pressures, but in the very end, a government will respond to their electorate, the voters. So it is up to you and your readers to put the pressure you need on the government, to do the right things for the greater society.

Courtesy: The Daily Star

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