Saturday, December 12, 2009

Maguindanao and the Era of Post-Textual Journalism

By Dharma Adhikari
The news of the wholesale killing of more than 30 journalists and about as many election campaign personnel and politicians on a lonely road in Maguindanao of the Philippines on November 23 not only leaves us shocked but also invites us to reflect over our own vulnerabilities.

We would like to do more than just condemn the largest massacre of reporters in the history of journalism, because we have experienced increased violence against journalists in our own country. The latest is the brutal attack on journalist Tika Bista in Rukum.

Only a decade ago, before we took to violence and lost our innocence, such an incident at a far-away country would have simply ticked away from our headlines, unable to inspire our involvement, if not a brief attention for the incredible deviance in the news.

We now know that the news is more than just routine information and news gatherers far from indomitable intermediaries. In the past 9 years, we have seen in Nepal more than a dozen journalists killed, one after another, with total impunity and for political gains.

For one hundred year since the inception of classic Gorkhapatric journalism in 1901 and fifty years since the founding of independent press in the early 1950s, we endured moments of national shame now and then in arrests and torture of journalists, and in one prominent case, in the assassination attempt of the editor Padam Thakurathi in 1986. As a means of resistance and to gain political scores, we were nowhere close to openly embracing murder and violence against the press.

Suddenly, as we enter the new millennium trying to bring a closure to the decade-long war, we find ourselves among the many victims from around the world, who share our fears and anguish.

Stumbling towards a scientific future, we are in a simultaneous process of enhancing our humane and technical capabilities and retrieving our primitive, savage instincts.

Yet, targeted killing of journalists is a fairly recent phenomenon. According to the US media watchdog the Freedom Forum (FF), of the 1,976 journalists “who died or were killed while on assignment” since 1837, more than 58 percent (1,155) lost their lives between 1990 and 2009. [See Graph here, 1837-2009] In spite of deaths in crossfire, news persons were largely spared in earlier conflicts, mainly because they were widely considered neutral interlocutors, who also were armless. They were judged by the quality of their actual professional works—their detached reports—rather than by considering them “high value targets” for their public visibility or archetypes of freedom in this age.

The FF lists only 2 journalists killed in World War I (1914-1918). As the spiral of violence was unleashed and war reporting became chic, 68 journalists lost their lives in World War II (1939-1945). Sixty-six journalists were killed on assignment in the Vietnam War (1955-75). There was a spike in 1976-1977 in which 91 were killed, and all except 14 were among the “the disappeared ones” from Argentina, during the military rule there. During 1980-81, a total of 86 were killed, which also included “disappeared” Argentinean journalists.

The deadliest years so far are 1991 with 93 killings, and 1994 and 2007 with 94 each; a sharp spike since the mid-1990s.

Increasingly, journalists are murdered outside of conventional wars, in targeted and revenge killings or simply to silence the messengers or gain media hype. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), based in Washington DC, records that 549 of the 763 news professionals killed with confirmed motives since 1992 were actually murdered. A survey by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) found that 23 percent (274) of all the 1,192 journalists slain between 1990 and 2002 were killed in war zones. In recent years, targeted killing is seen even within the wider context of full-fledged wars, like in Iraq, where more than 250 journalists have been murdered since 2003, according to the Toronto-based International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX).

If we also consider the data from the International News Safety Institute (INSI) in Brussels, which counts deaths of journalists as well as media support staff such as fixers, translators, and drivers, in conflict and non-conflict or disaster situations, the casualty figures are even higher. The INSI lists 2,077 killed since 1990.

In all these varied statistics, we see a steeply upward trend in the killings of news persons everywhere, including the Philippines. According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) in Manila, 134 journalists have been killed in the country since 1986, without accounting for the recent massacre. Of these 77 died in the line of duty. Although local sources put the toll up to two dozen, the FF counts 8 journalists killed in Nepal while on assignment whereas the INSI records 19 journalists killed since 2002. The CPJ reports 12 killed in Nepal.

The most alarming trend is the deliberate killings; 86 percent in Nepal and 95 percent in the Philippines, according to the CPJ. The CPJ data shows that less than 3 percent of all Filipino journalists killed since 1992 covered war as their beat. Most reported on politics, corruption, crime and human rights. Equally disturbing is the near-total impunity globally in such killings; 100 percent in Nepal, and 86 percent in the Philippines.

The Filipino experience suggests that just having a vigorous and regionally enviable press system--some of Asia’s best journalism institutions, including the one with the Magsaysay repute for the annual communication arts award, are based there--does not help secure safe working conditions for media professionals. Neither does a democracy or republic guarantee such conditions. The top 21 bloodiest countries during January 1996-June 2006, according to INSI, included both democracies or republics and dictatorships or repressive and conflict-ridden countries, from Iraq to Iran to India and Brazil to USA.

The classic view of journalists as neutral zones is seriously under threat. Today, reporters have to fight more of their professional battles outside of their texts, outside of their newsrooms, in the fields out there, within the many institutional constraints. In fact, we have entered the era of post-textual journalism, in which, increasingly, media actors and structures, and not the actual journalistic products, are read and contested within the frameworks of power and influence.

Reporters are judged in public less by actually what they do professionally and more by their perceived overall social or political clout, their focal standing in the business of information and communication, in war or peacetimes, in politics or commerce, and above all by their high potential to attract persuasion and propaganda.

This makes any reporter a target in the contemporary struggles for power, among thugs or clans, individuals or political, rebel groups. Media persons are also not spared because the “press” today is increasingly subsumed by the instantaneous and multifarious media vibes, aided by the ever-advancing technologies.

Many critics or detractors in society no longer like to fight the battles of ideas within the enlightened editorial columns; they want them real bloody, and they want the way they want, out in the open, often hostile to journalists.

In the new republican Nepal, identities, regional interests and divided loyalties will collide even more with the press that purports to focus, and should continue to focus, on common public interests. The culture of violence and impunity will lead us nowhere but to more Maguindanaos.

The question is what can be done about this?
While safety or conflict-sensitive training for journalists is essential, a more multi-pronged approach needs to be in place. The UN Security Council resolution (1738/2006) has in principle called for journalists’ right for protection in conflict zones. There is also the campaign for an international treaty to protect journalists, spearheaded by the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) in Paris. The INSA safety code urges governments and security forces to respect the safety and freedom of movement of journalists, and let them perform freely, without intimidation, attack or harassment.

These steps have to reflect in local efforts. Too often, despite constitutional provisions for a free press, like in the Philippines or Nepal, abusers bask under political patronage and they are never brought to justice. There is the need for an independent legal support system and a help network for journalists in need.

In Nepal, the government recently allocated Rs.10 million for a fund to aid journalists victimized in conflict situations. It is a positive gesture, but what is also needed is a mechanism with resources that supports working journalists in risk on a continual basis. Institutionally, reporters often are left on their own. Media employers must vigorously decry abuses, as they always do, in alliance with professionals, but they must also not shy away from committing resources for the long-term safety of their staff.

Even novice reporters get excited about going out in the field since conflict reporting is one sure way to make quick advance in their career. However, employers need to ensure safety first, before the pursuit of a story. The INSA safety code is a useful compass. It emphasizes voluntary assignment in war zones of only experienced news gatherers, mandatory conflict-sensitive training, full knowledge of reporting conditions, contexts of the conflict, and humanitarian laws. Understanding should come coupled with tools, such as efficient safety equipment and health kits, personal insurance to all journalists, and free access to confidential counseling.

We need to assess these needs in our context so as to address them in a sustained way. They require resources, which are in short supply. Donors often tend to justify funding only after the tragedy strikes.

Journalists should also reflect seriously on their core professional values in these difficult times when anybody with a mobile phone can supersede their role. There are debates now in Manila on why the slain journalists were traveling with a crew of politicians. As in “embedded journalism”, such actions could be interpreted as lacking professional independence. A partisan press invites far more trouble.

Above all, we need to create a wider social awareness about the role of the press in a free society. In Nepal, the overriding public impression of a journalist is one who distorts information. It could as well be a perception of the press that is vigorous and vocal. But a “critical” press in a democracy does not have to be synonymous with a “negative” press. The general public as well as potential abusers of the media must be reached with reason before they may explode.

There are many tasks to tackle outside of the text even as we need to focus on the inside of it.

Published in Nepal Monitor, 11 Dec. 2009.