Democracy rests on a vibrant, independent and truthful media and it’s important that communities across the world are served by such a media, which is why, for three days in November, 800 leading journalists from 30 countries gathered in Tunisia for nothing less than a serious consideration of what they do and how they do it.
Supported by the Thomson Foundation-led OPEN Media Hub project, the first International Convention of Journalism in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, was officially opened by Tunisian prime minister, Youssef Chahed.
“This is the best place in the world to discuss the problems of the press”, he said before highlighting that news media and democracy go hand in hand. “There is no democracy without media. To be a free and modern country, one must believe in an independent press.”
He was joined at Tunisia’s largest culture centre, The City of Culture, by Jerome Bouvier, founder of the convention, who hoped “the meetings and exchange of ideas between participants who come from different realities will give rise to a wealth of projects and initiatives”.
Thomson Foundation’s OPEN Media Hub team leader, Dominique Thierry, also emphasised Tunisia’s unique role in hosting the event:
“After the Arab spring, Tunisia is the one country south of the Mediterranean that has truly managed to build a framework for a free and independent press,” he said.
The three-day event, held in French and Arabic, raised potent issues about the circumstances in which journalists report, produce, distribute and obtain the news. How citizens perceive the content and context of what is presented to them by the media and making them the core of the story were the overriding concerns.
"To be a free and modern country, one must believe in an independent press.”
“Fake news” or deliberate misinformation, freedom of expression, protecting journalists and their sources, corruption and reporting on humanitarian emergencies were some of the key themes to emerge from over 45 panel discussions and public debates.
"[Journalists] should be understood as constructors of better lives, a better society. This is what counts."
A showcase of some of the best films on migration from the OPEN Media Hub-supported Migration Media Award two months earlier, also featured as part of the convention. This was followed by an audience debate with the documentarists and a specialised migration coverage workshop with Tunisian journalists hosted by OPEN Media Hub.
In his closing summary, Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, said:
“Journalists should not be seen as a threat. They should be understood as constructors of better lives, a better society. This is what counts. We are on a joint mission to continue to promote and protect the fundamental right of freedom of media.”
The convention concluded with an earnest appeal from journalists, editors and their respective media organisations to political leaders, business leaders, representatives of trade unions, associations and civil society to protect freedom of expression and freedom of the media in their countries as a fragile and valuable asset.
They welcomed the initiative launched by Reporters without Borders encouraging the international community to consider freedom of expression as a “common good” of humanity.
Journalism only makes sense if it serves the citizen, they argued. Criticism of journalists – and anyone else given a privileged role in the public debate – is welcome, even necessary. But no journalist should be harassed, threatened, censored, jailed or murdered because of his/her profession.
They pledged to continue their exchanges to implement this appeal and ensure that independent journalism and democratic values survive.
In a time where “fake news” has become a common charge against the journalism profession, Magda Abu-Fadil, director of Media Unlimited, led a packed-out workshop on media and disinformation, stating that transparent journalism was more vital than ever.
Practical aspects of news verification and the tools and resources available to help journalists unpick fact from fiction, and bias from balance, were highlighted by a panel which included Agence France-Presse news agency’s Guillaume Daudin and Husein El Sharif of Maharat News in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Marc Saikal (pictured below), director of France 24, said that the assumption that good journalism requires mutually opposed views to be treated as equally valid does not hold. This is especially true when the evidence is clear-cut: “We are not neutral. We do not consider giving 30 seconds to Isis militants and 30 seconds to the Yazidi victims who have been raped,” he said.
On the subject of citizens being able to question information and arguments in the news, and discern what is true and what isn’t, he said: “Citizens know what effective journalism is. They are now well-educated and no one should think on their behalf. No one should assume that citizens do not know.”
People are hardwired to pay attention to threats and alarming information, and the media often capitalises on this. But there’s an appetite for constructive or solutions-focused journalism.
Journalists working for youth-driven community radio stations in the Yemeni cities of Sana’a, Aden and Mukalla discussed the responsibility of journalists, in times of crisis, to focus attention on the building blocks of peace and social cohesion. Their understanding was that through sharing solutions-based stories, positive action and a ‘we’re all in this together’ movement could be accelerated.
“It’s a story of human ability,” said Kamal Redouani, a documentary filmmaker, who has reported on the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Iraq. “What my experiences have taught me is that the human being has incredible strength. When you see families living beneath bombs and what a mother is capable of doing to protect her child, you are more ready to report on wars”.
Is the demise of print a myth? A debate moderated by Jacques Rosselin, director of journalism training organisation EFJ, focused on the future of the written press in the digital age, which is driven very hard by readers and top media executives.
“The Francophone press is threatened with extinction”, said Taïeb Zahar, founder of Réalités, a weekly French-language Tunisian news magazine. “Today the printed press in Tunisia is living its last moments”.
A second edition of the biennial event is planned for the autumn of 2020 and will run in parallel with the Summit of the Francophone countries’ Heads of State and the 39th convention of the Francophone press.
For more information, visit: openmediahub.com
Acknowledging the best, and often bravest, in migration coverage from across the spectrum.
Moderated by OPEN Media Hub, a high-level debate on migration took place in New York in September, 2018.
OPEN Media Hub course giving journalists a good understanding of the complex issues of migration.
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