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Development and Human Rights – What Can the Media Do?

“A crucial need for media competence”

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Hans-Jürgen Beerfeltz

“Free media are the source and root of a living civil society,” said Hans-Jürgen Beerfeltz, State Secretary of Germany’s Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, “and a critical and watchful civil society is becoming a factor of paramount importance for good governance”. In a keynote speech on the role of media in development and human rights, Beerfeltz described how human rights have become a “guiding principle” and “central criteria” of his ministry’s development work, the core mission of which is poverty reduction. Germany recently restructured its development cooperation to work more closely with people rather than with governments by focusing on decentralized projects to promote civil society engagement and good governance, including media freedom. “It is the media together with civil society that brings human rights abuses out into the open and forces governments to honor their commitments to human rights.”

Beerfeltz said the German cooperation and development ministry had recognized the importance of the media for peace, and is formulating a new media strategy. He outlined a range of media development support available from German institutions. Remarking on the role of new media and rising importance of citizen journalism, Beerfeltz said “they are a new dimension, not only in terms of communication but also in terms of individual liberty”. But with the incredible amount and range of information available today, “free access to media and information alone is not enough”. There is also a crucial need for media competence so people can determine what is important and differentiate between truth and fallacy. Highlighting projects for which it provides funding and many of which are carried out by DW-AKADEMIE, Beerfeltz also emphasized the importance of media training and education for journalists in developing countries. “Diverse and free media and active civil society are not only dependent on one another. They are also fundamental for the realization of human rights.”

Media literacy, conventional vs. social media and journalist safety were just some of the other issues explored during the multifaceted panel discussion that followed.

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Dr. Purna Sen

“There is no sustainable development without protection and implementation of human rights,” said Purna Sen, head of human rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat. Many of the panelists agreed with her plea to media producers to understand human rights, respect them when conducting their work and promote them beyond the service of providing information. In her opinion, the media must help fill the “accountability gap”, actively “investigating shortfalls, explaining what commitments governments have made on the international stage and that people have the right to expect their governments to deliver”.

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Catarina de Albuquerque

Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, agreed, making an impassioned call for stronger awareness and understanding of human rights. She pleaded for journalists to tell the stories of the “silent suffering of billions of people” and to bring their stories to the forefront. Human rights, she said, are not about “mere good will or good ideas. We are talking about the law and if a government violates these rights which are included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and treaties, then they are breaching the law. There are legal consequences.”

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Ingrid Deltenre

Ingrid Deltenre, Director General of the European Broadcast Union (EBU), spoke about its efforts to impress on governments that free independent media are the cornerstone of democracy. “No confident democracy fears an independent media.” The EBU also works collaboratively with its member broadcasters to lessen their economic burdens.

“The EBU strongly believes good quality journalism and free, independent media are the cornerstone of every democracy. You need media that serve the public and not some parts of government or other stakeholders.” Deltenre noted that journalists are being detained, tortured, killed; they don’t have protection, sometimes even of their own broadcasters. By providing training and workshops, the EBU is trying to establish a framework of greater safety and independence of journalists as well as to raise editorial standards. “We speak up whenever we can.”

Economic independence of journalists was another key issue raised, panelists pointing out that without it there is great danger of non-independent reporting.

Noting that most countries have dual media systems, funded by advertising or taxes, subsidies, license fees, or any combination thereof, Deltenre said: “Personally I think a combination of sources is best. That guarantees the highest degree of independence.” The source with which you are financed does influence the way you work and impacts the way reporting is done.

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Jānis Kārkliņš

Jānis Kārkliņs, Assistant Director General of Communication and Information of UNESCO, explained how his and other organizations can support both mainstream and social media.
• Create an environment allowing media to be free and editorially independent.
• Ensure that journalists, bloggers and citizens using social media networks can exercise their right to free speech safely and without hindrance.
• Training journalists but also government officials, law enforcement agents and militaries on issues related to freedom of expression and freedom of media.
• Training users in media literacy to enable them to navigate the deluge of information so that they “can distill what is right, what is wrong, which is correct and which is false”.
“We’re developing a theory of media and information literacy. This issue should be in the curriculum of every school. People must be able to assess good from bad information. People tend to rely on whatever source of information they have.”

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Jeffrey N. Trimble

U.S. international broadcasting by its legislation is not charged with enhancing the image of the U.S., said Jeffrey Trimble, Executive Director of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. “That’s not our job. Our job is to promote freedom and democracy around the world, in the long-term, big foreign policy interests of the United States. Our mandate is not to promote the policies of any given administration, it’s to do good-quality journalism and to provide that oxygen of information that democracy and civil society needs to grow. We’re charged with putting the story out there.” He referred to a long tradition of U.S. international so-called surrogate broadcasting, surrogate home services for countries in environments where those media cannot exist. “We continue to do it today in closed and repressive societies, e.g. Central Asia or other countries that deny freedom of expression or access to free media.” Trimble emphasized the need for independent judiciaries to adjudicate disputes between journalists and governments, still lacking especially in post-Soviet countries.

Purna Sen argued that human rights is not simply about promoting your interests. It’s about creating a world where everybody’s dignity is protected through the promotion and respect of their rights. This is also a problem within the human rights field. “Understanding of the human rights message is absolutely essential and we have a long way to go.”

From the floor, Frank Smyth of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) suggested to Jeffrey Trimble that U.S. government-funded broadcasters like to report about press freedom abuses in other countries, but not their own, particularly the U.S. military’s practice of detaining journalists for weeks, months, years in the 2000’s without charging them with a crime, and wanted to know why. Trimble replied that he don’t know why that is the case and the Voice of America should cover that. “The richness of our society is about openness, it’s exactly the problem stories that endorse our openness to talk about them.”

In response to an Australian’s suggestion that many media are skeptical of promoting human rights because they consider them political, Professor Sen replied that if the starting point is human rights and media are to promote development together, the media need their rights respected. “There’s lots the media can do to promote human rights without being political.”