Protecting sources and defining personal rights were among the topics at a student conference in Tbilisi; it brought together law and journalism students to discuss media law and ways to improve media coverage.
A young journalist steps out of her car and looks around. She's from Tbilisi and has never been to this village just an hour's drive from the capital. She's researching a story for an online news site about the unexplained disappearance of a woman. All the journalist knows is that a house also burned down and that a large sum of money has gone missing. She switches on her recorder and approaches a man who's coming down the street. He says he's the woman's neighbor and that the woman's uncle is the culprit. Another neighbor tells the journalist that money never went missing. A few hours later the journalist is back at the office, and listens to the interviews. She then writes a report that includes the neighbors' accusations, the names of the people she spoke with, and the uncle as the culprit. She also mentions the sum of the money that was supposedly stolen and the names of the alleged owners.
Confusing allegations with facts
This young journalist doesn't really exit. She's been made up, just like the story she's researching. But in real life, "research" like this is common. "Whenever there's a crime, the media include everything, regardless of the damage it could do to a person – even to the journalists themselves," says DW Akademie project manager, Pandeli Pani at the student conference "Media, Law and Ethics: Freedom without limits". The conference was held in early June in Tbilisi, initiated by DW Akademie and the Tbilisi Ivane Javakhishvili University (TSU). Pani says journalists find it hard to access information, especially at the municipal level. As a result, he says, allegations are reported as facts, and the media give a verdict long before the cases go to court. The conference therefore focused on discussing ethics, media law and media practice.
Journalism and law students pair up
Pandeli Pani is pleased as he looks around the room. At the two-day conference students often run a session together. The one he's attending along with 26 students has two presenters: a journalism student who analyzes the way Georgian television interacts with children, and a law student who looks at the legal aspects of the boundary between an individual's right to privacy and people's right to access information.
The 70 people attending the conference are not all TSU students. Others taking part include lecturers and professors from five additional cooperating universities in Georgia: the Ilia State University, the International Caucasus University, the University of Georgia, the East European University and the Batumi Shota Rustaveli State University.
Representatives from non-governmental organizations, journalists and heads of broadcasters are attending another session. This time a student presents the results of her study on hate speech on television, but the examples she offers and her analysis spark an intense discussion among participants. Petra Raschkewitz, project manager with DW Akademie's Asia & Europe Division, has observed a number of heated discussions at the conference. "In Georgia," she says, "there's not enough awareness of why certain things shouldn't appear in the media, or why they shouldn't appear like this." An awareness of victim protection or why hate speech or slander are offences is just starting to develop here, she adds.
Media law as part of the curriculum
Good teamwork: Pandeli Pani (DW Akademie, right) and Professr Mariam Gersamia (TSU, second from right)
Mariam Gersamia is head of TSU's Department of Journalism and Mass Communication and surveys a full room just before the second day of the conference gets underway. She's obviously pleased with the way things are running. "I’m surprised that the students can maintain such a high level," she says. "I feel like I’m attending a conference for professors and seasoned researchers."
Gersamia is largely responsible for making sure that new subjects were introduced to the university's journalism program last year. Those subjects include media law and law reporting. "We tried for years to work with the law faculty, but bureaucracy always got in the way," she recalls. "When we were approached by DW Akademie it was clear that things would move along much faster." With DW Akademie's contacts it was possible to organize meetings for members of the journalism department and the law faculty.
Focusing on students
Developing long-term networks for media workers and law professionals is part of DW Akademie's overall project in Georgia, which began in 2010 with training workshops for journalists. Another conference in Tbilisi is being planned for the autumn, this time for professors and lecturers. Project managersPandeli Pani and Petra Raschkewitz agree that in Georgia, media law is more important than ever. "We've spoken with station managers and government representatives and they're interested in consultations," says Raschkewitz, adding that she was interviewed by four different TV stations during the conference.
Many Georgian media workers are surprised that DW Akademie is working directly with students, even though they're not yet seen as journalists. "Their motivation, though, and the lively discussions we've seen here show that we were right to focus on the next generation," Raschkewitz says.
And this could have a great influence on that young journalist who's heading for the village not far from Tbilisi. The next time she might bring along other things than just her recorder: awareness, for example, and skills for producing fair and balanced reports.