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Remarks: Development and Human Rights – What Can the Media Do?

By Jeff Trimble, Executive Director, U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors

Jeffrey N. Trimble (Executive Director, US Broadcasting Board of Governors)Image: DW

Good morning. I would like to thank Deutsche Welle and all the co-host and sponsoring organizations for this outstanding event devoted to such an important topic. I’d especially like to acknowledge Deutsche Welle Director Erik Bettermann, and to use this opportunity to express again the commitment of U.S. international broadcasting to continue to deepen cooperation with our fellow broadcasters under the umbrella of the so-called DG 5, the Directors’ General 5 – in addition to Deutsche Welle and U.S. international broadcasting, this includes France’s AEF, the BBC, and Radio Netherlands. We greatly value our partnership with you all. In fact, just next week in Nigeria, we are jointly sponsoring a conference with AEF devoted to the subject of journalism and development.

As we speak about human rights, it is especially appropriate to take note of the passing this weekend of Yelena Bonner – a fierce, determined defender of human rights in the Soviet Union and Russia and the entire world throughout her entire, difficult life. Getting to know her, her husband Andrei Sakharov, and reporting their activities to bring change in the Soviet Union was a highlight of my time as a correspondent in Moscow.

Which gets me right to a few brief comments, after which I’ll look forward to discussion. I’ll make four points about the intersection of journalism, human rights and development. The first two are about the role of journalists; the second two are about ensuring that we can do our jobs and deliver our content.
Journalism is not about supporting the status quo; nor or journalists, by temperament or training, inclined to leave things the way they are. It is the role of journalists to shine a bright light on the abuse of human rights, wherever these abuses take place. At the same time, journalists must devote substantive coverage to success stories about combating or rectifying abuse – instances and best practices utilized to resolve problems, so that others may learn and take heart from these examples.

The second point is that journalists need to do their homework and really work hard to get into detail to assess programs and other efforts to address human rights abuses. Do programs work? What is their measurable impact? Are public funds being spend wisely and resulting in a satisfactory return? What lessons are to be learned from successes and shortfalls? This isn’t easy work. It requires dogged, unglamorous investigative labor, pouring over documents and accounts of programs and generally performing the “fourth estate” historical oversight function of journalism, holding governments and other organizations accountable for their actions.
To illustrate these points I’d like to share with you briefly some recent efforts by U.S. international broadcasting in the areas of human rights and development.

The first an example of good journalism to expose grotesque violations of human rights in ways that inhibit development and improvement of society in Congo. We are paying particular attention globally in reporting on development and human rights that affect women, who are crucial to development and whose rights often are systematically abused for reasons having to do solely with gender.

You probably know the horrific situation in Congo and the epidemic of mass rape in recent years – a tactic of war – in the villages the Eastern part of that country. Since last year reporters from Voice of America have been documenting the stories of victims, their families, community leaders, and even the attackers themselves.
Now, these video-taped testimonials and other user generated content and commentary are available online at "Congo Story: War, Women and Rape."

The project allows victims, policy makers, experts, and others to simply and easily share their stories and perspectives on a global, interactive platform. The project serves as an online video and oral history. The crowdsourcing platform brings together the “collective community knowledge” about the issue by making it possible for anyone to submit material and become a participant in the global discussion. In addition this site has information from experts about Congo’s tumultuous political history and the background on how rape has become a weapon of war. There also are stories of hope, strength and survival from rape victims who are seeking justice and rehabilitation. VOA has also established a training program for local journalists who are interested in reporting on the issue of sexual violence.
Check it out at www.voanews.com , where there is a prominent widget that will point you to the page. Join the conversation.

Two other U.S. international reporting initiatives at the intersection of human rights and development:
On July 9, South Sudan will become an independent nation – and it’s gratifying that this is the subject of a break-out session tomorrow. This comes after two civil wars and a referendum on southern independence. As South Sudan prepares for independence, the international community seems poised to help the new nation, which is one of the least developed in the world. Development of an independent media remains problematic. There is no tradition of media independence in Sudan, and the south has lagged behind the rest of the country in terms of infrastructure, training, and development. There is no media law in southern Sudan, which leaves media houses operating in a climate of uncertainty. A May 31, 2011 press release by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warned that it “is appalled by recent developments affecting press freedom” in the south. We are there with Voice of America to provide accurate, credible news, to support public discussion of key transition issues, and to train journalists and editors to allow for professional indigenous media. This week, members of VOA’s governing body, the board I serve, will be in Juba, South Sudan to meet with the President and other senior officials, to discuss and listen to the needs and concerns of local journalists, and to attend a town hall meeting on South Sudan’s future, hosted by VOA. This meeting will be attended by both members of government and the general public. It will manifest democracy and freedom of expression in action. Local citizens will have the chance to voice their views openly and engage directly with their political leaders. Only in an environment where government and media have such communication with mutual respect and understanding can democracy and respect for human rights take hold. Our media’s support towards this end is vital to advancing regional and global security interests.

Arguably, nowhere in Africa is support for independent media more important than in Nigeria. The continent’s largest country, with an evolving, democratic system of governance and profound tribal, ethnic, and religious tensions, Nigeria is essential to regional stability and prosperity. And free, independent media play a vital role in achieving these outcomes. Nigeria is seeing a dramatic expansion of media outlets, both broadcast and print. Freedom House rates Nigeria’s media partly free. And yet, threats to and actual violence against journalists continue. Self-censorship is a consequence, especially on sensitive topics such as corruption. Other topics, most notably health, and life and death matters of HIV/AIDS and other diseases, also do not receive the treatment they merit. This is where international media are so important. Health is one of the most important news and information topics for Nigerians, as measured in our research. More than half (66%) of the adult population in Nigeria are very interested in health topics and 88% are generally interested. Nearly all (83%) of VOA’s weekly listeners in Nigeria (some 20 million) have heard a health story from VOA. Among those who did, 65% agree they heard unique information. The most common health stories heard on VOA are about AIDS while over half of weekly listeners also heard stories on Polio and Malaria. And, with regard to the impact of such programming, more than three quarters of the VOA audience heard a story on VOA that informed them as to how to reduce the chances of AIDS. Indeed, this is programming that makes a difference. And it is often a unique contribution from international media, as domestic outlets, for cultural and religious reasons, do not cover AIDS with the depth or openness the topic requires.

We cannot succeed in such important projects unless the two other points I’ll make are addressed. Simply put, we have to be able to do our jobs as journalists; and we have to be able to deliver our content to people.

Journalism is a dangerous profession. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 546 journalists around the world have been killed with impunity since 1992. Three OSCE countries – Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkey – are on the list of the top 20 countries in which there are unsolved or unaddressed cases of murdered journalists.

Governments can’t just talk the talk – they need to walk the walk when it comes to defending journalists so that they can continue to provide information that is the oxygen of democracy and civil society. Governments bear the basic responsibility to make certain that journalists are free to practice their profession without interference or reprisal by state authorities, or threats of violence by criminals or others. Included here not only are legal defenses but responsibility to create a climate that is conducive to the functioning of an independent media.
My final point is that we as journalists have to be able to deliver our product, or none of what we do can make a difference. The basis for this of course is Article 19 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, which enshrines the right to receive information regardless of borders.

We must stake out a united front to hold governments and other groups to this commitment. We must continue to protest controlled access to the Internet or interference with access to content through blockage of web sites. Specifically, we must continue -- as the DG 5 broadcasters have done – to protest in any way that we can the jamming of radio and, more recently, satellite television, which Iran in particular continues to do regularly, in flagrant contravention of international law. We must also combat internet censorship by countries such as China and Iran – U.S. international broadcasting has just received $10 million from the U.S. congress to expand our efforts in this area, and we are eager to work with our international colleagues to do all we can to further internet freedom.

Journalists don’t have all the answers – but they know the right questions to ask. With hard work, some level of good will, and commitment by governments and others to allow them to do their jobs, journalists can play an important part in addressing and helping to resolve violations of human rights even as they explain and promote development.