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Journalists are vital

June 20, 2011

Journalists have been denied access to some events in the Arab world, meaning bloggers are key to reporting on human rights abuses. Press freedom expert Joel Simon explains how this could represent a change in roles.

Person standing in front of magazine stand
News comes in many formsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international non-profit organization run by journalists for journalists. Founded in 1981 and headquartered in New York, the CPJ campaigns for freedom of the press and the right of journalists to report news without fear. Deutsche Welle spoke with him about the changing face of journalism in the internet age.

Deutsche Welle: What is your definition of a journalist?

Joel Simon: In the most basic form, journalists gather and disseminate information that is of interest and relevance to the public. There are professional journalists who do this and there are people who do it as citizens. Because of new technologies there are more citizen journalists today then perhaps at any time in history. But the profession is none in which you need a license to practice.

Are bloggers journalists?

Joel Simon
Joel Simon is the executive director of CPJImage: CPJ

Bloggers can be journalists. When there is an issue of whether a particular individual is a journalist or not, we read up on it. We read the blog, we make sure that we read it in the language that it has been written in, we look at the context in which it was written, we look at the function that it is performing. There are blogs about all sorts of things that certainly don't qualify as journalism. But there are many blogs which are clearly journalistic.

In 2009, you said that "bloggers are at the vanguard of the online revolution." Are they at the vanguard of modern journalism, too?

At that time, there was so much emphasis on bloggers because that was the new medium through which the public was engaging in this new form of journalism. But there are new tools available now, like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other kinds of social media. I think what has clearly happened is that the ability of citizens to engage in journalism and to disseminate what they see and what they think to a portion of the public is now institutionalized. This in no way diminishes the critically important role of professional journalists who do it for a living, who are trained, who work with institutional support and resources. We absolutely need them.

facebook logo with silhouette of poeple on laptops
Facebook and Twitter were vital for Arab world bloggersImage: picture alliance/dpa

I had a look at your "Prison Census 2010." You investigated 145 cases and 69 of these imprisoned journalists were working with the internet - most of them being bloggers. In what respect does the online revolution change your work as an organization defending journalists worldwide?

In many repressive societies there is no outlet through which people can express critical views, express criticism of the government. So they have chosen to do that through blogs and other forms of social media because there is no outlet in the institutional press. The governments in these countries have recognized that this represents a threat to them and they crack down. We have seen this in places like China and Iran. We have seen that throughout the Middle East over the last several months.

Syrian protestors
Syrian protests have largely been reported on by online journalistsImage: dapd

Let's take the footage that we get from Syria these days, or the pictures that reached us from Iran during the Green Revolution of 2009, especially the ones of murdered student Neda. Without bloggers and YouTubers, the international mainstream media would not have been able to report.

That is true. But if you look at Syria now, that also shows the deficiencies or the limitations of not having professional, institutional journalists on the scene with resources. Yes, we know something about what is happening in Syria but it is fragmented. It is very difficult to understand and verify the context. And the Syrian government has made a systematic, effective effort to shut out the international media and to shut down the indigenous Syrian media. So citizen journalists and human rights activists and others have stepped into the fold at a great risk to themselves. But our understanding of events is fragmented and partial and that is not an acceptable situation.

Pile of newspapers
Traditional media is experiencing dramatic changesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Professional journalists are trained to gather facts and to check them and not to take sides. But if it comes to massive human rights abuses, don't we have to take sides at some point like citizen journalists do right from the start? Don't we run the risk that our so-called balanced professional reporting is actually aiding the perpetrators much more than the victims?

Some journalists even among the professionals have very strong opinions and they believe very fervently that it is their role to document and denounce human rights abusers. You know, you have to be committed to the facts, you have to be open to new information, and you have to verify and check the information that you disseminate. Those are the basic ethical obligations of all journalists. But journalists absolutely have an obligation to document human rights abuses because they are newsworthy.

Is the internet revolution more of a chance or a threat to press freedom and to the exposure of human rights abuses?

It is both. It is a revolutionary communications technology. But I have been talking to people who have been looking at this issue historically and people ask the same kind of questions about the telephone and the telegraph and the radio and the television. Any new media that has come along that has allowed people to inform the public more rapidly and more effectively has transformed journalism. In the end it will sort itself out because there is a basic human impulse both to gather information and to disseminate that information. And there is a basic human impulse to want to be informed about what is happening around us. The medium through which that is done may change but the basic exercise of journalism will not.

CPJ logo
CPJ is based in New York

So even in times of blogs and Twitter and Facebook this world needs us professional journalists?

It needs us more than ever. The number of journalists and the kinds of journalists, that is all changing and it is expanding. There is still a crisis in institutional journalism because the economic model is under stress. But the basic desire of people around the world to receive information and understand the events that are taking place around them is stronger than ever. The interconnectedness we all have as a result of these new technologies reinforces that. So journalists have a vital role to play. I am absolutely convinced they will continue to play it, and I am also convinced that there are darker forces like repressive governments, criminal groups and militant organizations that will continue to try to impede the work of journalists.

Joel Simon is one of the world's leading media experts and writes for the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Interview: Sandra Petersmann

Editor: Louisa Schaefer