Partisan media obstructing journalists from reporting ethically

The Maldivian media needs to move beyond the basics of reporting and on to media ethics if it is to build its credibility, become independent and break free from the influence of partisan politics, urged visiting journalism trainer Tiare Rath, Iraq Editorial Manager for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

Rath, an American journalist and trainer who has worked in the US, Africa, Asia and the Middle East for companies including CNN and the New York Times, spoke last Thursday to a small group of Maldivian journalists and NGO representatives about the challenges and opportunities for journalism in a young democracy.

“I have been really impressed with news judgement here, and the understanding of the basic principles of journalism,” Rath said of her experience training young reporters in the Maldives.

“But on the other hand, one of the major issues all my students talked about is resistance among newsroom leadership – editors and publishers. Even if the journalists support and understand the principles being taught, they consistently tell me they cannot apply them,” Rath said. “This is a very, very serious problem that needs to be addressed.”

Rath compared the state of the Maldives media with that in Iraq, “where most of the media is partisan because that’s where the money comes from.”

“They haven’t been able to develop an advertising market, so political parties and powerful individuals back their own media outlets,” she said. “There have been a lot of issues with bias, media ownership and political pressuring of [Iraqi] journalists, and they don’t have the level of legal protection enjoyed by the media in the Maldives.”

However, despite the high-levels of violence obstructing democracy in Iraq, “the news media has flourished – there are more than 300 newspapers in Baghdad alone, and across the country there are thousands of newspapers and many small radio stations, and a lot of news sites and blogs.”

Media in countries like Afghanistan face additional problems, Rath added, “such as the lack of educated young people in the post-Taliban environment who want to be journalists. That has been a major issue.”

In Afghanistan the threat to journalists was primarily harassment and imprisonment, Rath explained, “and there have been efforts by the government to block out the media when it pushes too hard, especially on certain issues like drugs or warlords. The government just issues a media blackout and refuses to engage with the media.”

Even where it was present, “the response to any kind of critical coverage has been really hard. Again it’s a partisan media, because the traditional power brokers are the ones backing and financing it, rather than it being based on advertising [revenue].”

So while it was troubled, the situation facing the media in the Maldives was “a breath of fresh air” in comparison, Rath said.

“While there are challenges, a lot of other countries in a similar period following democratic transition are facing a lot more violence and oppression of the press,” she observed.

Many challenges faced by the Maldivian media were common to countries shaking off the vestiges of authoritarian regimes, she noted.

“A pattern I’ve definitely noticed in newly emerging democracies is that media retains the old style of attending press conferences and spitting out what was said, without doing their critical analysis. When you attempt to be objective it doesn’t mean your sources will always like you, and there may be backlash.”

Even in the West the media faced a lot of criticism, Rath said, “particularly for bias”.

In the UK journalism was the third least respected profession, and in the US it was second last, “right behind lawyers”, she pointed out.

Escaping powerbrokers

For media in an emerging democracy to develop beyond a partisan press and become independent, free from a legacy of political powerbrokers, it must evolve as a business, Rath explained.

“Advertisers do care about politics, but more often they care about money,” she said, “and at least in the US, that means they care only about circulation.

“If you have partisan media, one of the issues you have is that your market is really limited – you’re preaching to the choir. The other audience isn’t going to listen to you. But if you are impartial, there are broader sources of funding purely based on business value. If a news organisation emerges with a real and strong reputation for independence, and strives for objectivity, I do think the advertising dollars will follow, simply because of readership and audience reach.”

Rath said that while she respected the concept of media that was openly partisan and did not strive for impartiality, a trait common to a lot of media in Europe if not the US and UK, “I think it can be damaging in many ways because the credibility of the media is so important. If you don’t even aim for objectivity your market is going to remain very small, and the media is going to be credible only with the party members you are aiming towards.”

Initally, she said, this meant independent media needed a source of funding – an investment – “because it is about money for news organisations. It is important to have a source of funding, whether this is an individual or an advertising base, that cares more about independent media in principle, or who cares purely about money and so would be willing to invest in an independent media outlet that had a lot of potential for growth.”

Another step was ensuring that journalists had an organisation independent of their own newsrooms, such as a professional association, “dedicated entirely to good journalistic practice.”

“I think journalists need a place to meet. One thing I am concerned about in the Maldives is that the political polarisation may also have affected the journalists themselves. The Maldives is very small and everyone feels affected by politics, and has a personal connection to politics.

“I think it is really important for journalists from different news organisations to meet and discuss journalistic issues together. It’s also important to discuss ethics and professional standards, and to debate amongst yourselves what kind of media you want to have. And at the end of the day, if the media comes under attack, they will need to come together and defend themselves.”

The Maldives had a free press, Rath observed, and now it had to fight for respect – “a widespread challenge for anyone trying to fight for ethical journalism.”

“You’ve got a free press. Now how are you going to establish that press, how are you going to build its credibility, and what kind of values do you want it to have? You can technically do whatever you want – but a free press means having responsibility.”

Not as simple

Accepting that responsibility was not as simple as just reporting objectivity, Rath said.

“The model of objective and unbiased journalism has been rightly criticised because of the angle a news station takes on a story. It’s not necessarily bias, it’s part of news judgement, and it’s a huge debate across the industry,” she explained.

“But especially in a new or emerging democracy where there is a lot of political polarisation, it is very important to strive for objectivity to build the credibility of news organisations and to practice these traditional values of journalism, rather than to just be completely caught up in political debate.”

Journalists themselves could push towards more proactive journalism, rather than reacting to press releases and statements by political figures, Rath noted.

“I’m a big proponent of enterprise journalism, where you notice trends, talk to sources and do a feature on it – issues based journalism.

“I’d like to see that in the Maldives, but are there enough bodies? And enough money? It’s still small industry – journalists are assigned to small stories, and when you’re doing 1-3 stories a day you don’t have time to write up a great feature or do non-reactive news because you have to follow events going on around the country. But it’s a huge opportunity in the market.”