Media challenges in a digital world (part 2)

Media challenges in a digital world (part 2)

This is part of a keynote address by Pacific Media Center director Professor David Robie at the recent USP journalism awards. Part one of this blog was published last week. The following is part two:

While there appear to be far more democracies in the world than ever before, the CPJ’s executive director Joel Simon says there is a sinister new threat.

And this is in some respects more troublesome than the old style dictatorships. Simon describes this new scourge in a recent book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Press Freedom, as the ‘democratators’, those leaders who profess to be democratic but are actually subverting their mirage of open governance. As Simon says:

“What are these differences between dictators and democratators? Dictators rule by force. Democratators rule by manipulation. Dictators impose their will. Democratators govern with the support of the majority. Dictators do not claim to be democrats – at least credibly. Democratators always do. Dictators control information. Democratators manage it.”

Simon points out that democratators win elections yet while they may be free, they are not really fair, meaning they are decided by fraud.

He has a growing list of leaders that fit this label, including Latin American “populists” like Rafael Correa of Equador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, “European backsliders” like Viktor Orban of Hungary and Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed former president of Ukraine, and African leaders such as Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Jacob Zuma of South Africa.

Also high on Simon’s list of media threats is the way terrorism has impacted on how big media groups currently go about their global news-gathering. Conscious of the ever-present threat of ritualised kidnappings and bombings, journalists are sometimes forced to report from bunkers and are less enthusiastic about meeting uncertain sources in case they might be abducted.

‘there is a sinister new threat’

Even the appearance of journalists sometimes makes them look like an extension of the military – with helmets, flak jackets and camouflage fatigues. This accentuates their targeting by fundamentalist groups who regard them as an extension of the ‘state’.

China is the elephant in the room when it comes to freedom of information. While China’s leaders embrace the internet, they believe they can, and ought to, control the web. It is clear that China has the technological means and resources to make internet control a reality.

Chinese authorities use monitoring and filtering to keep a lid on the cyberspace “conversation” to prevent repercussions.

United States responses to the Wikileaks scandal in 2013 and the massive surveillance revelations by Edward Snowden encouraged allegations of hypocrisy from critics pointing out that Washington’s commitment to internet freedom dragged when its own geopolitical interests appeared threatened.

Earlier this month, I had the good fortune to be in Brussels as one of the people giving feedback at a stakeholders meeting for a massive European Union-funded research project on the media reporting on six major violent conflicts around the world, including the Syrian civil war and conflict in Burundi.

While there I happened to pick up a new “Euro” style newspaper called Politico, which steered me to a remarkable media development in Spain with the headline “He brings news of the future”

“Who was he?” asks the subeditor in me when it was always drummed into us to have a name in the headline. (The online version changed the headline).

This was the story of Pedro J. Ramírez, one of the leading editors in Spain, who had been in charge of El Mundo for 24 years. But he was sacked by his newspaper’s owners.

Why? Because under his leadership, El Mundo pursued a robust investigation into corruption implicating the governing Popular Party and the Prime Minister [Mariano Rajoy].

When he was fired, Ramírez used his massive €5.6 million pay-out to help fund a new online newspaper, El Español. His pay-out plus record-breaking crowdfunding doubled what had been previously raised by a new Dutch publishing venture, De Correspondent.

Another interesting success story has been in France, where investigative journalist Edwy Plenel, famous for his Rainbow Warrior bombing investigation in 1985 for Le Monde, founded Mediapart.

He has assembled a team of some 60 journalists and his fearless brand of investigative journalism is shaking up the establishment.

Even in New Zealand, where the mediascape is fairly dire with hundreds of jobs cut in recent years—and a loss of 180 jobs in a recent shake-up at Fairfax New Zealand, the country’s biggest news publisher, there are stunningly innovative things happening.

The main independent New Zealand media group Scoop Media – and we at AUT’s Pacific Media Centre have a partnership project with them, Pacific Scoop – has launched a new crowdfunding business model and established a Scoop Foundation for Public Interest Journalism. The inititiative by Selwyn Manning in launching Evening Report web portal has also been significant.

This brings me to the achievements of the University of the South Pacific and its talented new crop of graduates. Close to 200 USP journalism graduates are now contributing to the Fiji and the Pacific region’s media and related careers.

Through its long-standing award-winning newspaper Wansolwara – now 19 years old, surely a remarkable accomplishment for any journalism school in the Australasian and Pacific arena, the student journalists have played an important role in independent, engaging and truth-seeking journalism.

Personally, I shall always remember with pride my experiences with USP and Wansolwara over the five years I was with the campus – the longest by far of any expatriate educator. Wansolwara was founded by student editor Stan Simpson and lecturer Philip Cass. And Pat Craddock of the USP Media Centre was another key person in building up the programme.

One of the highlights for me was the reporting of the George Speight coup in May 2000 by the courageous USP students. They won many awards for this.

It was thanks to the groundwork and experience that I gained at both USP and previously UPNG as a journalist turned academic that I was able to go to the next level at the Pacific Media Centre.

There I have been able to blend some of the best elements of academic media studies and practical journalism that makes a difference.

A tribute too to Dr Shailendra Singh and his team, Irene Manarae, Eliki Drugunalevu and Dr Olivier Jutel. Shailen was recently the first home-grown academic at USP to gain a PhD in journalism at the University of Queensland with the first major survey of the Fiji mediascape for more than a decade. Congratulations Shailen for a very fine thesis!

My concluding message to graduating student journalists is that no matter what government, political or industry pressure you face, you should hold on strongly to your core values of truth, accuracy, honesty and courage in the public interest.

Our communities deserve the best from their media in these deceitful times. University media are among the few that can still be trusted and they should do their best to contribute to democracy with integrity.

So go for it and change the world to the way it should be!

Caption: Pacific media cover a Pacific Island Forum summit in Vanuatu, 2010. Photo: Ben Bohane/

This article was written by
David Robie

Dr David Robie is Professor of Journalism and the Director of the Pacific Media Centre in Auckland University of Technology’s School of Communication Studies. He was head of journalism at the University of the South Pacific between 1998 and 2002.