Quality Journalism in Times of Conflict: Challenges and Opportunities

The following speech was given by Aidan White, EJN Director, to Council of Europe Kiev Conference on April 24th 2014.


Dear Friends,

First of all can I introduce the Ethical Journalism Network, which is an international media coalition which aims to strengthen the craft of journalism. The work of ethical journalists is never more needed than in times when tensions are rising in an atmosphere of violent political rhetoric and shrill propaganda.

I have just returned from Rwanda, where many journalists work in a twilight world of corruption, poverty and fear, and where the EJN members in association with owners, journalists and editors from across Africa launched a new campaign – Turning the Page of Hate.

This campaign, launched in Kigali, marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. It aims to reinforce the aspirations of African media to challenge intolerance, to eliminate hatred and incitement, and to promote independent and inclusive journalism.

I can’t help feeling that a similar initiative is needed in this region. Media, both in Kiev and Moscow, are under pressure as the political and military crisis intensifies in the wake of the Maidan revolution last autumn and the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The threats of hate speech and a toxic mix of misinformation and jingoism are found in both countries. Everywhere, the propagandists are in full flow.

The television anchor Dimitry Kiselyov, Russia’s war-monger in chief, for instance, is an anti-gay demagogue who has used his media position to promote abusive sexual politics. He is malicious in his treatment of opponents and he pours scorn on so-called “western decadence” and those who insist on the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine as a unitary state.

He may be singularly venomous, but there are many reptile journalists at work in the current crisis.

The only effective way to counter such divisive and malicious speech is more informed and ethical journalism, but not more propaganda.

The key is to produce quality information which is trustworthy and reliable.

It can be passionate and committed, but it must be based on facts and delivered with respect for the audience.

To understand the challenges facing media in times of conflict we should recall that when a country is at war or under attack it is the natural impulse of media to focus on the needs of their home audience, to show humanity to the victims of conflict and allay the fears and insecurities of their people.

In the midst of national crisis it’s not unusual for the balance between national voice and professional voice in media to be disturbed. After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, for instance, many observers in Europe were astonished that media in the United States held back from any hard-hitting analysis or serious reflection on US foreign policy which some felt contributed to the attack.

Instead, in the face of the national trauma, media made their focus the reporting the impact of the attacks and the story of the victims.

At the time, this was a legitimate response. It illustrated that sometimes there is a time for national voice to take precedence over professional voice, but even when this happens it is not a licence for propaganda or unethical journalism.

In time the balance in US journalism was restored and professional voice once again emerged as strong as ever, but it is a lesson that tells us national journalism can be both engaged and dispassionate when the situation dictates. And that is part of the challenge facing journalism in Ukraine today.

I was working as General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists when Ukraine became independent. Since then I’ve worked closely with Ukraine colleagues to reinforce demands for a genuinely free press, to eliminate political corruption of media and to encourage journalists to speak with a single, unified professional voice.

This unity and solidarity among media professionals is an essential element of any strategy for maintaining quality journalism in a time of conflict.

I know this from personal experience as someone who comes from the nationalist, Catholic community of Northern Ireland. I witnessed how over the years media representing different communities on both sides of a disputed border and on both sides of a divided church played a useful role in challenging sectarianism and building public support for a credible peace process after 30 years of war, terrorism and more than 3,000 deaths.

Throughout this period the journalists of Ireland on all sides, north and south, were members of the same union.

They held regular meetings together. They discussed how to avoid the threat of terrorism and political propaganda, together. And, together, they found ways to negotiate with terrorists to keep their people safe.

Of all the many wars I have witnessed in 45 years of working as a journalist and representing journalists, the Irish conflict was by far the safest for media – only one journalist killed and only a handful of targeted attacks on media. The unity and solidarity of journalists around their professional values was critical to keeping them safe.

During this period Irish journalists recognised the power of ethical journalism. Prizes were awarded to editors of major mainstream newspapers from both Catholic and Protestant communities for their tolerance in journalism. Despite attempts by political leaders, both state and non-state actors, to promote propaganda, media were able to maintain their professionalism.

Today the legacy of that attachment to media standards is one reason why the peace agreed in recent years has every chance of enduring.

Here in Ukraine and in Russia the challenge is greater. There is no long-established tradition of independent journalism and media solidarity. The dead hand of political interference is at work in many of the major media.

Even before today’s crisis journalism has struggled to break free from the constraints of an information landscape tainted by poor politics and corruption in public life.

That remains a threat everywhere and is reflected in the poisonous messages coming from mainstream media in Russia.

But do these media speak for all Russians? I was in Moscow a few weeks ago and met with leaders of Russian journalism many of whom are deeply unhappy at the way Russian media have been recruited as foot-soldiers in the President’s political campaign over the future of Ukraine.

They are not unaffected by Russian nationalism, but they yearn for an opportunity to protect their journalism from undue political influence.

Regrettably, they have been marginalised by the power of political influence in state media. Since November last year the propagandists in both Kiev and Moscow have taken their audience, both at home and abroad for fools. They have reduced the current social tensions to a battle of symbols of the past – in particular, Nazism, anti-Semitism, anti-communism and anti-fascism.

For some, both inside and outside the country, as one journalist has noted, Ukraine appears to be an open-air theatre for historical propaganda.

So how do we transform this confrontation into a proper public debate that respects a simpler and more accurate narrative — that Ukraine is a major, independent European country whose people, both east and west, have important and valuable cultural links with both the European Union and Russia?

Such a debate is needed but it cannot be led by social networks or online platforms. The only way to tell the complex story and geo-political realities of today’s crisis is through the lens of critical, independent and ethical journalism.

It is difficult to create the conditions for such a public debate when media are already targeted, some openly attacked, and some journalists kidnapped. Tragically, at least three media staff have already been killed.

One answer may be to recall how independent media responded to a similar crisis 20 years ago during the Balkans conflict.

At that time, some journalists and media refused to be drawn into the conflict. They turned their back on propaganda. They supported an unprecedented process of professional solidarity involving independent media from all sides of the conflict.

During the years of war in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo there were regular meetings of media and journalists from all sides. These meetings were intensely important moments of professional solidarity and self-reflection.They kept the ethical flame of journalism alive at a time when media were targets of political pressure.

I’m certain that similar media dialogues organised between and journalists in Russia, Ukraine and Crimea would strengthen solidarity around principles of ethical journalism and self-regulation and reinforce the notion of journalism as a public good, not a weapon of propaganda.

We could use such events to help journalists to improve their work, to be inclusive, to verify facts, and to avoid the pitfalls of a rush to publish in the heated atmosphere of the modern newsroom. Above all, such meetings can expose the dangers of propaganda and strengthen the commitment to telling stories ethically and honestly.

We need to open the door to new dialogues, not just within the community of journalists, but also with governments. We should remind them that controlling information – even when done with the best of intentions – weakens the role of journalism in providing honest and critical scrutiny of the exercise of power.

I welcome the steps taken in Ukraine in the past months to create genuinely public broadcasting and to strengthen self-regulation. It is a sure sign of progress towards the creation of a secure, confident society when state broadcasting is independent and when journalists are trusted to police themselves.

If we can promote media dialogues between independent media in Ukraine and Russia, we may create a regional alliance for quality journalism which can expose and diminish the power of propaganda and build public trust. That would be a small contribution to ending information warfare and will be welcomed by ethical journalists everywhere.

Thank you

Aidan White can be followed on Twitter at @aidanpwhite.
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Photo credit: Flickr CC Ivan Bandura