Is there a rift between the development sector and the media?
Just as we observed Press Freedom Day on May 3, some rather unsettling revelations have come out in the open: Journalists feel threatened and, most worryingly, believe that their number of allies is very limited.
The hoi polloi will always remain friends of the media but more and more the media people are finding themselves to be fighting against too many odds and enemies.
As a journalist who started a career in the early 90s, I find the transformation of the media from a relatively acceptable institution to one which is shunned rather disconcerting. Of course, throughout history, there have been countless who wanted to use (and still use) the famous “no comment” to the media and wriggle out of a complicated scene; then there’s the ingrained suspicion -- what is a journalist doing here?
Trust me, I have heard that line so many times. Not directly, but the facial reaction was enough which was of course swiftly changed into a broad smile and a courteous line: “Actually, we did not invite the media -- please leave a card and we will send you the press release.”
Aha, the press release -- the paper which contains three lines of information worth printing and 10 lines of shameless trumpeting.
Anyway, 26 years of relations with the print media and journalism have taught me that a wide range of people actually don’t like us very much. There seems to be an aversion towards the man or the woman who is a little brash, has no respect for rigmaroles, speaks out against red tape and, in most cases, takes the side of the general people.
On occasions like Press Freedom Day, here are a few anecdotes and real-life lessons as to what sort of journalists are actually liked. I will concentrate on the much glorified/vaunted development sector which is keen to send out glossy annual reports filled with successes but is never comfortable to face hawkish journalists and their penetrating questions. Let’s first start with the type of media people the development sector loves.
Just do not dig deep into any issue lest you find out some grime from the past. Even better if you have a very short memory because then, you will forget stories of development figures embroiled in a sex scandal, exploitation of women, or even mistreatment of subordinates.
When I say development figures, I point at the predominantly foreigner “bosses” in the sector who often run a development institution like a fiefdom.
Now, as a journalist, you are not supposed to know his/her seamy antecedents; instead, you are expected to be wide-eyed in awe as you are given the long list of successes.
No probing questions are liked either because, when a journalist goes beyond the embellished surface, the lower layers are often not that rosy.
Once, while working with a prominent NGO, I was told that it was a “media shy” organization. At that time (2007) it seemed rather puzzling.
Why would a development body want to avoid the media when they have done so much? The answer is simple -- any intelligent journalist will see through the cosmetic improvements and then want an explanation of how the funds are being spent every year and will soon discover that compared to the administrative costs, the actual development budget which has had a true impact is negligible.
Someone should actually carry out an in-depth probe on how the millions sent for reconstruction after cyclone SIDR was spent.
Press releases and vacuous lines
Too many times, questions from the media are never answered unequivocally. In fact, just like everything in development culture, the answers to straightforward questions are deliberately made opaque.
If you ask “why has this been done?” the answer will probably start like this: “We have worked a long time in Bangladesh and value our partnership” -- then, after five lines of self-publicity, end with a vague sentence.
Peeved, if you give a sharp reply you won’t be liked at all. They prefer journalists who meekly take a long monologue of balderdash and remain happy. Meek, mild, and acquiescent -- certainly not the three words we were taught when we entered the profession.
In many cases, questions are sought beforehand so the right answer can be drafted. You must know that the “right” answers mean lines which hardly explain a contentious issue.
Now, if you go to a press conference and begin asking critical questions, especially when one of the top honchos of development is here for a visit, then you are blackballed. Chances are they won’t call you again.
Many development bosses who are posted locally and those who fly in for a visit have rigid interpretations to issues, social and political. Agree to their versions with alacrity and you will be fine but disagree emphatically and the conversation may end there with you being deemed “recalcitrant.”
The development sector, like many others, do not like journalists. Correction: They do not approve of media which asks penetrating questions, brings out the dirt from the past, and is swift in detecting a subterfuge.
On World Press Freedom Day, governments around the world have been slated for trying to control the media, although no one underlined the fact that development juggernauts across the world also loathe the media, trying their best to castrate it.
I am sure, many are frowning while reading this, and even detest me to some degree.
But, what can I do? I am a journalist, and believe that, if enough people do not hate you, then you must be doing something wrong.
Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.