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Watchdog role of the press

Watchdog role of the press

Kevin Z. Smith has more than two decades of newsroom and teaching experience in journalism when he assumed his new role as deputy director of the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at The Ohio State University. His biography speaks of a man who has a lot of engagements in journalism profession. In the 2012-13 academic year, he has worked as a journalism lecturer at the University of Dayton. He also served as journalism program director at Fairmont State University in West Virginia and at Miami University in Ohio. His newsroom experience included: managing editor and assistant sports editor of The Times West Virginian (Fairmont, W Va.); staff writer for a Bloomberg Financial News bureau (Washington, DC); assistant city editor and business editor of The Dominion Post (Morgantown, W Va.); and freelance writer for the Associated Press (Charleston, W Va.). In 2010, he was honored with the West Virginia Distinguished Mountaineer Award the highest honor bestowed by the governor for outstanding contributions to the state’s overall welfare. Back in November and December, he spent sometime in Ethiopia meeting journalists and other media practitioners, during which time Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter caught up with Smith to talk about the challenges of journalists and the journalism profession and his views on the status of the free press. Excerpts:

The Reporter: From the time of the Watergate scandal to the recent slave trade in Libya, it’s the media that played the role in uncovering the truth. But commentators say that role seems to be missing in this part of Africa. Do you agree with such assessment?

Professor Kevin Smith: I think you have some unique challenges here. I think you are unique to most democratic countries. I don’t think you are necessarily unique to African countries. This is not the first country that I have been to; I have noticed similar trends developing in other African countries. Part of it has to do with government control and censorship. I see part of it as government oppression. I see the untrained and unappreciated and underpaid journalism workforce as being a problem. There are some unique problems in East Africa that I think have crippled the media. 

But I will say this; whether I am in Ethiopia or Zambia or another place, the thing that impresses me is the real determination of journalists for what they do. I don’t think a lot of American journalist have this much passion and determination for journalism as I have seen in a number of African journalists. May be that’s because you are having a bigger fight. The challenges here are probably a lot greater. Hence you have to rise to those challenges.

The role of government versus the role of the private media is also a point of discussion. The private media or the independent media or the free press you might call it, is very much incapacitated and in most cases it is easy to manipulate such weak media houses and practitioners. Have you noticed that during your discussions here?

I think that’s exactly the whole idea behind state-controlled media. I mean if the government is making the news and if it is reporting news itself then how can you expect anything other than biased news? I used to teach journalism in college for a long time and supervised student newspapers. I remember one time two students approaching me to work in the student newspaper and I said that’s great. But they told me that they only want to write stories about the theater and arts department. And I asked why. The response was because they were majoring in theater and arts. I said I would never let theater and art students write about theater and art because there is no objectivity in what you would be reporting.

I said it would be like a quarter back of a football team writing the sport’s story. I did not want to let them do that. The idea of state-controlled media is to do this very thing; it weakens the independent press. Not only weaken it but it also creates disillusionment in the minds of the readers and would play the people against the independent media. State run media also known as the propaganda media, or any other name it goes with, have the ultimate goal of controlling the minds of the masses. Hence, the masses don’t think anything but good about the government.

There is a concept called developmental journalism here. Some commentators hence argue that fact based criticism of the government is a bit of a luxury. Since the developmental environment would not accommodate such roles. What are your thoughts on that?  

I have never heard that term before and what do they mean by development journalism? 

Now it is taught in universities and they say it is similar to investigative journalism but it is supposed to be offering constructive criticize to what the government is doing. The concept is not to focus on the negative unless there is wrong doing that should be exposed in the interest of development. Although it is branded as a kind of investigative journalism the real link is actually lost on many people.

It sounds like gabble and gook. It doesn’t make sense to me. But, I would say this: some of the issues we have discussed regarding journalism here with some people is that if you are an independent journalist you have to be pro-government in Ethiopia. I think that is a bad rap. I think holding governments accountable is the responsibility of the press. You can hold people accountable, however, without attacking them. You can simply bring the facts to light and leave the reader make up his own mind. If you are trying to achieve good for the public which should be the ultimate goal for journalists then it is the question of who to serve. Who do you serve? It’s a simple question that I ask people all the time. Do you serve special interest? Do you serve business? Do you serve the government? Do you serve political parties or do you serve the public? If you answer any of those other than the public, then you are not doing what a journalist is supposed to do.

On the other hand, being labeled as liberal is also becoming antagonizing tool directed towards the media and journalism. How do see that?

Well, it is in the US as well. I have heard, since school some 30 years ago, that the American media is liberal and that it has perpetuated for many years. There is some truth to that. If you look at the role of journalists, they tend to look at the status quo and ask questions about what can be better, how needs would be fixed. That tends to fall in line with the liberal viewpoint. The conservatives tend to be in a status quo. If you look at the landscape of media during the past five or six years in the US, it is the conservative media which has grown by leaps and bounds. In addition to Fox News, we have now Time magazine bought by the Koch brothers, Sinclair Broadcasting which is an ultra-conservative station has also more TV and Radio stations than any company in the US. Hence, this idea of media liberal bias is fading away at present time. But, I think you are right that for people who have more liberal views in terms of progress and how they look at things and how things could get better, I think those people gravitate to journalism as an outlet. It gets to be a dirty work and you might get shunned for it.

These days journalism seems a bit confined with activism although the two are separate. At times, such activities gave good cause for the government to squeeze the tiny space the free press had to operate. Many out spoken journalists have faced many predicaments because of this. What can be said about activism with reference to the social media and with respect to the traditional media?

I tend to come from the old traditional school of taught and advocacy or activism journalism is not my thing but I understand the role and the place for it. In fact, a good friend of mine, Steven Word (PhD), who’s from Canada, and I have worked together on ethics and; he talks about this idea of global echo and ethics system that embraces not only standard and objective reporting, but also looks at the idea of where activism plays into that. In my career, I have never been involved in activism or advocacy journalism. I tend to be frown on that. I grew up in America where culture is one thing and rules of American journalism are plain clear.

I didn’t grow up in a country where the government might have been so oppressive and try to control everything. Hence, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to say activism journalism is bad. I think that is has a place. I think it needs to be used judiciously and carefully. I think most media benefit if they simply report the facts. You know the government messes up and when you report that, it’s not activism but you are just telling the truth the way you saw it. People in political capacity certainly have many flaws and make mistakes and can be corrupt. Reporting simply about that is not a suggestion that you are an antigovernment journalist.

It’s simply a suggestion that you’re doing your job and reporting the facts of the matter. That doesn’t make an activist or an advocate. I don’t think you have to go after the government all the time. I think you should choose and pick your battles. If you are someone who is everyday hurtling on the government and picking on them, at some point people will tune you out and would say oh, it’s The Reporter again or whatever. But, if you pick and choose on which things you want to criticize the government, then you will have the people behind and you start to develop a reputation for not being advocate but for being a watch dog.

A good number of journalists in Ethiopia tend to exclude themselves from most journalist associations and many are not a member of any of those organizations. What was your assessment during your stay here? 

I think all of these associations were created for the best of intentions. I also think that it takes a lot of work to start an association and to keep it going, keep it active and energized. Some associations admitted that they have fallen down on that. Some of them have talked about the need to revitalize and rejuvenate the organizations they belong to. I also told them that all of them have the same philosophies or principles. I think they were very receptive and have a positive attitude. One of the things they have talked about is how they should collaborate more. They want to increase their membership.

But what can be said about government control of the associations?

Well, I live in a country where the government certainly tries to control the press but they have been unsuccessful. I have been in Zambia and they talked about it.  I have been to Sierra Leon. It’s a horrible place for journalism. It’s very horrible. The government owns almost all the newspapers. They throw journalists in jail for anything. It’s democracy on paper but it’s a dictatorship by parliament. Nothing probably changes there. It’s really hard for me to even think about that. When I came back from visiting these countries and talk to other journalists talking, I sometimes would have to eat my lunch and my dinner at my desk. I have a full appreciation for these journalists.

When I was in Pakistan, a journalist was dragged out of his newsroom and beaten and the newspaper building was set on fire because of something that was written on the newspaper. When I talked to journalists in Sierra Leon, I heard about them being in jail because they wrote a simple thing in a paper that said ‘the president is behaving like a rat’. That has landed a journalist four weeks in prison. What we are doing in the U.S. and what we face is nothing compared to what you have to go through. Certainly, part of that is the oppression and the control of the government.

Why don’t we talk about self-censorship?

That’s a growing concern and an issue. It’s a real viable thing when journalists feel that they have been put in that position. Earlier, I talked about the Pakistani journalist. He was an editorial page editor for the paper and he was on vacation. The person who substituted him ran a piece on their Letter to the Editor column. The piece was by a Jewish person who questioned some of the fundamentals in Islam. In Pakistan, anything that said about Islam can be a life and death situation.

Hence, when he came back to work, they said he’s the editorial page editor and it didn’t matter for them. The end result of that is that he spent five years in prison. When he got out he was told me the story while crying. He said ‘I am no longer a person I was. I still get calls after I had been beaten, after the newsroom was burnt and after I had spent five years in prison’. He still gets calls and threats. He said ‘I can’t be a journalist I once was because I am afraid to write anything that might upset anyone because of what happened’.

That’s an extreme example but it illustrates the fact that if you feel this burden imposed up on you by the government or by outside influence or interest or whatever, you should start to question whether you will legitimately run a news story and if you start self-censoring to say it’s not worthy to run. In the US court system whenever somebody sues a newspaper, they almost never win. The process takes a lot of time and takes a lot of money. You have to pay to the lawyers.. Even when the charges are thrown out the law suit could still cost the media house. Then they would not afford to write such stories, because newspapers can’t afford it. The finance has become part of it. You will self-censor by the fact that there is somebody out there who might threaten you with the law suit and you might have to spend money for that reason. It’s hard when you are a reporter. You want to do the story and you know it’s the right thing to do.

The editor or someone above you who signs the paychecks might say we can’t do that because I can’t run the risk. It’s a real issue. But there are a lot of different ways to muscle the press. You can do it by denying information to them. You can muscle them by making information hard and impossible to get. You can threaten them with law suit.

What can you say about the public passivism in defending the free press?

The public is the ultimate beneficiary from free press. I think it’s incumbent upon of the press to constantly remind them of this. For instance, in the US, if I am going to government officials and say to them I want these documents. I have to fight to get those documents. When I do that, I make sure that they know I am doing it for the public that I am not doing that because I am just a journalist. In the US, if you are a citizen, you can ask to have access to public documents.

You can’t be denied access to those files. But, most people have lives to live and they don’t have time to go down to the court house or the government build and ask for records and spend time looking for them. That’s what journalists do. Journalists do that work for the public and they report on what they have found. I always try to do and encourage others to do the same. Because. 

Unfortunately, in the west including the U.S., whistle blowers and courageous journalists face hardships. That sends a bad signal to some people from this part of the world by setting bad examples. Do you agree? 

Yes, I don’t doubt that at all. I think a lot of journalists in Africa deserve a lot of appreciation for the hard work they do. I understand and I have heard this well. A lot of journalists are not well trained here and as a result journalism suffers. They don’t know how to do good reporting and writing. The level of journalism in many African countries may not appeal to others but the determination is enormous.

Despite all the set back you suffer, I think most journalists are trying to do a good job in trying to hold people accountable. In Ethiopia, it might be harder to hold the government accountable than the U.S. We might have as much corruption and problems as you do but you know in our country, the leadership is looking over its shoulder because it knows the press is watching. That’s what you should do here. You can be watchdogs. You shouldn’t be a rabbit attacking dogs. I don’t think that always works. There is a difference between being an attacking dog and being a watch dog.