There’s nothing like distance to help you gain perspective.
This November, I joined eight other SPJ members on a trip to South Korea.We attended the Second Annual East Asia Journalists Forum and returned with a sense of how journalists around the world share similar goals, even as they face different challenges.
It was disheartening to hear just what a dangerous place the world outside of the United States has become for journalists.
As of mid-November, about 100 reporters, photographers and other news media personnel died worldwide. Christopher Warren, president of the International Federation of Journalists, told forum attendees that the world is getting a message that journalists can be killed “with impunity,” in part because the U.S military targeted a television tower in Belgrade during fighting there in 1999 and attacked media installations in the opening days of the Iraq War, he said.
Among the approximately 100 deaths, 60 resulted during the conflict in Iraq. Ten have died in the Philippines.
Its delegate to the forum reported that killings and kidnappings of journalists have gone on for decades, stretching back into the dictatorial tenure of former President Ferdinand Marcos. And there’s not been a single conviction in the death of a Filipino journalist since the mid-1980s.
Even in countries where journalists seem safe from physical attack, their legal rights are under assault.
Journalists in South Korea are trying to tame a proposed media law that would not only impose ownership limits on newspapers but also dictate the maximum advertising-to-news ratio and order newspapers to form “reader” boards, boards that could dictate control of news content. The government defends the reader board concept under the guise of ensuring “diversity” of news content.
New and restrictive press laws also face journalists in Indonesia and Russia.
In the United States, we face similar challenges with regard to government’s strong hand in the media’s business.
But some things are very different half a world away.
During our visit, we were witness to the launch of a new organization, the “Asia Journalists Association,” to be made up of SPJ-like organizations from countries in the region. A glance at the AJA draft charter shows it is being created in part to “help enhance peace and development of the Asia-Pacific region.”
Seok-jae Kang, chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the 2004 Journalists Association of Korea, said peace and development represent an Asian view of the journalist’s role.
“Before journalists, we are human beings,” he told me. “For human beings, the greater code and goal should be peace and harmony … I think that is the ultimate goal, whatever we are.”
He went on to say that South Koreans are particularly sensitive about this.
Forum attendees visited a hilltop pavilion that overlooks the Demilitarized Zone, which surrounds the armistice line agreed to in 1953. The South Korean military presence near the DMZ testifies to the tension that remains along that border to this day.
In a paper delivered at the forum, Crispin Maslog, a visiting professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, offered an outline for what he called “Peace Journalism.”
Maslog accuses the news media of “cultivating the news value of conflict.”
“They have developed the knee-jerk reaction of looking for a conflict angle in every news story, whether it be a sports story, a political story or a war story,” he said.
Maslog proposes principles for “Peace Journalism” that include “avoid labeling of good guys and bad guys … avoid concentrating only on what divides the parties … take a win-win orientation,” which Maslog says recognizes “there are many goals and issues and possible solutions.”
To me, Kang’s remarks and Maslog’s concept of “Peace Journalism,” sound as if they cross some line with regard to the way we define the journalist’s role.
But they offer food for thought.
After all, why do we cover war, tragedy and injustice if not with the goal of reducing or eliminating their impact on the human condition?
The perspective I took away from the Second Annual East Asia Journalism Conference is that much more unites the world’s journalists than divides them.
The cultural differences that may exist don’t have to inhibit our efforts to forge closer ties. By maintaining these contacts, we can join in public responses on behalf of journalists in trouble and remind those who would attempt to hide or control information that the world’s journalists, and through us the public, are watching.
During the trip, I also gained the perspective of a tourist.
During our visit we traveled nearly the length of the country — from a re-created folk village near Seoul to an ancient temple and to a modern auto factory in the south.
During our travels, we saw a country dominated by low mountains. In Seoul, the architecture is diverse, the traffic heavy and the air smoggy.
But people stand outside the Korea Press Center building, reading the newspaper posted in a display case. Newsstands are sprinkled about the downtown, and YTN, the cable news channel in Korea, is finally profitable after 10 years.
That universal thirst for news and the common problems faced by those who seek to quench it make international connections a logical function for SPJ.We plan to continue our exchanges with the Journalism Association of Korea and will be seeking ways to promote exchanges involving journalists from other nations. In this, as in all our endeavors, we can use your ideas and energy.
SPJ was founded to satisfy dual demands for improved journalism and fellowship.
Irwin L. Gratz works for Maine Public Broadcasting and lives in Portland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.