The original resolution seemed innocent enough, I guess.
It suggested that the nations involved in the Six Party Talks in North Korea needed to negotiate in good faith. It said, “The participating countries have an obligation to seek peace and reach an agreement rather than bicker over status.”
That seems a perfectly logical point of view to be expressed by most any nation involved in the Six Party Talks. It’s the kind of thing we journalists see and hear all the time from presidents and media spokesmen.
But is it a position for journalists to take?
That’s what the SPJ delegation to the 2005 Asia Journalists Forum in Seoul, South Korea, was presented with. The resolution, proposed by the Journalists Association of Korea (JAK), was, “not about journalism, but about politics,” said Dan Kubiske, co-chairman of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee, after reading the first draft.
SPJ and the representatives of 23 other countries were asked to sign this resolution, but we would not — could not — put SPJ’s name to such a political statement. We could have just said no and adopted an acceptable resolution of our own. That would have shown we were amicable, but it would not have accomplished anything else. It would not have encouraged journalists from 23 nations to think differently about journalism.
Thus began the delicate process of negotiating a resolution that SPJ could support.
Our hope in attending the Asian Journalists Forums and in visiting journalists in other countries throughout the world is to help them think about journalism in new ways. SPJ can have a positive influence on the practice of journalism in other countries. We don’t have all the answers, but we have some of them.
In many countries, South Korea included, journalists believe they should influence events through their coverage. We, of course, believe it is our duty to report the facts — as objectively as possible — and let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps our coverage will influence future events; perhaps it will not. To American journalists, it does not matter. It’s the facts that count.
Over three days and at least a dozen drafts, the SPJ delegation moved the debate on the resolution away from political statements and toward journalists and journalism. We worked to get the authors to think about the obligations journalists have rather than make statements about the participants in the talks.
The eventual resolution was not what we would have written ourselves, but it was a thousand times better than the original.
It said that the participants of the 2005 Asia Journalists Forum resolved “to ensure fair, accurate and honest reporting without national bias so that the talks could proceed in an atmosphere free from speculation and sensationalism.”
It further said the signatories resolved “to keep the public fully informed of the progress of the talks, highlighting the policy positions and commitments of the parties concerned.”
It’s not the strongest statement we might have imagined, but it is far ahead of criticizing nations for not negotiating in what some third party considers good faith.
A couple of days later, the SPJ delegation was asked to comment on the proposed charter for the Asian Journalists Association, a new, international group that has grown out of the first three Asia Journalists Forums.
The charter troubled us, too. It placed all authority in the hands of the president of the association.
It gave that single elected officer the right to appoint all the vice presidents, the secretary, the treasurer, all the committee chairs, and the audit committee. It created an autocrat who could rule without hindrance for four years, and it further said that all decisions of the body would be by consensus, not by vote.
The SPJ delegation pointed out the obvious weaknesses of this organizational structure. Again, however, it was a delicate situation.
The president, elected last year, is Lee Sang Ki, our host at the Asia Journalists Forum and also president of the Journalists Association of Korea.
He has attended at least three SPJ conventions. He has been a friend to at least four SPJ presidents. We have known him to be an honest and honorable man; there is no reason to believe he would misuse the power and much reason to believe he would not.
But we could not, in good conscience, say nothing, so we offered our advice during a plenary session of the members of the AJA.
We did not succeed in dramatically changing the charter. Sensibilities and ways of doing business are different in Asia, but we did have one important impact: The audit committee will be appointed by the annual congress of the association, not by the president.
So, if all we can do is so little, is it worth it? I believe it is. I believe the exchange of ideas and points of view is mutually beneficial.
Through these visits, we learn a tremendous amount about the state of journalism in Asia and the world, and we help them learn about the highest and best practices of American journalists a la SPJ.