Review: Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum

I attended Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum on June 22 & 23 (days two and three). This year’s topic of the conference was climate change, with a focus both on technical and social solutions and the way media deals with the issue. The Global Media Forum also featured an award ceremony for the winners of the BOBs. Here are some short (but still belated) notes.

Environmental reporters under threat

A panel including investigative reporters from from China, Pakistan, Egypt and Haiti as well as free speech advocates from RSF and CPJ was devoted to the threats professional as well as citizen journalists encounter when writing about local environmental issues. Reporters without Borders just have a report out on this, “High-risk subjects: Deforrestation and Pollution”, which provides a good world-wide overview of the issue.

Writing about environmental issues often gets people into conflict with companies and local government, which are in many cases strongly intermingled. A Moroccan activist told me that he keeps his anonymity not out of fear of the government, but because companies would not employ him if they found out about his commitment to preserve the Mediterranean environment. This has been the fate of Egyptian Tamer Mabrouk, who was fired from his job and fined about 5.000 Euros for blogging about his employer’s illegal waste-dumping.

Liu Jianqiang, probably China’s most influential investigative journalist, told a similar story. His reports on environmental issues such as genetically manipulated seeds have attracted a lot of attention. Prime minister Wen Jiabao himself is said to have stopped work on the “Tiger Leaping Gorge” dam when Liu broke news that it lacked official approval. Yet he lost his job at the prestigious Southern Weekly over an unauthorised interview with the Washington Post – an excuse to get rid of a journalist who had angered influential companies and local government with his stories, Liu says.

While CPJ’s Frank Smyth told the harrowing story of Russian newspaper editor Mikhail Beketov, who was nearly beaten to death for reporting critically on plans to build a commercial centre in a forrest area, RSF’s Jean-François Julliard warned that “economic pressure is a strong threat”. Newspapers are facing losses in ad sales if they write articles critical of major local companies, and journalists or bloggers are living in fear to lose their jobs.

Besides violence and economic pressure, legal procedures are another way to bar environmental reporters from doing their work. Smyth reported that Lucio Flavio Pinto, founder of the Brazilian magazine Jornal Pessoal, did not dare to attend the Global Media Forum. Pinto is currently facing more than 30 lawsuits brought against him by companies. He does not want to leave Brazil out of fear that courts could rule against him in one of these lawsuits in his absence.

To avoid these threats, Liu advised his colleagues to fact-check their reports with the utmost accuracy so as to not allow their opponents to legitimately challenge their work. Rina Saeed Khan, from Pakistan, “as a developing country journalist, you have to make as many international links as possible”, saying that international pressure was important to free persecuted journalists.

My German readers may also be interested in an article I wrote for Spreeblick about this issue, “Wer über Umweltschutz schreibt, lebt gefährlich”.

Listen to the session’s audio recording on SoundCloud.

Two projects on solutions to climate change

One panel, which discussed “covering climate protection and possible solutions”, showcased two interesting media projects with a positive outlook on climate change. One is run by journalists, one by activists. I’ll spare you the discussion on whether there is a difference between journalism and activism (and if yes, what is it?).

Global Ideas, produced by Deutsche Welle, is devoted to “showcasing people & projects from around the world taking action against climate change.” Their weekly six-minute videos feature entrepreneurs mostly in the energy sector (e.g. “Biomass briquettes in India”. All the content is available in five languages (English, German, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese). Their communication efforts on Twitter are not really successful yet, but they say they forward any request they get to the respective organization.

OurWorld 2.0, a UN University project based in Tokyo, “reports on and analyzes innovations in order to inspire people to learn” in four categories – climate, oil, food and biodiversity. It’s a webzine (about one profound article every two days) with occasional videos produced at quite a high quality. Their world-wide aim is visible in a map showing the location of the webzine’s subjects. OurWorld 2.0 is published in both English and Japanese.

Listen to the session’s audio recording on SoundCloud.

Ushahidi wins the Best of Blogs award

Crisis mapping tool Ushahidi was awarded the prize as “best weblog” at this year’s BOBs. I must say I don’t really understand why – their blog is very informative, but to me it seems as if the jury rather chose Ushahidi as a platform and organization. Nevertheless, it certainly is a very interesting project.

Erik Hersman said that while the technology behind Ushahidi wasn’t new, its use is. While “technology will always be only be ten percent of the solution”, these ten percent allowed them to “disrupt the status quo” in the aid sector, which he called the “huminatarian-industrial complex” during the press conference. Those of you following Ushahidi more closely might notice that Erik perceives the importance of these 10% vastly different from his colleague Ory Okolloh, who recently cautioned: “Don’t get too jazzed up! Ushahidi is only 10% of solution.”

Finally, some general words on the Global Media Forum

All in all, I really enjoyed Deutsche Welle’s conference. Not so much because of the panels – I only managed to see a few – but because of the great participants. The conference had an extremely multicultural atmosphere, aided by the attendance of Deutsche Welle’s international staff. I finally had the opportunity to meet Jillian C. York, who won the best English blog award for her project Talk Morocco, a blog featuring several well-known Moroccan bloggers’ articles in monthly single-topic “forums” (check out their latest edition on citizen media, including a highly critical article by my friend Mahdi).

But I was also disappointed about some things I heard. On the “dangers” panel, Jean-François Julliard did not caution to admit that in the field of environmental reporting in non-free countries, bloggers are more in advance than traditional journalists. But other panels, focusing on the role of journalists in times of climate change, were full of the ignorance of professionals, who kept up the image of journalists as reporters of nothing but the matter of fact, which prompted a Norwegian colleague to say that “this kind of objectivism has survived only in journalism”.

Alex Kirby, a veteran BBC environmental reporter, moderated the first session I attended, entitled “Who will fuel our future? A fundamental debate between rivalling energy sources.” In the beginning, Kirby said to the announcer: “You called me a gentleman twice, but I am a journalist and these two don’t go together.” Indeed, I twittered, a journalist should court nobody. Yet the session proved to be an advertising space for such controversial companies as the Desertec project, with almost no criticism.

In fact, Deutsche Telekom’s Ignacio Campino dared to propose that journalists team up with companies to “educate” the “customers” on the issue of sustainability. All this at a broadcaster’s conference. Do I even have to ask to which level journalism must have degenerated to make this shameful proposal possible?

All the sessions are up as audio recordings on SoundCloud.

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