Stemming the Tide of Autocracy: How European Journalism Observatory Strengthens The Global Media Industry

A free press can, of course, be good, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.’ –Albert Camus

Press Freedom ought to be a cherished right within all democracies. But this notion is perpetually under assault, and labels like ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ or ‘post truth’ have inundated today’s headlines, and such trends are not positive developments.

Journalists continue to risk their lives in dangerous war zones, and are often undermined by strongman ideologies. The Press Freedom Index is an important “point of reference that is quoted by media throughout the world and used by diplomats and international entities such as the United Nations and the World Bank. The Index ranks 180 countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists, [It is] a snapshot of the media freedom system based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework, and safety of journalists in each country.”

Like Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Journalism Observatory protects international media from governments’ overreach, and pending dangers they may employ to interfere, or intimidate reporters. It also provides a nexus from the media to the public, as it “facilitates collaboration between media researchers and practitioners in Europe and the U.S., and foster[ing] press freedom.”

Caroline Lees, an award-winning journalist who has extensively covered Asia and Africa, also works as EJO’s Research Officer and English Editor. I caught up with Caroline, who is based at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, to discuss the unique importance of press freedom, and the role EJO serves the media and the public against the rising tide of autocracy.

What’s the genesis behind European Journalism Observatory and when and how was it established?

The EJO was founded in 2004 by a media professor based in Lugano, Switzerland (where the network is still based). The idea was and still is, to share media research from across Europe. We hear a lot about the latest cutting edge research from the US and the UK…. The idea was to establish a network of partner websites, based in universities and media research institutes in countries across Western and Eastern Europe so we could hear about different experiences and contexts.

What was its sense of urgency in its foundation?

Its sense of urgency at that time was partly [about] press freedom in emerging democracies in Eastern Europe. In the intervening years, concerns about press freedom were – to an extent – superseded by global economic and structural challenges to the media industry. In 2017, however, press freedom is very much back on EJO’s agenda. No longer only in the newer democracies, but also in western, liberal democracies. This is something we did not envisage back in 2004.

How can people bridge the chasm between media and politics, and get less cynical about either or both?

What gap between media and politics? Since the EJO was founded, and since I became editor of the English site in 2014, the gap between media and politics has been closing. In fact, it is hard to argue [that] there is any space between them now. There is [President Trump] who tweets… daily. There is increasing evidence of attempts to manipulate political processes by fake news, bots and algorithms, [which are] spread via social media and hoax news sites.

So Trump’s penchant for cries of ‘fake news’ in the U.S. has adversely been exploited abroad?

Cries of ‘fake news’ have been used in autocracies across the world to close media outlets and undermine trust in news sources and journalism. On the other hand, social media have been credited with enabling mass protest movements and helping to bring about political change. While cynicism is inevitable, there is evidence that fake and unverified news have increased demand for, and trust in, credible, accurate and trusted sources (like EJO).

On your site, you have headings, which read “specialist journalism,” and “ethics and quality.” Would you go into some detail of these topics?

“Specialist journalism” is a catchall for topics such as investigative journalism, even data journalism or – one of our most popular stories on the site – about the growing popularity for food journalism. The topics we tend to use most often are digital news and media economics. These topics reflect the huge upheaval facing the media industry.

“Ethics and Quality” is another very important aspect of our media coverage, especially now. As media organizations struggle with change, cost cutting has become inevitable – whether in Prague, London, Paris or Warsaw. This has inevitably led to concerns about threats to quality.

Why is EJO considered an “observatory?” What does that term even mean, as opposed to a think tank? Where are your academics/practitioners from? Any former reporters?

The term Observatory reflects the fact that many of our contributors and staff are media academics, observing and researching the industry. There is some value in having this academic perspective on the media. Quite a number of EJO staff, for example in Romania, Albania, Poland, Germany and Tunisia, are [comprised of] journalists turned academics or graduate students.

And how do you fit into the mix?

I have a journalistic background. I spent 20 years [with] national newspapers, working across most areas of news, including foreign news and features. This mix of academic and journalism is really helpful in making media research accessible and relevant to practitioners, which is the EJO’s main aim. It also means we care about threats to the industry.

So that balance creates mutual understanding of each other’s work?

We understand the pressures on journalists and we can spot a story, and tell it.

How does the EJO’s work foster journalism research and practice within Europe?

Press freedom has been declining for the past 11 years and there are more journalists in prison now than there have been for 30 years. Around 200 journalists are in jail in Turkey alone. Media in emerging European democracies are particularly under threat, particularly in Poland where the Law and Justice party has imposed new rules on the media, and in the Czech Republic, where media owners have open political interests – or are politicians and control and influence editorial content.

And I’m sure you have a platform concerning Russia?

We have a platform in Russia too, but it is based in Riga, Latvia due to the restrictions against the press in Russia. As national newspapers everywhere cut their media correspondents’ roles, and media pages and sections, there are fewer and fewer platforms to make audiences aware of what is happening in places where the press is being restricted or threatened. We recently ran stories on how journalists in Poland are setting up independent sites, which they often fund themselves, as a reaction against media politicization.

So what does media accountability mean?

Media accountability means [a responsibility] to [their] society’ to the public; to [their] readers. The accepted norm of journalism is that a journalist aims to be balanced, fair, transparent, accurate and accountable.

What types of initiatives, innovative techniques, or suggestions for ‘best practices’ have EJO attempted in the past few years, and how has it evolved?

The EJO relies on funding and not all sites are funded. Some of our partners work for free, others work part time. So we have few resources and operate on a shoestring. We can rarely pay contributors. However, we are a unique network [that spans] across 14 countries and this has enabled us to conduct some interesting collaborative journalism projects that have had a big impact, and have been widely covered in mainstream media.

An example of how EJO has surveyed the media’s coverage?

In 2015, when the migration crisis was at its height in Europe, we looked at how the media covered it across Europe. We discovered interesting differences between countries, but also saw how short-lived media sympathy appeared to be for migrants and refugees, particularly after the photos of Aylan Kurdi, the small boy, whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach, were splashed all over Europe’s newspapers.

We have conducted similar comparative studies on how the media covered Brexit and also the election of Donald Trump. Another study looks at public service media funding in Europe, which reveals the huge differences in resources. Our studies enable us to share best, and worst practices.

Have EJO’s studies on the media been curtailed monetarily because of the overall shutdown of mainstream press and the rise of people getting their news from social media?

Not really. Those are topics we cover, but our partners are rarely impacted by them – perhaps because EJO sites are based in universities, rather than on the front line of the media. We published a personal account about threats to the media and Central European University in Hungary by one of our partners. It was a moving first-hand piece.

Getting back to labels like “fake news.” Have buzzwords, such as these, had adverse effects by autocratic governments? And if so, where?

There is no doubt that ‘fake news’ has become a buzzword that covers many different things. Donald Trump’s cries of ‘fake news’ have been picked up in autocracies and used to threaten the press. Recently, a public broadcaster in Libya described a critical CNN report as ‘fake news’; a Myanmar official said reports about the Rohingya people in the country were ‘fake news…’ The term has impact [as] it sows doubt in the minds of the public about media credibility in a way that other claims against media ‘bias’ might not.

Finally, how could those around the globe contribute or sponsor with EJO, and who are your partners?

We are partly sponsored by the Bosch Foundation in Germany, the NRZ Foundation in Switzerland and also by Open Society Foundations in the UK. But not all our sites are funded. Some rely on the generosity of the universities that host them for space and Internet facilities.

Donations are welcome, too?

Like many independent non-profit media outlets, we are partly dependent upon generosity of funders and the goodwill of volunteers and institutions. We would love to hear from anyone who wants to support us.

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