Fighting press unfreedom: Lessons from the Iron Curtain for the Arab Spring

Copyright: Amr Dalsh / Reuters

The name “Arab Spring” suggested to Europeans and Americans that the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa shared much with those in the Sovet Bloc that ended more than 40 years of Communist rule. But do they? And how do you go about reporting the news in newsrooms where old informers are still working and where the newspaper or radio and tv station may be closely associated with the old corrupt regime?
For 2 days in Brussels this week, in a disused art deco cinema called the Albert Hall, more than 150 journalists from Eastern Europe and the Middle East met to share lessons from the revolutions of 22 years ago. I was lucky enough to be chairing the event and these are some of the insights.

Konstanty Gebert was part of the Polish dissident movement, for whom the underground newspapers were a vital means of building support and educating citizens for a freer society. Like Sergey Strokan from Russia’s Kommersant, he was wary of the way in which much Western reporting had suggested the power of short term bloggers. With internet connections still the preserve of a privileged, educated, mostly urban middle class in many of these Middle eastern countries, both men argued that journalists should not ignore the power and importance of building a strong independent  newspaper and radio/TV news output. Gebert said the undergound press had instilled a tough work ethic over many years — the stakes of getting caught were so high; something worth developing, even if the conditions for an underground press had disappeared.

Reporters from Tunisian and Algerian state broadcasters and newspapers expressed their frustration in feeling they had always tried to do the best reporting they could, but were at sea in a new world, where they were regarded as the machinery of the old regime. As Gebert put it: “How can you turn a stuffed bird back into a living creature?”

Leon Morse, from IREX – the US state department and Gates foundation-funded body that helps develop independent media in newly democratic states, said Arab countries had one huge advantage over the former Soviet bloc– they’d enjoyed relative media freedom, and a free press had not had to be built from scratch as in much of Eastern Europe. Crucially commercial funding, advertising revenue — essential for a strong news business — were also already up and running. The key, he felt, was to put the emphasis on strong, good content. A reputation had to be rebuilt or earned with trust over time. There was no substitute for providing quality information.

While superficially they were “free”, many Arab journalists said their newsrooms were still dominated by government informers. The machinery of the old regime was very much in place. Gebert acknowledged that it was important to speak out now and confront them early on, but there was always a level of injustice when you try to purge people.

Dagmar Hovestådt from the Stasi Archives, gave useful lessons from East Germany, where 180 thousand citizens actively but unofficially informed on their colleagues and neighbours. She said it took time and vigilance to start cleaning out collaborators from important positions. East Germany may have had a “short cut” to democracy because of the speed of unification with West Germany, but Federal Laws about investigation have been updated 8 times, extending the term for vetting officials in public office for Stasi connections till 2019. The public’s access to files (with careful allowances for personal privacy) was paramount. It was also ensured that the Federal Commissioner for the Archive had to be someone who had been persecuted by the Stasi. ‘The past cannot be left behind,” she said.

Most sobering were the lessons from journalists from modern Ukraine, Belarus and Russia; 20 years on from glasnost and perestroika. Sergey Strokan said 40 % of Russian journalists admitted writing stories on the basis of payments from outside interests. Instead of overt and simply control, he said corruption and self-censorship was rife in Putin’s Russia. He warned that there was little public interest in supporting journalists,even in the face of violence and murder, because of the way in which so many outlets had become mouthpieces for corporate interests. It was a sobering reminder that things had not gone just one way since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Some of the older Arab journalists seemed primarily concerned about protecting their status — complaining about young bloggers undermining their special role, and demanding an official register of journalists. As journalists in Britain resist political pressure here, since Hackgate, to form just such an officially sanctioned register , one could appreciate there was fear, too for those who have always worked in closed and controlled worlds. That’s a fear many from the Soviet era  could understand.

“How do we know when we have true press freedom?” asked one delegate, as debate grew about whether Western journalists were lecturing Arab countries about how to define freedom. “There is no such agreed thing as press freedom,” suggested Gebert. “But we know what unfreedom is. We fight that.”

On the last day of the conference a news story broke, just as an EU Commissioner Stefan Fülle was giving a closing  address. A table of Ukrainian journalists jumped to their feet to secure the first question: “What is your response to the jailing of the opposition leader for 7 years?” They story transformed the mood of the conference. The Ukranians got a quote and rushed out to file copy. The discussions about media futures would just have to take a back seat for now, while they got on with just being newshounds. It was an inspiring moment.

Further reading:

A week in the life: Independent profile of Konstanty Gebert from 1999

The ENJN network and conference (European Union Journalism Network)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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