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MEDIA MATTERS: Should we "sup with the devil" to improve press freedom?

by Timothy Large | @timothylarge | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 5 January 2015 16:53 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Does working with state news agencies in repressive regimes promise long-term change or simply churn out better propagandists?

Last month British tabloids had a field day with news that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office was using taxpayer money to train “spin doctors” from North Korea’s state news agency.

At a cost of £70,000 ($107,000), according to media reports, 46 students from the world’s most isolated country will come on a study tour to Britain this year to learn about international reporting and how to build websites.

The training, which follows a 10-day workshop held in Pyongyang in October, will be conducted by Thomson Foundation – no relation to the Thomson Reuters Foundation – whose charitable mission is to “help every type of media to strive for excellence and to improve public engagement”.

“In our parlance they’re spin doctors,” Lord Alton of Liverpool, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, told The Sunday Express. “They’re there to promote the public relations of the government. It’s a pointless exercise.”

In its defence, the government said Britain had worked tirelessly to raise awareness of “horrifying human rights violations” in North Korea.

“This project is an example of the type of international exposure recommended by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry into human rights in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea),” a Foreign Office spokeswoman told The Daily Mail. “It is just one part of our critical engagement to try to improve the lives of those who live in North Korea.”

The furore – made all the more topical in light of U.S. sanctions slapped on Pyongyang following a cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment that prompted the Hollywood studio to initially cancel release of a movie depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – raises serious questions for organisations devoted to raising journalistic standards throughout the world.

On one side of the debate are those who say it’s a waste of time and money to engage with state news agencies in countries where journalists are mere government mouthpieces, as is certainly the case in North Korea. Moreover, they say, such training can add a stamp of international legitimacy to dictators’ propaganda machines.

In the other corner are those who say some engagement – any engagement – is better than nothing. You may not see results for years, but seeds planted today through exposure to journalistic standards in countries with a strong tradition of free press can yield fruit in future.

This is a debate we are ourselves having at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Our media development arm is committed to supporting independent media and promoting excellence in journalism in line with Thomson Reuters Trust Principles of impartiality and integrity.

That hasn’t stopped us engaging, carefully, with state actors – even in North Korea.

In 2009, we trained representatives from North Korea’s Economy and Trade Information Center, part of the trade ministry, in financial reporting. That relationship helped open the door, in 2011, to the first-ever trip by a major international news agency to report on hunger in rural North Korea.

Likewise, we’ve provided various journalism training courses for reporters working at state-owned organisations in Vietnam, China and Morocco, to name just three countries where media is fettered.

I should stress that this isn’t our usual modus operandi. Our programmes, which range from helping reporters across Africa investigate illicit money flows to global workshops on ethics, embrace journalists from all kinds of media outlets. And in certain challenging contexts, we’ve made the call to bypass the state news apparatus completely by setting up independent news agencies of our own, such as we’ve done in Iraq, Egypt and Zimbabwe.

But returning to state programmes: Have they made a difference? No doubt journalists have gained expertise – for example in business journalism or reporting natural disasters – that has helped with their jobs. And no doubt they’ve been exposed to eye-opening new standards of editorial judgement.

But that doesn’t mean they can put what they’ve learned into practice. In fact, some trainees have expressed frustration at the sense of futility they’ve felt upon returning to their newsrooms.

Our work in Morocco makes an interesting case study into the pros and cons of working with state actors, without the kind of hysteria that surrounds anything related to North Korea.

In 2011, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI introduced reforms that led to a new constitution granting the right to freedom of expression, including a clause stating that “the freedom of the press is guaranteed and may not be limited by any form of prior censure”.

The following year, we launched a project with around £300,000 in funding from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Arab Partnership Participation Fund. The purpose was to “enhance public debate as part of Morocco’s democratic process by strengthening the capacity of the Moroccan state news agency, Maghreb Arabe Presse (MAP), and supporting its internal reform process through a series of specialist training workshops, including helping it implement its newly approved Code of Conduct”.

We were very clear on what we wanted to achieve:

  • Help MAP implement its new Code of Conduct, including clarifying the role of MAP and its relationship with the Moroccan state
  • Help MAP journalists provide independent, accurate, properly sourced and balanced fact-based news stories and features reflecting a diversity of opinion
  • Help MAP build its own in-house training programmes of a high quality
  • Help MAP improve its use of multimedia and graphics
  • Improved investigative skills among Moroccan journalists, both inside and outside MAP     

Has the project helped? Are MAP journalists now able to report without fear or favour? Especially in light of suggestions that Morocco’s reforms have not  lived up to expectations. Index on Censorship calls them “window dressing”, saying “the government’s repression of freedom of expression has remained steadfast even after the new constitution”.

To find out, we’ve commissioned a study of the programme’s impact – including a kind of before-and-after exercise to gauge how reporting has changed with the training. We’ll share the results shortly, and I hope it will provide fodder for further debate.

In the meantime, we’d be keen to hear your views. Is it better to sup with the devil, presumably with a long spoon, to achieve incremental change from the inside? Or is it better to be absolutist in approach and only pour time and money into places where you can have immediate impact?


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