Saturday, August 8, 2009

Protection of Authenticity or Censorship?

By Ljilja Cvekic

Belgrade, Aug. 6, 2009 ( Serbia Today) - Giving a statement or an interview to a journalist or not – a dilemma always present not only among politicians but also among many ordinary people who can suffer consequences of something they would make public. Would their trust be misused?
A state official, a party leader or a celebrity might demand authorization of the interview to confirm the words put in their mouth are authentic; a worker revealing abuse of power in his factory may not. Still, not objective and not well thought and well intended reporting and lies have ruined much more ordinary people lives than political careers.
There are two sides of this topic – on one side, an eternal wish of any politician in any, even the most democratic country to control media whenever possible, hide information and always look great in public; on the other, a wish of journalists to publish an exclusive quote, a sensational story showing themselves as fearless government critics even if it takes to change someone’s words to fit their own theses or even to invent the entire interview.
Unfortunately, offering truth and objective information to public is for either of them of the least importance.
Serbia’s public information law says nothing about the authorization; it says only “a journalist and an editor-in-chief are obliged to publish other people’s information, ideas and opinions trustworthy and fully” and also to publish a denial of a person or an institution if their rights and interests were damaged by an article and “false, wrong or incomplete information”.
Croatian media law is defining the authorization as a confirmation that a statement or an interview are authentic, “an approval of publishing giving in written form or on a tape”, without specifying the circumstances or an obligation of a journalist to allow it.
Montenegrin journalists’ code explains that “an interview might be considered fully correct from the journalist’s point of view if it is authorized by the interviewed person or his/her representative or there is an obvious consent by the person with publishing an unauthorized interview.”
An unwritten rule everywhere is that the authorization should be agreed upon in advance and a reporter might refuse it if it was not promised before the interview took place. Some media, however, such as the Reuters news agency, have made their policy to reject any request for an authorization. For such policy, of course, an agency, paper or station has to have a credit as being reliable and trustworthy.
German journalists, considered to be among the most objective and responsible in the world, launched few years ago a broad campaign to abolish any right to authorization after two thirds of an interview a politician gave to a prominent daily was changed in the authorization process. In reply to such an act, the daily published both versions.
Some 25 years ago, in times of socialism and media control, journalism students at the Belgrade University were taught objectivity, responsibility for own words and respect for an interviewed person and sentences said off the record, but nothing about the authorization and any possibility that anyone except their editor might correct their articles.
Why is then that my every conversation with an official now, in much more democratic times, ends with words: “And please send the article for an authorization when you finish!” even when the answers were send to me in written?
True enough, the idea of freedom of media has been degraded in the last two decades, especially in the former socialist countries – sudden opening of a possibility to write openly against the Government, after long time of writing any critic extremely carefully to be read between the lines, has pushed media into the opposite direction, but not the least the more objective one.
The media is full of unchecked information, wrong statistics, libelous commentaries, false interviews, never-given quotes or statements by invented anonymous sources. It is not revealing truth what counts, but sensationalism creating rage, fear and confusion among readers, listeners and viewers. “Fear sells media nowadays,” a friend of mine said recently.
Again, the authorization of an article is not really protecting a person involved – it would be enough to publish in the same issue another article denying some of the quotes and making the person look like an idiot.
Besides, there are much more elegant ways than misquoting to make politicians responsible for their deeds – if we agree that it is one of the major journalists’ jobs; to make them responsible for their words first. By allowing them to intervene, conceptualize our articles and change their own words afterwards, we are just going back to the times of censorship.
We can also blame the insistence on authorization and on provision of written answers for great number of boring interviews published by media, with no introduction or background information and based on poorly formulated questions and too long, unselected answers.
However, the most important skill a journalist should have is a wish and ability to understand an interviewed person and to look for the moment at the things from his or her point of view. Rudeness, disrespect and an effort to make the person look bad in the article, chasing stupid sentences and inconsequence the journalist was not fair enough to clear immediately during the conversation – is not the objective journalism.
An interview is a two-way street; respect and fairness on both sides are necessary and even easy if providing true information and wellbeing of a society is the common and most important job for both – the authorities and the media.

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