BONN, Germany - Every year, Deutsche Welle, Germany’s BBC, hosts a global media forum where journalists engage in a dialogue, not only among ourselves, but with development experts, academics, activists, corporate executives, think tank people, and government officials. More than 2,500 participated in what turned out to be a massive marketplace of ideas and non-stop conversations across countries and cultures.
I picked up 4 strands in the Bonn gathering which focused on the theme "Future of Growth: Economic Values and the Media." Like brightly colored ribbons, these circled discussions and looped in people who were reflecting on the media’s future.
First, journalists’ work has become more important in this digital, complex world. The speed of technology and global interconnectedness have deluged us with information such that the public needs to make sense of all this—with the help of our profession.
"With the flood of information, we need people to categorize this, give them shape," said Marc Jan Eumann, state secretary in the federal affairs ministry, in his opening speech. "We need experts to do this and serve the public."
Similarly, Foreign Affairs Minister Guido Westerwelle, said in his keynote speech that the public needs "more differentiation in this complex world" and this job falls to the media.
This is not to inflate the importance of journalism in the light of what others say is the fading away of our role because of the rise of "citizen journalists." This strand of thought simply puts in perspective the work of journalists which has expanded to include vetting of tips, loads of information, photos and videos from readers and viewers.
Second, news organizations are no longer just limited to reporting the news. The media are in a unique position because they see the world’s problems as they happen, on the ground. They chronicle widespread poverty as well as soaring wealth resulting in inequitable societies. Media see the responses of governments and the private sector to these pressing problems—or what’s missing in their efforts to solve these.
What was fascinating and new to me was the action taken by 2 news organizations in the United Kingdom. They went past doing humanitarian activities during disasters, the usual short-term effort media groups undertake. BBC chose to be active in actual development work and the other, The Guardian created an online community of development professionals to enrich literature on social change.
BBC Media Action is an NGO separate from BBC News. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is involved in frontline work delivering information on maternal health services to remote communities in Bejar, India using mobile phones. Women dial a number and simply listen to audio information.
BBC Media Action trained health workers in what they call a Mobile Academy where health information is broken down into to accessible bites and presented in a colorful and entertaining way. The issue that the BBC Media Action is looking into is whether this program can be scaled up to cover a larger area.
There’s a risk here, though: the BBC global brand may be tarnished if the project fails or if there’s wrongdoing. Credibility is still the currency in the media business and this should be protected at all costs. As a Philippine media executive used to say, "We’re in the trust business, not just the media business."
For its part, The Guardian formed a network of global development professionals online. The Guardian is using technology for development, tapping various experts on the ground to report on best practices and lessons learned, share experiences on a range of projects in Africa and other parts of the world. The Website is a reference, a go-to online resource for those involved in development work.
Third, media should be part of the dialogue on values in business and economic growth. The global financial crisis showed deep fault lines in business ethics: greed emerged again as a dominant value.
Can media help stem the greed tide? Partly. Media should consistently report on the demands of sustainable growth, green issues, innovations in technology that improve people’s access to health care and other basic services as well as the role of religion or spirituality in promoting ethics.
Two key speakers at the global media forum, Noam Chomsky and Vandana Shiva, presented alternative thoughts on growth and urged a rethinking of what animates democracy. Chomsky is considered the "intellectual father of the Occupy movement" while Shiva is a physicist and environmental activist who works with the grassroots in India.
Fourth, economically free societies do not necessarily nurture free media. In Southeast Asia, Singapore is the foremost example. Even in the Philippines, which enjoys economic freedom, the media are not truly free, in the most complete sense of the word.
Sure, there is no official censorship but the media are hobbled by a structure that favors vested interests (read: oligarchy). The political and judicial environment allow impunity, most of all, murders of journalists in the line of duty.
A colleague from Nicaragua, Eduardo Enriquez, pointed out that diversity in media ownership is one antidote to concentrated ownership of media by the very wealthy. The other is the Internet, which nobody owns, and which is starting to alter the media landscape in our part of the world.
The author was invited to the global media forum by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.