Frane Maroevic, the new Executive Director of the International Press Institute (IPI), tells DW why appreciating critical voices matters in overcoming divisions, and what the IPI is doing to support freedom of the media.
DW: When you were appointed executive director of the International Press Institute (IPI) last September, you said that "attacks on free media are attacks on our societies.” What exactly do you mean by that?
Frane Maroevic: Media organizations are attacked whenever someone wants to silence the messenger, to stop something from becoming public. This means that our societies are being denied information. We are being denied information about possible crimes or corruption, about mismanagement of public funds, our funds, about issues that affect our health, our wellbeing, issues that affect our families, friends, neighbors and our planet. Media are also attacked to strike fear into others who may wish to speak out, to silence other media and other journalists. To demonstrate that journalism is a dangerous profession, and make journalists fear for their own lives and safety.
Reporters risk their lives to stop autocratic leaders, as was seen in the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
Therefore, it is essential that people understand attacks against media also as attacks on our societies. Our societies suffer when critical voices are threatened and silenced, not only because we are denied information but also because it creates an atmosphere of fear. Our societies also suffer when attacks and threats are not properly investigated as this demonstrates a breakdown in the rule of law. In order to be effective as a watchdog for our societies, the media need to have the freedom to perform this role without fear.
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Independent media organizations report critically on politics and government issues; however, they often are discredited as being divisive and are rather accused of encouraging the break-up of societies. What role does the media play in overcoming divisions in societies?
This is exactly what we have witnessed in the last few years. General attacks on independent media, discrediting media and journalists, falsely accusing them of disseminating falsehoods and at the same time creating 'pseudo media' - outlets that pretend to be media but are designed to deepen divisions and to demonstrate that many media are not professional or independent.
This is part of the strategy by political parties and individuals who thrive on polarization and extremism to damage our democratic institutions. They sow fear as a very powerful way to pit people against each other; they lie about the work of the institutions to destroy people's trust. It is easier to manipulate people if they don't trust anyone, it is easier to confuse them if all information sources appear to be the same. We see such attacks on a regular basis. Politicians who do not engage with criticism but attack the media, labeling journalists as traitors, spies, foreign agents, liars.
So how can journalism help overcome social divisions?
Journalists and journalism can help by upholding professional and ethical standards to demonstrate the difference between journalism and misinformation. However, this is a broader problem that requires a holistic, societal response. It is about education, so called media literacy, ensuring that people understand better the context of the news and information they are consuming.
It is also about understanding the value of constructive dialogue in our societies instead of just attacking the others. It is about appreciating critical voices in our societies and understanding that once they are silenced, no one else will have the courage to speak out. It is also about political leaders leading by setting a positive example.
Now that misinformation is so widespread and sophisticated, especially in digital or social media-only news, what consequences do you see for the societies, whic are most affected by this?
This is a multi-layered problem from the perspectives of distribution, engagement, production costs and revenue. Social media have irrevocably changed the media landscape both in terms of audience engagement and reach. In terms of distribution, social media have allowed anyone to disseminate information globally in an instant. In principle, this is a good thing.
However, there is a problem as dissemination of information on social media is dependent on how many people engage with it. Another layer of the problem is that it is often difficult to visually differentiate between misinformation and content created by journalists who have researched the issues, presented different opinions and checked the facts. Journalism is far more expensive to produce than misinformation, so journalism has a much harder time competing in this environment.
In some countries internet subscription packages include social media access, thus encouraging people not to leave the social media environment. Thus, discouraging them from checking other information sources. This means that journalism is facing multiple threats and societies are facing an information vacuum.
What are some effective tools for journalists to counter disinformation campaigns and extremism?
When talking about dis/misinformation, especially targeted at independent media, journalists need to understand that the ultimate objective is to erode the trust of their own audience which, in turn, accomplishes two purposes: first, creating a fertile soil where the lies and half-truths can be planted and blossom and, second, putting at risk the very survival of independent news outlets since many rely on the financial support of their readers.
In this vein, perhaps one way to combat disinformation is to have journalists reporting on it in a way that makes the audience understand that the ultimate prey of these campaigns is, in fact, them.
Students at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India, were confronted by police officers in riot gear ahead of a scheduled screening of the BBC documentary Narendra Modi
What can organizations which serve the purpose of protecting and defending independent media and freelance journalists do in order to safeguard media freedom?
My first message to colleagues who work on media freedom is that we are working in partnership together and not in competition. The enemies of media freedom are numerous and the ones fighting for freedom are few.
Regarding freelance journalists, this is a huge topic by itself as freelancers are more vulnerable than ever. Often, they don't have the resources to provide safety equipment or insurance when undertaking a dangerous assignment. They might be ready to take higher risks in order to ensure that they get a commission and sell their story, or their footage to another media outlet. They may not have the expertise or technical support to ensure that they are able to conduct their work safely. As the media themselves are financially under more pressure, they also increasingly rely on freelancers to supplement their diminished staff.
On IPI's website, there is a tracker on the war in Ukraine, documenting violence on journalists and media professionals. What is the intention behind it, and do you plan trackers for other armed conflict areas, too?
Tools such as the Ukraine War Tracker are important for evidence-based advocacy. To ensure that whenever we are talking about media freedom violations we have concrete examples. As we approach the first anniversary of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the tracker shows that there were over 800 media freedom violations linked to the war; we can filter the violations by date, type, location in order to help us understand better what the direct effects of the war on media freedom are.
Collecting data is important in all forms of advocacy, and this is why we also collect information on other types of media freedom violations. Most notably, there's our database of killed journalists, but we also contribute to the Council of Europe Media Freedom Platform and the Media Freedom Rapid Response Mechanism online platforms.
We are currently working to develop an online platform for the safety of journalists in Africa. Again, we are doing this to ensure that we can easily follow up on any cases and see where progress has been made and where the situation hasn't changed.
The IPI has members from over 120 countries. You know the many challenges and crises of the world that these independent media professionals and journalists face. What gives you hope in 2023?
When I took up this position, I received many wonderful and inspiring messages of welcome and support, but the ones which inspired me most are from our members in countries where journalists are facing very serious threats to their safety and their livelihoods.
Their courage, determination and their commitment to media freedom worldwide give me hope. I am inspired by journalists such as our board member Maria Ressa. I am inspired by journalists working in war zones like Ukraine, bringing us news under constant bombardment.
Frane Maroevic is the new Executive Director of the International Press Institute (IPI) in New York. He started out as a journalist at the BBC World Service, and has over 30 years of professional experience in the media and international orgainzations, including serving as spokesperson for the European Union in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As Deputy Spokesperson and later as Senior Advisor at the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, he managed responses to numerous cases of media freedom violations.
The International Press Institute (IPI) is a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists from over 120 countries. As a network, IPI can work with authorities and newsrooms to protect journalists under threat, to ensure investigations into attacks and threats, and to reduce risks.