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Disturbing trends for journalists’ protection

Professor Mark Pearson last night … disturbing trends for journalists’ protection

A leading journalism academic has voiced concern at the high levels of digital surveillance facing journalists today and has urged journalists to adopt a new ethical model of reporting for social good.

Dr Pearson, professor of journalism and social media at Griffith University in Australia and the Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, spoke tonight at the inaugural UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2013 lecture, organised by AUT’s Pacific Media Centre.

The lack of press freedom in the Asia-Pacific region was well documented with media in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Fiji needing government licences to operate, and journalists in Malaysia facing 53-year-old “internal security” laws under which they could be detained for long periods for “prejudicing national security”.

But Pearson said his concerns were not limited to these cases, and that his major worry was the “ever-increasing government regulation of media and social media everywhere”, including the anti-terror laws introduced all over the world since 9/11, modelled on the US Patriot Act.

These laws “typically give intelligence agencies unprecedented powers to monitor the communications of all citizens. There is also an inordinate level of surveillance, logging and tracking technologies in use in the private sector – often held in computer clouds or multinational corporate servers in jurisdictions subject to search and seizure powers of foreign governments” said Dr Pearson.

This had disturbing implications for journalists’ protection of their confidential sources, especially if these sources were government or corporate “whistleblowers”, Dr Pearson added.

Investigative reporters today potentially had to contend with geo-locational tracking of their phones and vehicles, tollpoint capture of their motorway entry and exit, easily accessible phone, email and social media records, CCTV in private and public places, and facial recognition in other people’s images, perhaps posted to Facebook.

Under threat
Investigative reporting was also under threat as a result of budget cuts by newspapers.

“Investigative reporting calling governments to account does not come cheaply. It involves weeks of groundwork by senior journalists, photojournalists and videojournalists and funding of their salaries, travel expenses and equipment.

“It typically requires further investment in the time of expert editors and production staff. But the former multinational newspaper companies that once funded this investigative enterprise have been shedding staff, rationalising operations and slashing budgets” said Professor Pearson, author of The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law.

Cost-cutting measures in Australian, New Zealand and North American newsrooms meant that breaking news in Pacific Island nations was “more likely to be covered ‘on the cheap’ by so-called ‘parachute journalists’ who fly in and out to report in a superficial way” Dr Pearson added.

Bloggers and citizen journalists were equally at risk of being repressed because they are often not covered by the shield laws protecting journalists from being forced to reveal their confidential sources in court.

“It is even more problematic now that citizen journalists and bloggers are covering stories of public importance when they might not meet a government’s definition of ‘journalist’” said Dr Pearson.

Bloggers or citizen journalists who were faced with legal threats from a big corporation or government would not have the resources to defend themselves, unless they got support from unions or NGOs, he added.

Phone-hacking scandal
At the same time, the British tabloids phone-hacking scandal had led to intense public scrutiny of unethical practices in the media and calls for more government regulation of the media.

In the past, unions or professional associations administered journalists’ codes of ethics but the difference between journalists and other communicators was no longer very clear.

With media bosses “forcing journalists into the blogosphere as the old model suffers under the strain” and many ordinary citizens producing the reportage and commentary that was once the preserve of journalists, new ethical codes of practice were needed, said Professor Pearson.

“The recent inquiries into poor journalism ethics have demonstrated that journalism within the libertarian model appears to have lost its moral compass and we need to recapture this”, Dr Pearson said.

The “peace journalism” model had “great merit”. This model compelled journalists to develop a deep understanding of the context and causes of a conflict, to reduce the emphasis on blame or ethnicity, commit to ensuring the views of all sides are reported, and to offer suggestions for solutions.

With young people still choosing journalism as a career with a view to “make a difference” in society it would be logical for journalists to “apply basic principles of mindfulness and compassion” to their writing, Dr Pearson added.

“I believe this sits well with a modern trend to apply basic principles of mindfulness and compassion to a range of human endeavours” said Professor Pearson, who is currently developing a “Mindful Journalism” model.

Truth-seeking approach
In line with the Samoan traditions of the Tusitala – a revered writer of stories – journalists in the region needed to adopt a mindful approach to their news and commentary which requires a reflection upon the implications of their truth-seeking and truth-telling as a routine part of the process.

“Truth-seeking and truth-telling would still be the primary goal, but only after gauging the social good that might come from doing so” said Professor Pearson.


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