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Free Expression, mobile communications, and journalism training – A couple of weeks in the life

December 21, 2009

Well, it’s been a vibrant and boisterous couple of weeks in Lake Media Development, my hometown. I’ve been busy with a wide range of topics for a wide range of reasons. Just like the McPoyles like it. I’ve long taken the view that expression and development issues are so entwined and intermingled that any truly effective solution to them requires an expansive and comprehensive understanding of them. So, any chance I get to dig deep into new facets is more than welcome. This is the stuff that I live and breath.

Here’s a taste of the last few weeks in my adventures and explorations:

Defamation of Religions and Freedom of Expression

I’ve been reading about the Human Rights Council’s resolution 7/19 “Combating defamation of religions”, passed last spring, condemning the defamation of religions as a human rights violation. It would make sense that religion be seen as a human right, and that we should aim not to trample upon any human right. The concern, however, is that it clashes with the human right to expression. By protecting a religion from defamation, in the way that it is broadly defined in this resolution, you put the clamp on the right to question and even criticize a religion. You give a religion itself the status of having rights, rather than an individual, which has been the norm in international law.

In a press release, Freedom House offered an important critique of the resolution:

“Although we are sympathetic to the stated goals of the resolutions of combating intolerance, racism, and religious hatred, we believe that such resolutions do not serve to achieve these goals but rather limit the ability of individuals to raise questions, concerns, and even criticisms at a time when people of all faiths need to engage in more, not less, dialogue,” said Freedom House and the Becket Fund.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe offered another strong critique of the resolution.

I’ve found this to be a fascinating issue. First, you have religion, which is so fundamental to the identity of so many people, and so sacred, at odds with expression, which is also fundamental to human identity, as well as democracy and independence. This is almost, at heart, really a conflict between group-orientation and individuality (or even self-determinism). Second, you look at the countries that voted in favor:  Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, Mali, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, and Sri Lanka. So many of them have terrible records of protecting the human right of expression, or rights of the individual, for that matter.

Mobile Communications as a catalyst for Change

I’ve been reading the book Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold. Admittedly, the book is a bit dated, having been published in 2002. But, it is an interesting look at the early history of how mobile communications evolved and began to shape our society, and offers incites that we can now evaluate today. A lot of what he observed nearly a decade ago has become true the world over, and is certainly changing the game in important ways.

One of the examples from the book that stood out to me was what happened in the Philippines, with the the peaceful EDSA II Revolution that removed Joseph Estrada from the presidency in 2001. (Of course, I would coincidentally be reading this book and exploring expression and media issues in Southeast Asia, and these issues would manage to converge at just the right moment in my research–my life is always strangely like this.) There was an impeachment trial under way, and when it was ended by senators before all evidence could be examined, opposition leaders began sending out SMS messages. In just over an hour, 20,000 converged on the site of the EDSA I Revolution in 1986 that removed Ferdinand Marcos. That would soon turn into over a million people. According to Rheingold, mobile phones were crucial to this revolution, as there had been a burgeoning SMS culture, and thus a technology capable of sudden mobilization.

Journalism Education and Training Needs in Least Developed Countries

I’m conducting an initial needs assessment of journalism and education needs in Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, for an organization exploring potential programming in these countries. And, along the way, I am looking for organizations that stand as examples of this kind of education and training done well in these countries, either within the countries, or at least connected to them.

Again, I get to expand my borders with this project. I’ve done a lot of research in Ghana and Nigeria in the past, giving me a solid foundation to work with in those countries. But, now I have the chance to look at new countries, and push into Asia.

I am struck by how much the same the song remains with developing countries and journalism needs. The university system is lacking in proper training facilities and professors of adequate experience and education levels. Journalists fleeing the industry because it doesn’t pay them enough to keep food on the table, while opportunities in other countries or industries (especially PR) offer substantially more money. Publishing the whole story means risking physical harm, jail, and loss of crucial advertising revenue. As one contact in Zimbabwe colorfully, and tragically, put it, “Journalism education here is all needs and challenges”.

How on earth are things going to improve in these countries when the main institution of accountability that watches over business and government has no capacity to effectively watch and report?

One positive in this research has been stumbling upon some great resources:

This research also prompted me to say on Facebook, “Needs assessment is fun. It’s like I’m this international needs detective in some movie about a development serial killer, and I’m tracking down contacts for leads, and piecing together the evidence to build my case”.

Evaluating Business Journalism Training Programs in Africa

I’ve been working on an impact evaluation of some training programs conducted by the client organizations this past year in various African countries designed to improve the ability of local journalists to report on business, and subsequently, improve local business investment as a function of access to better local business reporting. This project is still in its early stages. We’ve designed the survey we will give to trainees, and are finalizing the interview guide, as well. Once completed, members of our team will travel to several of the African countries of the trainees to meet with them face to face (almost always the best way to interview someone). After that, we compile our findings and write a report to give to our clients. Ultimately, our work is to help these organizations determine what impact their training has had on the journalists (with the question of impact on the investment climate being a whole separate issue for another time).

I’m always happy to take on projects that involve evaluating the outcomes of programs. Evaluation is a vital component of development, and it is often not done well, if at all, in development. In my experience, it can make the difference for institutional learning and future programming. How else are you going to know what worked and what didn’t? I’ve also found this to be something I enjoy doing–getting people in a room together and thinking deeply and critically not just about what worked and what didn’t, but what the right questions are to ask. It’s more of that detective work like I described on Facebook. Finding the right questions, in my opinion, can make or break any development project, and any stage of that project. They can make the difference, more than almost anything, in my opinion. And, with evaluation being a characteristic that can define effective organizations from ineffective organizations, I very much want to get inside of wherein lies that difference, so I can ensure I’m on the effective side.

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