14 March 2009

ICFJ Country Director Charles Rice Delivers Address to the East Timor CJITL Congress

Country Director Charles Rice Delivers Address to the CJITL Congress - ICFJ's Country Director in Timor-Leste, Charles Rice, was recently invited to address the first-ever Congress of the Center for Timor-Leste Investigative Journalists. By emphasizing the role that journalists, particularly investigative journalists, play in society, Rice also urged reporters to make their voices heard when the draft for the new Media Law comes up for discussion in Parliament in late March.

TRANSCRIPT: It is a pleasure to be a part of CJITL’s first Congress. I am particularly happy to be able to speak to fellow journalists. As a journalist for the past 34 years, nearly twenty of which I spent working for the Associated Press, I can tell you that media is a critical part of any effort by a society to investigate and expose problems and in-equalities.

The media, particularly investigative reporters, are the watch-dogs for society. Journalists answer directly to the citizens. The media is un-biased. It searches for the truth and shares it with society. The truth is not always pretty – sometimes it can embarrass institutions and individuals. When a journalist exposes corruption or wrong-doing, particularly among powerful individuals, he or she must be protected from retribution. A journalist cannot do his or her job properly if there is a fear of going to prison or that they will be heavily fined.

Any society that is serious about fighting problems – such as corruption must have a media that is free. Laws that put restrictions on journalists – the watch-dogs of society – actually protect those who are doing wrong – and it essentially tells society that certain people are above the law – they are un-touchable. Laws that don’t allow journalists to expose the truth actually encourage corruption because these institutions or individuals know they can get away with it.
Criminalizing defamation and libel do not create a free media – it creates a media that is afraid – a media that is intimidated – a media that cannot do its job.

Journalists, who are trying to protect society from corrupt institutions and individuals, must also have the ability to obtain information. Journalists must have access to information and laws must be in place to guarantee this right. A journalist must be able to walk into a police station or a ministry – fill out the appropriate documents and be given access to information. Yes, of course, some information may not be disclosed – for example information relating to national security, BUT this must be the exception not the rule.

I have worked in other transitional countries – including Azerbaijan – which is just north of Iran and Tajikistan – which is north of Afghanistan.

In Azerbaijan, journalists are regularly thrown in jail for trying to expose problems – such as corruption. Other journalists have been heavily fined, some have been beaten and others have been killed. Intimidation and fear have left many journalists with no other choice but to simply give up trying to do investigations of corrupt individuals and organizations. It has become just too risky.

In Tajikistan, in central Asia, where I spent two years, journalists are so afraid of the government, there is almost no coverage of anything that is against the government. Journalists face jail or heavy fines if they step out of line.
It would be tragic to see this happen in Timor Leste.

Journalists should be able to do their work – without fear of being jailed, without fear of being fined, without fear of being physically threatened.

The reason that I am talking about this is because, sometime, in the near future, probably in late March or early April, Parliament will review, discuss and ultimately approve a new Media Law. You, as journalists, must be active in making sure this law protects you and all journalists – and won’t expose them to prison or heavy fines.

Another way of controlling journalists is by licensing them. It is an inappropriate restriction of freedom of expression – and again it is a roadblock for journalists who are attempting to expose corruption and other crimes. You must make sure your voice is heard – that Parliament understands that journalists should not be licensed by a government or semi-government organization. Practicing journalism is a right, not a privilege – handed out by the government.

Granted, journalists must do their homework – and you must do it well and act responsibly – making sure your story is balanced and accurate and fair. And above all, you must not practice what I call, Emotional Journalism, that is, doing a story about someone just to attack a person for personal reasons.

Yes, sometimes, journalists do make honest mistakes – that is part of human nature – but journalists must not be fined or jailed for their mistakes. Their role in society, as the watch dogs for citizens, is too important and they must be given the benefit of the doubt.
Still, when journalists misquote a person -- and that happens too often, or when they don’t get each side of the story – it provides support to those who argue that journalists must be controlled. Two week ago, I heard several members of Parliament suggest just that – simply because journalists are often careless –or because they don’t conduct themselves in an ethical manner. Please, don’t give these lawmakers an excuse to place controls on you – those controls will affect all of us – good journalists won’t be able to do their jobs.

I challenge you here today – to not take short-cuts – investigative reporting takes time – and you must check your facts – not once or twice, but three times – and above all – get all sides of the story.

ICFJ remains committed to helping journalists conduct their investigations – by providing them with the necessary skills to better ensure that they do their jobs – professionally – that includes being able to analyze the facts – in a clear and concise manner – so that the reader, the viewer or the listener – has a complete understanding of the story.

Our job, as investigative reporters, is not easy, but our role is a very important one. Investigative journalists ensure that government and other institutions remain transparent and accountable to all the people, all the time. Ultimately, it means all of us – will live in a better society.


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