Through a series of happy events here I am in Bonn, marveling that an urban development can actually be this clean. Deutsche Welle is holding its annual global conference and the summer is quite gorgeous out here. I am sitting in the conference center trying not to expire from sheer envy at the German modern architecture (air, light, glass, colors, space, efficiency!) and also trying to look like I totally belong here amongst these media professionals. So far so good: my camouflage seems to be working and the herd has not sniffed me out as an impostor yet.
This is a benefit of being 'fringe media': opportunities like this one, all too rare, to learn and reflect on a field in which I am an adjunct. If I can admit to bias, European state media houses tend to operate pleasantly diverse, credible and even intelligent international services. It is no hardship at all to be here in their facility, seeing a little bit about how the wurst gets made.* So far I have found the obligatory handful of Kenyans, a Ghanaian, an Ivorian (I think) and had conversations with a lovely older Sudanese braodcaster and a wonderfully cynical Hungarian lady. Media people are always fun. Team Tanzania is three guys from E-FM so far: woohoo local radio!
So, lots of morning session hey. What I learned, slowly, was that media freedom is of great concern to DW and to the community of international broadcasters. Yes, it has to be raised that I didn't pick up on Al Jazeera or CCTV or CCN International's presence here but that's a whole other discussion. Fact remains that the media is feeling the threat to its freedom all over the globe, and this isn't healthy for anyone.
Photo: A lobby, somewhere in Germany.
Because media is nothing if not idealistic, a lot of time was spent outlining the current threats to media and exploring ways in which they can be mitigated. There was also appropriate respect paid to those in the media sorority who suffer violence at the hands of oppressors for doing their jobs. If I had any remaining romanticism about media on the ground, it pretty much disappeared right there. There is nothing even vaguely attractive about the thought of jail-time, or worse.
Listening to the DW Freedom of Speech Award recipient, Mr. Sedat Ergin from Turkey, talk about being heartsore at winning the award was poignant. A soft-spoken middle-aged man who looks about as threatening as a basket of kittens, he offered a very beautiful and deep meditation on the practice of journalism under current conditions. And then he proceeded to disagree with his host country Germany's Bundestag's recent decision to declare the 1915-1916 killing of Armenians in Turkey an act of genocide. In front of Ministers and other grand worthies. This slight and rumpled man planted his teeth in the hand that fed him, because that's what freedom of speech allows for: candor and fearlessness.
Speaking of politicians, the ones who opened the meeting and paneled and spoke at us were all seriously into the principles of free media and public broadcasting. My optimistic side promptly swooned with delight at all the liberalism and fervor flying around the room. My cynical side sat back and decided that this might be a level of politricking beyond my ken. If taken at face value, however, it was a beautiful example of how politics can benefit from a strong and independent media and even support it above and beyond their finite careerist ambitions.
On the issues of value, the difference between propaganda and free speech was brought up. As was the notion of cultural imposition from the West (liberalism, et cetera) being a large part of international broadcast's agenda. I don't think it is that simple. Without international media, far too many African despots would get away with murder and worse without ever being confronted with the truth. On the other hand, international broadcasters emerge from their own culture and carry their own biases and have their own agendas- as they should. An agenda is not always bad, you just have to be aware that there always is one.
Rounded off the day with a nice intimate session with Canadian-Iranian blogger Hossein Derkhashan on post-web journalism which was very informative. I share and respect his views on social media to a large extent, and his views on the internet in general. Especially interesting is his proposal that we explore offline 'street' methods of engaging with news. Totally lefty crunchy-grainy community artsy-fartsy stuff, and a brilliant idea. I think he speaks to the alienation we all experience as users of large, faceless social media and offline news projects like he suggested might just provide that human touch that is so lacking in our electronic world.
That's it for today. DW is going to put us all on a boat in about half an hour then push us out into the Rhine where hopefully they will feed us and it won't rain**. Wish me luck.
*There's more where that came from. Don't even tempt me.
** Ha, it is way too cold to be "summer," Germany. Maasai blanket in hand.