President of the International Federation of Journalists Jim Boumelha was invited to Kyiv in late November by the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine. On the International Day to End Impunity, Boumelha became a participant of a silent march on Khreshchatyk Street in memory of journalists who were killed while performing their professional duties. The IFJ president talked to The Day during a break between the union’s events. Back then, international mass media sluggishly chewed over the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers’ statement on stopping the European integration process. However, the latest events in Ukraine forced the international media to speak out loud. So, The Day addressed Boumelha once again and asked what actually interests international media in the context of the Euromaidan. Check out the interview below to read his answers and some more: what is journalism a la Rupert Murdoch, how the change of owners influences the quality of a periodical, and why the hottest news is made out of information leaks.
Do the international journalists who write about our country understand the full complexity of the “Ukrainian issue”?
“This depends on the viewpoint. News services have reported on the protest action in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in detail because it was quite spectacular, and protesters were even dispersed by the police. However, the rest of the analysis is provided in a most basic form. In their brief newspaper commentaries journalists do not take the trouble to explain what really happened. Only special correspondents go into deeper analysis, but even they get linked to the events of the Orange Revolution. If not for this large number of protesters, the publicity would be even smaller.”
What is your assessment of the level of coverage which the European integration campaign in Ukraine received in general in the international mass media?
“Large news agencies usually pay a lot of attention to the facts, nothing more. They are not trying to express someone’s opinion, they only give a matter-of-fact account of what is going on. Western mass media are usually competent (everything depends on the editorial staff of a specific paper, of course), but I think that most of them have a rather critical opinion on the current Ukrainian government. However, I have not noticed a single one to take a really deep look at the situation. There are so many countries in Europe that want to join the EU, each of them has its own problems. And if you look at the tabloids, which are quite far from the real state of affairs, they always get heated up when some country joins the EU. It does not matter that this situation is typical everywhere, but such kinds of media openly publish rather racist articles. I am talking about British yellow press, it is very rough. A lot of people ask themselves what they need to join the EU for, why the EU, whether it will undermine Europe, whether euro will survive, what is going to happen with Europe in the future, what is wrong with the Ukrainian currency, and why everyone wants to join Europe. They say, look at what is going on in Spain and in the East. Do we really want it? Such articles are published, they set certain questions to think about, but these are not the best articles.”
Unfortunately, it is not the yellow press only that distorts information. Due to the rise of fake news websites, careless attitude towards verification of information, and working with information leaks, Ukraine faces a problem, the crisis of trust in mass media. Is this typical of international media as well?
“A lot of European and American papers have special employees whose duty is to verify information. However, there are such sources that are hardly verified now. For example, news on Syria. It is hard to verify something where a war is going on. So, the majority of the international media just use any piece of information they receive from there. They cannot verify information, but they publish it, thus helping the audience to form a sort of understanding of what is going on in Syria. And unfortunately, such pieces often become the hottest pieces of news, even though sometimes they can be not entirely credible.
“Large news agencies usually pay a lot of attention to the facts, nothing more. They are not trying to express someone’s opinion, they only give a matter-of-fact account of what is going on. Western mass media are usually competent (everything depends on the editorial staff of a specific paper, of course), but I think that most of them have a rather critical opinion on the current Ukrainian government. However, I have not noticed a single one to take a really deep look at the situation. There are so many countries in Europe that want to join the EU, each of them has its own problems.”
“There are a lot of such examples of bad journalism. That is how the money is made. It may even become a style. We can look at the British Daily Express, for example, which used to be a big paper once, but now it is owned by a person who started his career with selling erotic and porn magazines. And now it is one of the most racist periodicals that can be seen in print. Also, there was a huge scandal involving media magnate Murdoch and relating to phone conversations tapping. Now information is mainly gathered by detectives, not journalists. Journalists in papers perform a different function. This story has caused a huge stir among the Western media. Even the government got interested in it. The scandal lasted for a whole year. It was decided that the ways of mass media regulation in Great Britain should be reviewed. In fact, the story still continues, and nobody knows how it is going to end.”
If I understand you correctly, even the traditional international media start using tabloid methods now?
“For us tabloid is a format. But of course, there is something that is called ‘tabloid style,’ a specific way of presenting news. The Sun adopted Murdoch’s style of very sharp journalism. News of the World shut down due to a scandal involving phone tapping. Overall 20 percent of their material was sports news, and the rest consisted of fictitious blood-curdling stories. And they sold about three million copies every week.
“There can also be a situation when, due to the change of the editorial staff or owners, a newspaper changes its quality as well. For example, let us look at Evening Standard. It used to be a daily London paper of 120 well-written pages. Russian businessman Aleksandr Lebedev bought it during the crisis and changed it. Evening Standard became free, thus breaking the rules of fair competition. The paper is not sold, only advertising space is. That is how we lost a quality paper.”
What is the correct way for the conventional media to cooperate with the new technologies (multimedia)?
“Today all the mainstream media have altered their work to use the means of multimedia. Once, during the ‘dark times,’ media companies did not realize the scope of capabilities that the Internet provided, and their first websites were mostly online replicas of the papers themselves. Now the websites and printed papers work together, and the majority of the media understand that their race for publicity depends on the corresponding level of journalism, smart presentation of information, and also using such social networks as Facebook and Twitter, and not only search engines.”
In what way should a website cooperate with bloggers? Can religious figures and scandalous political activists use the same media platform to share their thoughts?
“Blogs are no different from the old-fashioned columnists, who were given space to air their views. They can share genuinely interesting thoughts, but just as well they can be demagogues or even fanatics.”
In what way can copyright be preserved on the Internet, when news aggregators quote articles or publish them without referring to the source at all?
“The IFJ has been engaged in copyright protection for many years, and in particular, in journalists’ copyright protection. It is done via journalist trade unions, which are the most active in this matter. The last great victory was that the AFP news agency (Agence France-Presse) and Getty Images photo agency were forced to pay a compensation of 1.2 million dollars to Daniel Morel, a photographer from Haiti, for stealing photos of an earthquake in Haiti from his website.”
We can see that the Ukrainian journalist community now lacks solidarity, there is a certain division. Is there such a problem in the European journalist community, within the IFJ?
“Nowadays, the freedom of press is expanding almost everywhere, and there are organizations that seem to protect the freedoms, but at the same time, they work for their own benefit. They receive significant sums from governments and various foundations for contributing to the spread of ‘democracy.’ They should be distinguished from journalists’ unions. The unions are independent, since they are financed by journalists themselves and serve as bastions of journalist solidarity.”
When asked whether a journalist should at the same time be a civil activist, former editor-in-chief of Le Monde Yves Agnes told The Day: “Except for those journalists who work in party newspapers, everyone else should avoid expressing their own opinion, their function is to observe.” What is your position on this matter?
“The issue of disaffection is not new. There are various kinds of journalism, including ‘partisan journalism,’ which can also be of very fine quality. Personally, I do not even think there is anything bad about it. You join some specific organization and learn how the things work in it. For example, take a look at BBC or Al Jazeera: they think that one person is enough for objectivity. And it is a complicated matter, because some think this is what real journalism should look like.”