The 62nd World Newspaper Congress got underway in Hyderabad on November 30, 2009. The annual event, organised by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (the merged WAN-IFRA), is being held in India for the first time. The first session of the Congress began with an exciting and stimulating discussion on issues concerning free press around the globe.
From its core theme of whether newspapers can sustain their mission without a business, the session drifted towards the issues of freedom of press across different parts of the globe like Russia, Guatemala, Morocco, South Africa and Pakistan, and highlighted the pressure that newspapers are facing in the midst of economic and political turmoil.
Setting a diplomatic note to the session, Sasa Vucinic, Managing Director, Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF), and also the moderator of the session, started with a video clip that highlighted the problem of sustaining a mission without business.
Chris Elliott, Managing Director, The Guardian, UK, stressed on the fact that one had to have a coherent commercial strategy with the editorial mission and business objectives of the publication. He said that they were fortunate that The Guardian was a trust-owned company, which supported the publication as a cushion, unlike the public limited companies.
“Other businesses of The Guardian media group supported us in the dark times,” he said, adding that in the British people were not used to paying for a newspaper, and in recessionary times, there was severe competition from national newspapers. “Newspapers today need to combine the print-web strategies and invest in ideas and innovations,” he concluded.
Irina Samokhina, CEO, Krestyanin, Rostov-on-Don, Russia, spoke about the issues that they had to deal with in running a non-state newspaper in Russia with the mission of educating and raising awareness among the people of countryside. “Since 1991, when non-state newspapers were allowed in Russia, we were happy with the healthy competition, but we were often asked to change our goals. But our mission became stronger with time. We compete with the competition with our content as we can’t compete with state newspapers in the price factor,” she added.
Samokhina further said that they faced continuous pressure of writing against the State. “Nowadays, it is difficult for us to write about local governors as they are usually silent in their response to the issues being raised,” she said. Samokhina also shared a case where the newspaper had faced a law suit for writing about a local governor gifting a piece of restricted land to his wife and son and how WAN’s (World Association of Newspaper) intervention had helped them in the case.
Ahmed Bachemsi, Publisher, Tel Quel and Nichane, Morocco, then spoke about similar pressure from the state faced by an independent newspaper, and also shared a few tricks that they had adopted to keep their boat sailing in turbulent times. He started by sharing the perceived political, economic and socio-cultural impression that the people had in the dictatorship period, where media played the role of royal propaganda and how they had set out with a motivation to reverse the perception and give the real picture of what Morocco actually was.
“When we started out, we got about 15 shareholders in the company. As we implemented our mission, half of them left us and today we have six shareholders with us,” he said, adding that in order to sustain their sales objectives, they used to have dramatic cover stories that would interest people and increase readership. In order to keep the corporate community happy, they introduced a page called ‘corporate communication’ that would publish content of advertisers in an edited format.
“We also faced pressure from the authorities, especially the royal palace, and we would measure our risks every time we write about them. Our formula was to go just one step beyond the limit. And that would set a new limit for us next time. Also, we would keep them happy by emphasising on good news in a big way, which would flatter them,” Bachemsi further said.
Another trick that he had used to keep the powers happy was to use big pictures of the governing bodies and influencers, even if the story was investigative and negative in nature. “Seeing big pictures they forget what is written inside,” he noted.
Sasa Vucinic then moved to the next speaker, Joze Rubber Zanora, Publisher of El Periodico, Guatemala, with the question regarding how many times there had been attacks on his life. Zanora gave a background of the political situation in Central America that had just come out of a 30-year cold war and the state relationships between state powers, military organisation and drug traffickers. “We started with the objective of raising awareness of what was happening in the region and we had to face lots of problems from the authorities because of that,” he said.
Zanora went on to say how advertisers were asked not to deal with them by the state and were even harassed, kidnapped and attacked several times. “I think we need to be creative, courageous and bold and strike a balance where journalism is more important,” he concluded, recounting the attacks that he had faced from the organisations because of the content of his publication.
Next was Najam Sethi, Editor-in-Chief, Friday Times and Daily Times, Pakistan, who gave an oversight of the media scenario in Pakistan and said that the media there was facing a reverse problem. “The media in Pakistan has a lot of freedom and has very less of censorship, but the issue is that we have no sense of responsibility. We need a code of conduct to deal with terrorism,” he noted.
Sethi further said that a decade earlier, his publication was one of the few that wrote against terrorists groups and actually called them terrorists, while other media groups were projecting them as heroes. “As a result, we have received bombing threats from these organisations. Now that the tide has turned against us, our stand is being recognised,” he said. He also mentioned that their secular ideas were being perceived as non-religious ideas and that they were being accused of being secular enemies of Islam.
Trevor Ncube, Chairman of the Board of Mail & Guardian, South Africa, started his note by saying that profitability of private media acted as the biggest defence to press freedom. Ncube recently invested $3 million to start a publication in Zimbabwe. He said that after 10 years of political and economic turmoil, the environment in the country was fatigued and polarised. “Now, global relations have brought back hope in the country and we feel that Zimbabwe needs a daily newspaper that will heal the nation and jointly work towards rebuilding the country,” he concluded.