Poor stage lighting left two of the seven international journalists in the dark. An even worse sound system alternately emitted eardrum-splitting cracks and silence. It was an apt metaphor for the challenges these journalists face daily.
They maneuvered around the audio-visual obstacles during the May 17 “Journalism and Democracy” panel the same way they tackle more consequential ones in their home countries — with equanimity, collaboration and ingenuity, passing around one functioning mic and raising their voices to speak without amplification.
The event was organized by the Santa Fe Council on International Relations and featured journalists participating in the U.S. State Department’s Edward R. Murrow Program. This public-private partnership between the State Department and American journalism schools (including Poynter) annually brings “more than 100 emerging international journalists from around the world to examine journalistic practices in the United States,” according to the State Department.
For three weeks, International Visitor Liaison Cassandra McGinnis told me, her group will tour the U.S., visiting four cities and meeting with their American counterparts.
The American and international journalists have much in common, from sexual harassment to stonewalling by politicians. But the visitors also shared stories of the physical perils they face in the absence of democratic institutions — even when their countries are nominally democratic.
Though Brazil has a democratically elected government and no overt restrictions on the press, economic issues are sensitive to cover, explained Mariana Procopio Colo, a veteran reporter who works for TV Bandeirantes.
Procopio Colo has recently been covering Brazil’s increasing violence, especially in Rio de Janeiro. Just gaining access to the stories is daunting. Some places, like the favelas, are inaccessible to both journalists and law enforcement because “drug dealers make the rules.”
Last year, in just the state of Rio de Janeiro, 134 police officers were killed — usually when they were off duty, simply because they were officers, she said. This year, 92 people have been hit by stray bullets. Fifty of those were children.
Procopio Colo, who has a 3-year-old daughter, said she is more shaken by the violence than before, but she also works to ensure a safer future for her daughter. She’s taken security lessons to learn how to behave when surrounded by gunfire — training she’s already put into practice.
Gloria Tawah Tamba, a reporter for Daily Observer, Liberia’s first independent daily newspaper, shared the thrill of seeing her stories on the front page. That’s a major accomplishment in a culture where women are discouraged from being journalists. Nursing is seen as more appropriate. Besides, family will (rightly) say, “There’s no money in journalism.” Investigative reporters in particular face daily sexual harassment.
Nevertheless, the younger generation, she said, is stepping up to say that journalism isn’t a field just for men.
In Liberia, Tamba explained, even though it’s a democracy, there’s an assumption that not all information should be shared with the public. Freedom of information requests are slow-moving, and a lot of secrets are kept by government officials, many of whom are political appointees. Consequently, she said, “you have to work hard.”
Simoniah Lebogang Mashangoane is based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she focuses on human rights abuses as project coordinator for the Wits Justice Project at the University of the Witwatersrand Journalism School.
It’s “not an easy subject to approach,” she said, especially as crimes against women and children are at a high point. Nevertheless, they try to “tell the human stories.” What’s more, the press plays a role in informing politicians what the people are thinking and experiencing.
South Africa has a lot of progressive legislation regarding press freedom, Mashangoane said, but there’s still sometimes pushback from government and corporations, especially when one tries to report on prisons. While politicians promise to do something about crime, many who are innocent get locked up.
In the absence of official records, the Wits Justice Project is creating its own database of wrongful convictions. One case involved a man who was incarcerated for seven years while awaiting trial.
Mohamed Junaid Saleem, head of the political desk at the English-language Maldives Independent, shared the harrowing experiences many of his colleagues have faced in a country led by an authoritarian president. In the audience question and answer session, he observed that you can’t have a democracy with a one-party system.
Abduction, imprisonment, torture, and murder are all too common for Maldivian journalists. Defamation has been recriminalized, violent gangs attack journalists and TV stations have been torched. Since 2012, Saleem said, Maldives has fallen 65 spots on the World Press Freedom Index. (The U.S. currently ranks 45; Maldives sits at 120 and Russia at 148.)
Hacène Nait Amara covers political and economic issues for the daily Le Courrier d’Algérie. Since Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, more than 100 journalists have been killed by Islamic groups, he said. Notwithstanding physical danger, the biggest quotidian problem for his publication is access to information.
Ganna Stepanets, lead anchor of 112 Ukraine Television’s prime news program, gets in the face of politicians daily. Her country, she said, is still “on its way to democracy,” even though it now has more than 100 political parties. Institutions “don’t function fully yet,” as would be expected in a European country. Because the “independent” council overseeing media is half appointed by the president and half by the congress, journalists have to be “kind” to politicians.
Stepanets said she fights every day for the right to speak. Her approach to dealing with politicians’ avoidance tactics is repeated questions, even when she knows they hate her and are offended. In spite of the international diversity, regardless of the number of political parties, all politicians are the same, she said.
“They all want power,” she said. “What’s different, in the United States and Ukraine, for instance, is the society.” In some societies, journalists can remind politicians that “the press is to serve the governed, not the government.”
Sitting next to Stepanets was Russian Ivan Kuzmin, who introduced himself by saying, “I’m not a spy!”
Kuzmin lives far from Moscow, in a community of 700,000 near the border with Kazakhstan and edits AltaPress, an independent regional news outlet in Altai Krai. He said he’s trying to inform citizens about what’s happening and why. It’s an uphill battle.
“We also have the same problems as in Brazil, Ukraine,” and the other countries represented, he said.
Russian media is in “deep crisis,” he said. “We have only propaganda.”
Federal or local governments control most media. To explain how effective that propaganda is in his home country, he said that when he announced he’d been selected to travel to the U.S. and participate in the Murrow program, his grandmother was worried for his safety and said Americans are “our enemies.”
This year, more than ever, the Americans may learn as much from their Murrow program visitors as the international journalists learn from their more privileged hosts.
“You have a brilliant example in the United States of someone who is giving a performance all the time,” said Ukraine’s Ganna Stepanets, pointing to the parallels between journalism in Ukraine and in the U.S under President Donald Trump, who has shared a disdain for journalists on numerous occasions. "[Yet] he needs journalists desperately at the same time” to film that performance and be the audience.
The most poignant comments came in response to the final question from an audience member. “How do you keep up hope and persist?”
“There is no hope,” Russia’s Kuzmin answered first. Later, he added that although many Russian journalists are leaving the profession, many have hope things will change.
“It’s very irrational!” Ukraine's Stepanets said. She then paraphrased a saying attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: If you want to see change, you should be a source of the change.
“We believe in what we do,” Algeria's Amara said. Seeking the truth for Algeria gives him strength, he added.
“Ultimately, history has recognized that dictatorships, authoritarian regimes, don’t last,” Maldive's Saleem said. He mentioned he had recently been at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, where he bought a plaque bearing a favorite quote: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
“I do it because I love my country and its people,” South Africa's Mashangoane said. She has two young boys, and she wants to see them live in a better South Africa.
“Once there is life, there is hope, so I’m not going to give up," Liberia’s Tamba said. "We just have to keep pressing, because one day, change will come. And if you sit back and lose hope … you’re not going to make any impact in your country. So, I’m not giving up; I still have hope!”
“I think we are all a little crazy,” Brazil’s Procopio Colo said, laughing, “because we all face risks in our profession [and] we don’t have a good salary.”
But they all work “to bring the truth to the surface,” and that, she said, “makes me so proud.”