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Journalism, investigative journalism in particular, fact-based journalism in specific has been viewed as a relic of older, simpler times and headed for extinction. The marketplace of ideas seems to favor opinions, rumors, rants, fake news, silly stuff and ugly stuff. Perhaps it’s the spirit of the times. More likely it’s the way it’s always been.
Money is always a problem. From time to time, often when conditions look bleak, the marketplace works, in a way. This week the Omidyar Network pledged US$ 100 million over three years for “strengthening independent media and investigative journalism, tackling misinformation and hate speech, and enabling citizens to better engage with government on critical issues,” said a statement released at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England. The Omidyar Network is the philanthropy of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The Skoll World Forum meets annually to review philanthropy and is a program of the Skoll Foundation, founded by eBay’s first president, Jeff Skoll.
“A free and independent media is key to providing trusted information and critical checks and balances on those in positions of power,” said Omidyar Network partner Stephen King at the breakfast session announcement (April 5). “We are increasing our support for this work to ensure it scales and accelerates to keeps pace with the challenges society is facing.” First grantees include the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
Mr. Omidyar was eBay’s board chairman until 2015 and recently announced intent to leave the PayPal board. E-commerce giant eBay spun-off internet payment system PayPal in 2014. He has invested in a Hawaii investigative news agency and news portal The Intercept, which focuses on investigations. (See more about investigative journalism here)
The ICIJ came to prominence for the Panama Papers leaks and reporting. Despite efforts by unhappy governments the leakers identities have remained secret. After a flood of awards for the reporting, not to forget arrests of several crooks, the ICIJ was spun-off from the Center for Public Integrity earlier this year. The Omidyar Network is a major contributor to Center for Public Integrity, along with the Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Open Society Foundations and others.
“These are difficult times for the media,” said ICIJ director Gerard Rylein a statement on the Omidyar Network announcement. “The institutions that bring us our news and that try to make sense of the world around us face enormous threats. The advertiser-driven business models that traditionally supported journalism are failing, thanks to technological changes brought about by the Internet - and no new financial model is in sight.
“We are also living in an era of tremendous noise.”
Fake news is more than a phenomenon. It’s a problem. And when a problem of certain weight appears gravity produces a wave, tidal of sorts.
The wave of scorn for fake news and its purveyors has led to a windfall of attention to truth and those will have none of it. Beginning this week, German public broadcasting network ARD now offers online portal Fact Finder (www.faktenfinder.tagesschau.de - in German). It was developed to detect and explain fake news. ARD has assigned four fact checkers to the project.
"The fight against targeted false information and disinformation can not be won by laws,” said project manager Patrick Gensing, quoted by wired.de (April 3). “It is rather the task of journalists and the media to clarify this problem. We want to find out how big the phenomenon fake news really is in Germany.”
Social media giant Facebook has faced considerable criticism over its role in the distribution of fake news. Its furtive efforts to unmask the ugly stuff have only brought out more critics. Along with internet browser Firefox designer Mozilla, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and the Ford Foundation Facebook is funding the News Integrity Initiative to put money, US$14 million, into fake news research. Well-known City University of New York (CUNY) journalism professor Jeff Jarvis is leading. A score of journalism schools and journalism supporters in the US, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UK are participating. (See more about Fake News here)
“In high school US history, I learned that a trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy,” said Mr. Newmark in a statement, quoted by poynter.org (April 3). "As a news consumer, like most folks, I want news we can trust. That means standing up for trustworthy news media and learning how to spot clickbait and deceptive news.”
There are, of course, critics of these initiatives meant to corral or shame fake news purveyors, beyond the usual right-wing and alt-right online flamers. “Not everyone wants to be news-literate,” offers UK tech news portal The Register (April 3). “The proliferation of polarised media shows us that readers like to wallow in their own prejudices.”
While official relations between Germany and Turkey remain frigid, German consular officials have been granted access to jailed Die Welt journalist Deniz Yücel, reported Reuters (April 3) and other sources. Mr. Yücel is Ankara correspondent for the German daily and holds dual German-Turkish nationality. He was arrested in February, charged with giving aid to terrorists and jailed.
German consular officials met with Mr. Yücel, reported German daily Taggespiegel and Turkish daily Sozcu (April 4), at the Silivri Detention Center near Istanbul where he is being held. Organizing the consular access, normally routine under international convention, required high level diplomacy starting with a sideline meeting between German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu at the NATO foreign ministers conference last Friday (March 31) in Brussels and continuing through the weekend to negotiate details. The meeting with Mr. Yücel lasted two hours. (See more about media in Turkey here)
“This is not the last point for us,” said German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth. “We still seek the release of Deniz Yücel.” The meeting with German Consul General in Istanbul Georg Birgelen was “only for today.” The Turkish side agreed to allow Mr. Yücel access to lawyers. German diplomats expect no movement on the larger issues until after the mid-April constitutional referendum.
In its running commentary on press freedom in Turkey, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) notes that last Friday (March 31) the Istanbul Court of Serious Crimes ordered 19 journalists released from custody pending trials. That decision was blocked by prosecutors (Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors) and the judges ordering the release have been suspended. The journalists were jailed after the abortive coup last summer and, now, remain behind bars.
Clamp-downs on news media typically begin with words, move on to less subtle harassment, continuing on to violence against media workers, ending with outright closures of critical media outlets. There are many examples.
Armed police raided the Belsat TV facilities in the Belarus capital Minsk last Friday (April 1). Broadcast and computer equipment was seized and one person briefly detained, reported Euronews (April 1). Belarusian authorities claim the Belsat name is being used illegally, the trademark registered to a Belarusian citizen. A Belarusian court upheld that claim in 2014 but TVP said it is a Polish entity and ignored the proceedings.
Belsat TV has operated as a satellite and online news channel since 2007, is financially supported by the Polish Foreign Affairs Ministry and operated by Polish State broadcaster TVP. Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has never been a fan. (See more about media in Belarus here)
The raid appears to be in response to extensive - and inconvenient - news coverage of anti-government protests during previous weeks, during which riot police made arrests, numbers vary, including 20 Belsat TV employees, according to TVP Info (April 1). Citizens of Belarus took to the streets in Minsk and other cities to voice their displeasure at a recent legal creation of president Lukashenko, a law imposing a tax on unemployed people.
The future for Belsat TV is tenuous. Foreign Affairs Ministry deputy secretary Marek Ziolkowski indicated in an interview with daily Rzeczpospolita (January 31) funding Belsat TV would end. A “proper donor” is being sought to take over the Belarusian language service and the current distribution channels will be carrying Polish language TVP Polonia.
"The agreement provides for a termination six months in advance and only at the end of the current year,” said Belsat TV director Agniezka Romaszewska, quoted by wPolityce.pl (February 1). “Now the television exists; it does and does not change. We do not yet have a clear idea what the situation will look like.”