The door opens wider: federation gives boost to press freedom

By Owen Roberts

Farmers’ healthy appetite for information gives agricultural media everywhere a vital role in the agri-food sector. Knowledge mobilization, technology translation and transfer, extension or whatever you want to call the flow of information from a source to a user depends significantly on a skilled, trusted media. Feedback from users is an important part of the cycle too, but if the media can’t effectively communicate information in the first place, quality feedback is unlikely to occur.

Earlier this month  in New Zealand, a significant step – historic, in fact — was taken to ensure farmers globally have better access to information.

There, at the annual congress of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, delegates from 20-plus countries voted to change the organization’s constitution to accept membership from guilds in countries that do not necessarily have freedom of the press.

Throughout the federation’s 59-year history, only agricultural journalism guilds or associations in countries deemed to have freedom of the press (as determined by internationally accepted sources such as Freedom House) were welcomed as members.

The rationale for this limitation was two-fold. First, there were concerns that unscrupulous and oppressive regimes might scurrilously portray membership in the federation by agricultural journalists in their country as a signal to the world that they have a free press, when in fact they don’t.

As well, members worried that agricultural journalism guilds in such countries would actually be populated with government communications people masquerading as journalists, and deny entry to true journalists. We’d seen it before.

Things started changing though with the arrival of the Internet, and much greater connectivity among journalists in all countries. In 2008, the federation created a new global strategy, which included a mandate to bring journalists in countries without freedom of the press into the fold.

Various approaches ensued, including setting up a program called the Master Class, with support from DuPont Pioneer. Every year, the company offers to bring experienced journalists from these countries to the global congress, such as the one this year in New Zealand, and next year in Germany.

The Master Class, perhaps more than anything else, catalyzed the federation’s decision to open up membership. After attending the congress, getting some leadership training through the Master Class and liaising with top agricultural writers and broadcasters from the so-called free world, Master Class participants returned to their home countries and, oppressive regimes or not, met with like-minded colleagues and set up their own agricultural guilds.

They used IFAJ guidelines for writing a constitution and establishing a charter. They were committed to freedom of the press and the free flow of information, even though their governments weren’t, or weren’t there yet. They were anxious to share stories from farmers around the world with the farmers they served.

But the federation’s freedom of the press stipulation was still restricting them from becoming members and taking advantage of professional development activities and other features that would enhance their ability to communicate to farmers.

As one participant put it, the press freedom stipulation was penalizing those who probably needed the federation the most. After all, less than 15 per cent of the world’s citizens enjoy freedom of the press. In many developing countries, agriculture is the primary industry and the issues are huge. It certainly isn’t the fault of journalists that their country puts limits on journalistic freedom, thwarting their efforts to explain and explore issues, convey information and help the agricultural sector advance.

So finally, after years of debate by the federation to make sure it got it right, at the annual congress in New Zealand delegates unanimously accepted a constitutional change for membership.

It turned out to be as simple as this: To become a member of the federation, the guild’s home country need not have freedom of the press, but the guild itself mustsupport freedom of the press.

 With that change accepted, the federation went on to welcome eight new member guilds from Burkino Faso, Burundi, Croatia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Iran, Somalia and Turkey. Each had completed full applications, including developing their own constitution.

The premise itself of involving a new world of agricultural journalists in the overall drive to share information is unquestionably a winner. It’s particularly true as we look to the future and realize the way farmers will feed the growing population is through cooperation.  Exports will certainly help, but ultimately, they’ll need to help each other become more self-sufficient in food production.

Research and technology created in developing countries can be hugely beneficial, but only with an understanding of developing countries’ needs, and through a dialogue that journalists can help mediate.  The federation is calling on journalists in the new member countries to be active in shaping the way this new development evolves…which will not be easy, given that the world overall is trending towards less press freedom, not more.  As Freedom House says, globally, conditions for the media deteriorated sharply in 2014, as journalists faced mounting restrictions on the free flow of news and information—including grave threats to their own lives.

Meanwhile, agricultural journalists worldwide (including the new members themselves) are looking at this change in the federation, and wondering how to nurture it and make it meaningful for everyone – journalists and farmers alike.

Owen Roberts is the vice-president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. 

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