INTRO: What happens when journalists from Russia, Ukraine and three South Caucasus republics get together? They surprise themselves - and a visiting Canadian professor with how far they have come.
The purpose? To talk about media self-regulation. Which is prof-speak for how to make media more democratic, more independent and more responsive to the needs of readers, listeners and viewers.
Jeffrey Dvorkin reports on what he found in south eastern Europe earlier this year.
Chisinau is the capital of Moldova – a former Soviet republic squeezed up tight between Romania on the west and Ukraine on the east. Not exactly the land that time forgot, but not exactly on any high traffic tourist routes.
Chisinau charmingly exudes a sense of “old Europe” – it has wide boulevards, huge trees, marvelous centuries old Orthodox churches and flower boxes everywhere. But a closer look shows why Moldova is still the poorest country in Europe.
At first it looked like the construction crews working on the roads quit early the day I arrived… Sidewalks more rubble than pavement. As I hauled myself and my suitcase from the taxi into the hotel over the broken concrete, it occurred to me that I could easily break an ankle trying to go for a walk any time of day. At night, don’t even think about it unless you are carrying a flashlight. And street lighting is non-existent, except for the neon glare from what are advertised as “casinos.”
They are bright enough to shed some light on the street and inside you can catch a glimpse of a bar leaned on by waiting women. The repetitive sounds of Euro Pop pound onto the streets. Every block has at least three or four of these joints but they are in fact fronts, I was told, making Chisinau the most active center for human trafficking in Europe and the Middle East.
My self-consciously “hip” guidebook only alludes to this by saying that Chisinau has an abundance of BMWs and Mercedes and quote ”fashionably dressed youth who strut down boutique-lined avenues and dine in fancy restaurants.” Where does all this flaunting of wealth come from? “You don’t wanna know and we ain’t asking” says the entry. So much for the helpful guidebook.
So Moldova is not exactly a journalistic utopia where independent media thrive. Doing journalism here, I was told, is a deliberately bold act – and sometimes a dangerous one as well.
As a result, much of the newspaper business is simply a variation on slightly safer themes like sports and sex. If you thought that some of the English tabloids were risqué, they are nothing compared to the Moldovan media.
Television is mostly sports and cable talk shows in Russian or Romanian. There is some independent online media. Some bloggers have tried to get write about this, pointing to high levels of official corruption. But they tend to get beaten up if they get too close. There have even been a few unsolved murders. Blogging without government sanction is technically illegal. So there isn’t much of it. New media still feels like the “samizdat” or underground journalism of the Soviet era.
I met with a number of bloggers who wanted to know how it is done in the West…how lucky we are to practice journalism without fear. Some have left to try their luck in a more supportive and slightly more open journalistic environment in Moscow! Now there’s a shift!
The journalists who stay in Moldova are remarkable men and women who know what they need to do but are somewhat unsure of the best way to do it. The light at the end of the tunnel is called “civic journalism.”
The problem is – no tunnel. Not yet.
So the challenge for the media here and in other former Soviet republics is two fold: how to give government more confidence that independent journalists can be trusted, and second how to give the authorities fewer reasons to return to the bad old days of Soviet-style censorship.
Even so…Some curious and distinctly un-western ideas were floated at the meeting:
We heard from a colleague from Romania how earlier this year, a law was proposed in her country: all registered journalists would have to submit to a psychiatric examination every three years. This was how journalists would stay licensed by the state. Fortunately that distinctly loopy idea was defeated.
Some of the people at the conference were not surprised by this suggestion: psychiatry has a long tradition in the former Soviet bloc of being used as a means of civic repression. It’s an indication of what journalists in the region have to deal with.
Another dangerous notion: why not create ethics guides that journalists would have to agree to in order to get jobs in journalism. Those who refused would be declared “unethical journalists.” That would not necessarily deny them work. But it wouldn’t help them either. Some of us at the meeting suggested that this was also too Soviet. So it was dropped.
We from the west tried to steer the meeting in another direction. Especially toward ideas that would not get result in either prison or murder: We suggested press councils and independent news ombudsmen. Those were ideas that were enthusiastically endorsed.
And we also started a conversation about the value of starting small. Looking at some of the immediate issues that touch people in Chisinau every day. Like, well, what about the sidewalks? And the lack of street lights? Doing stories like that might just be sort of journalism to help citizens restore their trust in their newspapers and broadcasters.
We talked about how there actually is a direct connection from broken sidewalks to broken lives. A year from now, my guess is that these journalists might also be doing stories on human trafficking and why the authorities are tolerating that.
For Dispatches, I’m Jeffrey Dvorkin in Chisinau, Moldova.