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MEDIA: Fighting For Pluralism

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By Ramesh Jaura

When he took to the road to correct imbalance in the flow of information, which was very much to the detriment of newly independent and developing countries, there was an air of optimism and trust, recalls Roberto Savio, a global citizen par excellence who embodies culture of peace and is a relentless champion of pluralism in the media.

"The economy was growing, the genie of uncontrollable finance was not yet out of the bottle in which it had been shut away by political power, and we young people knew that we had a future," writes Savio in the book titled The Journalists Who Turned the World Upside Down - Voices of another Information, telling the story of Inter Press Service (IPS) in a lucid and engaging style.

While this book is expected to be published by Amazon in May 2012, its Italian edition I giornalisti che ribaltarono il mondo by Nuovi Mondi has been on the shelves since November 2011. A Spanish edition is under preparation.

Savio – an eminent Italian/Argentine journalist – perceives the book as "a joint history", "a large quilt made of the stories and faces of people from different continents, with different lives, but united by the same commitment: to renew the world of information, making  it more plural and more just." This commitment, during the time he was IPS Director-General until 1999, united several hundred people. The book covers developments in IPS until 2002, when Uruguayan journalist Mario Lubetkin was chosen as Director-General.

In a 52-page essay, Savio explains how he saw himself confronted with heavyweights as he inched forward; heavyweights who would not miss an opportunity to knock him out. But, gifted with an indomitable spirit, he would be back on his feet soon again to continue the walk to the goal he had set himself.

The established western news agencies – Reuters, AFP, UPI and AP – which produced 91.3 per cent of international coverage, thus wielding "hegemony of the North" in the flow of information, were in no disposition to accept a new entrant in the field. What puzzled them was that IPS was sans affiliation to any state or commercial corporation. It was a non-profit cooperative of journalists and global communication experts who wanted to give voice to the voiceless.

Much to his surprise and chagrin, a super power that claimed to be a lighthouse of freedom of the press felt no qualms of conscience while trying to give IPS a death blow. Others did not shy of denouncing it as a CIA or KGB outfit. The cold war was impacting also the attitudes of governments of countries, which should have felt every reason not only to defend but also support IPS without however attempting to further their narrow vested interests.

And yet 50 years since the establishment of the Roman Press Service in 1962 and its successor two years later at Eichholz in Germany, IPS is still there alive kicking, though it continues to fight an uphill battle – this time against wild forces unleashed in the aftermath of globalisation and the incapability of governments to tame these.

Information gap

When Savio joined hands with the Argentine political scientist Pablo Piacentini to set up the Roman Press Service, the primary objective was to fill the information gap between Europe and Latin America after the political turbulence following the Cuban revolution of 1959.

With the passage of time, the network expanded to include all continents, and extended its editorial focus. In 1994, IPS changed its legal status to that of a "public-benefit organization for development cooperation".

Meanwhile, knowledgeable people admit, that the agency has established a niche in the international mediascape, not only by providing professional reporting on the Global South, civil society, and globalization, but also by covering topics in a more in-depth way than is common in the mainstream news.

IPS has also been recognised by the United Nations as an NGO holding consultative status (category I) with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Though Savio is the news agency's President Emeritus and chairs its Board of Trustees (who include former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Portuguese, Finnish and Costa Rican presidents Mario Soares, Martti Ahtisaari and Oscar Arias, former Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, and former UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor), it is not an IPS book.

"It is a personal initiative for which I assume complete responsibility. IPS stayed outside of this editorial effort. Rather, it was achieved through the work of a team of IPS veterans and was entirely financed by myself as recognition of the hundreds of generous professionals that have accompanied me on this long journey since 1964, and from whom I learned so much," writes Savio.

Personal sacrifice

The publisher and co-author Savio highlights yet another significant aspect: "This book is also a tribute of recognition to my first wife Colette, who disappeared before she could see it. Without her, IPS would never have existed. The agency was founded because Colette, as a young spouse, sold her house to finance the agency, and she kept on supporting the agency with personal loans in moments of major crisis.

"She accepted living with a husband who was constantly travelling, without ever taking a vacation until the beginning of the 1980s, and was always ready to provide her unconditional and generous support. Each time the (IPS) Association found itself in financial difficulties, as captain of the ship, I would give up my salary to show everybody that I was sure about the future.

"For the good of IPS, Colette accepted all the privations that came from an impossible husband. Even although she spoke five languages, was charming and had a marked capacity in the field of public relations, I never allowed her to work in the agency – not even for free – in order to avoid accusations of nepotism. Today, I realise that I asked too much and gave too little in exchange."

This did not apply to his relations with supporters from different walks of life. Dr. Cees J. Hamelink, Emeritus Professor of International Communication at the University of Amsterdam and Emeritus Professor for Media, Religion and Culture at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam writes:

Against all rational odds

"The choice of a long lasting and intense association with IPS was, as most choices in life are, more emotional than rational. In the case of IPS, the choice was driven by an amalgam of an intuitive feeling of resentment against injustice, personal experiences with the practice of journalism, the charismatic inspirer Roberto Savio who made you believe things against all the rational odds. . .

"My own writings on the mythology of the free flow of information, about the corporate control of information production and dissemination, and about cultural autonomy had prepared me well for a readiness to share the IPS struggle about a new informational ordering of the world. That struggle  also brought the enjoyments of sharp debates, with the staunch supporters of the corporate world order, and the pleasure of all those ridiculous accusations against the agency – ranging from suggestions of receiving KGB funds to being in the service of US imperialism – made by a global circle of opponents."

Dr. Hamelink adds: "IPS tried constantly to seek liberation from the prevailing strongly held opinions and beliefs and vested interests about how journal ism should operate. This was in line with the demand in the 1970s for a new information order which was inspired by a vision of liberation and emancipation. Essential to the 1970s projects on a New International Economic Order and a New International Information Order (NIIO) was the desire to create 'freedom for development', constructing free spaces for people to develop their potentialities."

Five decades since the foundation of IPS, writes Savio, "We have come to the current New International Market Information Order (NIMIO), which young people believe to be the natural order of things."

But it is certainly not the "natural order of things".

NIIMO follows NIIO debate

As in the Italian version too, Savio points out that the NIMIO has defeated all the actors of the debate about a NIIO but a few: three of the large transnational agencies – AP, AFP and Reuters – have survived, while UPI as an international agency has almost disappeared, just like TASS and other agencies from the former Socialist countries.

The few surviving Third World agencies have little influence, while those from the new emerging countries, such as India and China, in spite of heavy investments, enjoy limited international circulation. The European agencies Efe, ANSA and DPA are much less relevant today than they were in the 1970s.

Savio rightly regrets: "The press is becoming concentrated in the hands of a small number of very rich owners, who are certainly bent on using their power to pursue their own personal agendas. The role of the professional editor is disappearing."

He adds: "Besides the concentration of media ownership, we are witnessing an ever-increasing homogenisation of style and content, alongside a decline in the number of readers, particularly among the young, who tap into the Internet to find the information they want. The idea of the media as a window on the world for all citizens is becoming weaker by the year.

"And, finally, journalism has surrendered to the market. Today, the first lesson is to write stories that sell, in the simplest possible way, slowly and with no great effort. Journalists are taught to use a plain style, with short sentences and no adjectives, and to keep to less than 850 words, otherwise their stories become unsuitable for publication.

"Television has effectively become the window open on the world for most citizens, although it does not offer much by way of analysis. Indeed, information on TV is mostly about impact and entertainment. We have managed to turn citizens into people who can listen, but few of them are capable of seeing.

"The theory whereby markets provide a basis for free and responsible journalism has not only reduced the number of actors in the South, it is also dealing a hard blow to information in the North. Young journalists who are starting their careers today will never earn the level of salary, recognition and freedom that I enjoyed in the 1960s. Thanks to the new technologies, for the first time in history communication has become global and costless.

"Millions of young people use the Web to forge alliances and take action at the local, national and international level. Their networks are based on common values, on ideal choices, and on global issues ranging from the environment to human rights, from gender roles to democratic participation. They are the new actors fighting for a different world."

Savio concludes: "My hope is that this new reality will produce a new Renaissance in information, and that the growth of so-called civil society will lead to a new NIIO, based not on the market, but on citizens' willingness to be, to participate and to grow, and on their values beyond the market."

If there were a Nobel Prize for pluralism and culture of peace in the media, Savio will be an incontestable choice.

Image: Robert Savio 

Ramesh Jaura is global editor of IDN-InDepthNews and GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES that belong to the GLOBALOM MEDIA group.

[Source: 2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters]

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