Published on December 16th, 2013 | by EJC0
‘Local People Know Their Countries, And Are Best-placed To Tell Their Own Stories’
David Hoffman, co-founder of Internews, talks about media’s role in development and the merits and challenges of supporting independent journalism in developing countries.
You have dedicated most of your career to promoting independent news media around the world. How did you get into news in the first place?
I was national director of the peace movement from 1979 to 1980 in the US, when there was a real threat of nuclear war with Soviet Union.
As I pulled together different peace groups, I realised that this particular threat required a different kind of response to most other progressive movements. The peace movement was being captured by the same left-wing forces that propelled other causes, but I felt this needed a non-partisan approach and a different use of technology to create a dialogue to bring enemies together to find a common approach to a mutual problem.
My colleagues Kim Spencer, Evelyn Messinger and I formed the independent media NGO Internews at that time, and we convinced TV networks to air ‘space bridges‘ via satellite television, which brought leaders of the USA and Soviet Union together to talk to each other in front of mass audiences. Satellite TV was a similar technological breakthrough to the internet that followed it, in that it crossed all ideological and geographic boundaries, and allowed us to talk to each other in groups.
Space bridges were hugely popular, and the cultural and political exchange that they facilitated is thought to have helped speed up the peace process between the countries.
How has Internews progressed since then?
Off the back of space bridges’ initial success, we had planned to influence peace processes elsewhere with similar broadcast programmes. However, I soon realised that in conflict zones or developing countries, one-off programmes run by Internews or other media NGOs could work well in the short term, but ultimately had no legs on their own. What needed to happen was for local people to be supported to develop their own news programmes to foster the kind of pluralistic independent media that holds up democracy.
We began by helping to set up 2,000 local TV stations in the Soviet Union, all of which were run by local producers and editors. They had control of the editorial content, while we helped them to secure funding, training and programming. Since then we’ve given similar support to 4,800 radio, television and print publications in over 90 countries.
Have the local stations you’ve supported faced pressure or criticism from their governments?
Our local stations come under governmental pressure all the time, either to alter content or shut down. They either do or don’t stand up to it, it varies. In 2007, masked men raided our Educated Media Foundation section in Moscow, took computers and tried to arrest director, Manana Aslamazyan, for spurious tax reasons. She was forced into exile, and though the allegations were later withdrawn, the branch was not re-formed. Other stations have been shut down in places like Uzbekistan.
Are there precautions you take to protect people likely to be targeted or attacked as part of their training?
Security is important, and in some places like Afghanistan and in the tribal territories on Pakistan we can spend half our budget on it. This is one of the many reasons why it’s best to hire local staff, as they can operate in their countries much more easily than foreigners can. But it’s still crucial to give those staff as much protection and training as we would give foreign staff.
What are the other reasons behind employing local staff to run news outlets?
News can play a vital and positive role even in the most chaotic transitions, but only if it’s objective news that’s useful to its audience. Local people know their countries best, and are best-placed to tell the stories that will help foster democracy. They’re also experts in sniffing out propaganda. We can lay technical and ethical foundations with training, but in championing independent media we shouldn’t want to influence messages beyond providing that framework.
What role do you think the media plays in development?
I don’t think countries can develop without having independent media, and it’s been my lifetime work to get the development sector and policymakers to recognise that fact. A 2012 report for the Center for International Media Assistance showed that donor support to independent news media in developing countries boosts economic development and good governance, but such support counts for just 0.5% of overall aid to developing countries. ‘Media development‘ therefore isn’t nearly as effective as it could be.
Why do you think donors are reluctant to put their development funding into media programmes?
I think westerners have so much media they take it for granted and can’t empathise with people living in information poverty. Governments typically want to set the agendas for the programmes they run. Supporting independent media can therefore be alien to them, but it’s crucial they learn to give up that control if they really want to invest in development.
What is your vision for your organisation?
My vision is not that creative. It’s just that we fulfill what we set out to do and help the media development sector reach its potential. I do worry that the success of media development is seen to depend too much on technological innovation. I’d much rather see us train more radio journalists than develop an SMS application, because people need skills before technology.
What makes a good leader?
Good leaders are risk takers, because they believe passionately in the issue that they are promoting. Leaders should be responsible for always trying to improve their organisation, and changing things if necessary. By definition, that means thinking outside the box and having a certain amount of courage and confidence in oneself.
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Photo: Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai with Internews President David Hoffman in Kenya. (Credit: Dolphine Emali/Internews)