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Tuesday, 03 December 2013

IPI Blog: In New York, protesters see treason in Ecuadorean journalist's work

Investigative journalism and the public good 

By: Scott Griffen, Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean

General view of an empty set of the channel Teleamazonas in Quito, Ecuador, on 22 December 2009 after the country's Telecommunications Superintendency suspended it for three days. EPA/JOSE JACOME

VIENNA, Dec 3, 2013 - Vendepatria. Roughly translated: National sellout, traitor to the homeland, turncoat.

That was the invective that greeted Ecuadorean investigative journalist Janeth Hinostroza as she arrived at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City on Nov. 26 to accept an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ).

The hurlers of the insult weren't, of course, Hinostroza's fellow attendees, but an enthusiastic group of Ecuadorean protesters. Their chants of "Janeth is a liar!" were captured on video, possibly with equal enthusiasm, by El Ciudadano, Quito's government-run newspaper. The narrator explains that the protests were due to Hinostroza's "repeated unfounded accusations against the government of President Rafael Correa."

Hinostroza, a longtime anchor for the private broadcaster Teleamazonas, received international attention after taking a leave of absence from her program in September 2012 following threats to her safety. The incident occurred shortly after she had reported on allegations of corruption involving an Argentine businessman linked to a cousin of Correa.

Last Tuesday night, Correa supporters used a well-worn ploy in attempting to discredit Hinostroza: branding critical, investigative coverage as a 'betrayal' of the "nation and its people". This critique, wherever it arises, is problematic not only because it traffics in the misguided ideal of the journalist-as-promoter, but also because it tends to conflate "the public good" with the good of particular governments or ideologies.

The latter is a distinction that is easy for governments to blur, intentionally or not. In a speech earlier this year, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar appeared to draw a distinction between the media's mostly hard working "patriots" and "a few rogue elements" that were "not being fair to [her] government". In January, Suriname's vice president, Robert Ameerali, reportedly suggested at a media training event that journalists performed "a government service."

We should strongly resist this misunderstanding. The central role of the investigative journalist in particular is not to serve as a prop but to reveal information and deliver it to the public as objectively as possible. Whether this information casts a government, ideology, or corporation in a positive or negative light should be irrelevant but is not, in any case, the journalist's fault. Facts speak for themselves.

This model is based on the assumption that it is morally better for people, as rational agents, to have access to as much publicly relevant information as possible in order to form opinions about the processes and decisions that affect their lives. Supplying that information, without regard for the discomfort or disllusion it may cause, does serve the public good though not always the good of the government.

But there are also more practical reasons to refrain from recasting scrutiny as treason.

In an interview last week with the Columbia Journalism Review, Hinostroza opined: "The [Correa government] has employed different tactics to silence the press, including regulations and legislation. And you know, it's a government that wants to do many good things for people but is violating the law. So that's why they need a siilent press."

The manifesto of Correa's Alianza PAIS party is founded upon strong ideals of democracy, equality, and social and environmental justice. The party states that it seeks to promote the well-being of the poor and the marginalised against capitalist and foreign domination. Additionally, the manifesto underscores the importance of transparency in government, stating that the party has fought "obsessively" against corruption. Without knowing for sure, these may be the "good things" to which Hinostroza referred.

Insofar as Alianza PAIS voters supported this manifesto at the ballot box, it is not a great leap of logic to conclude that they also expect and desire the government to fulfill its terms. As such, they ought to welcome investigations undertaken by Hinostroza and other Ecuadorean journalists who have allegedly revealed situations in which the government is not upholding its professed values.    

Of course, being so welcoming is easier said than done given the chasm between the Correa government and the media industry. The Correa government views the media elite as complicit in the country's historical inequality, while the media industry is, unsurprisingly, suspicious of the socialist revolution and resentful of the restrictive legal measures and rhetorical machinery being assembled against it.

The danger inherent in this radical polarisation is that both sides may exploit it to discredit the other, to the detriment of the public. As the International Press Institute (IPI) has frequently reported, the government has been doing this quite loudly of late, complete with theatrics such as shredding newspapers on television. Indeed, it is all too easy for Correa, given the country's history and current tensions, to distract voters by flipping unflattering press reports around and declaring them to be evidence that the media is "up to its usual tricks." (Hinostroza has been a favourite target of Enlace Ciudadano, the president's public broadcasting platform.)

The Ecuadorean people should not accept this and should be on constant guard against the power of rhetoric. If Hinostroza or other investigative journalists reveal true information about wrongdoing, this information is still true even if the media are believed to have a political agenda. It still serves the interests of Alianza PAIS voters by allowing them to hold party leaders accountable for the vision of government that was promised and that they, the voters, have signalled they want.

Without a doubt, it is absolutely critical for the people of any country to be aware of potential bias and how this shapes and filters the news. But to assume that everything a certain media house or journalist says consists of "treasonous" lies is dangerous and, ultimately, counterproductive.

 
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