Press freedom is eroding everywhere: Jonathan Kaufman

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Publication date : 16 November 2018

Press freedom is eroding everywhere: Jonathan Kaufman

Recently The Independent interviewed Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jonathan Kaufman at the Hong Kong Baptist University where he came to join a workshop.
Shamsuddin Illius

Media: The Independent

Original URL: Press freedom is eroding everywhere

E-paper URL: Press freedom is eroding everywhere

Jonathan Kaufman

“There is hardly any place for opinion in journalism. A journalist should maintain objectivity without taking sides,” said the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jonathan Kaufman. The Independent interviewed the veteran journalist Jonathan Kaufman at the Hong Kong Baptist University where he came to join a workshop. During the conversation, Jonathan Kaufman talked about press freedom, recent Jamal Khashoggi murder, objectivity of news and the role of journalists in the present-day world.

Jonathan Kaufman is a renowned reporter, editor, and author. He has held senior positions at Bloomberg News, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. Jonathan Kaufman won the first Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for local investigative specialized reporting and in 2015 the team of Bloomberg under his leadership won the Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.

Jonathan Kaufman said that press freedom was eroding not only under authoritarian or dictatorial rules but also in liberal democratic countries like the USA, or countries of Europe and Asia.

About the US president Donald Trump’s bashing of the press with such words like “the enemy of the people,” and “Fake News”, the veteran journalist Kaufman said that it is a matter of great concern that the press freedom is now at stake even in the liberal democratic countries of the world. Also worrisome is that the politicians are not only lambasting the journalist but they are also calling the news items fake or a pack of lies.

“US President Donald Trump is doing it. It is happening all over the world; be it in Poland, Europe, Asia or India,” said Kaufman, also director, School of Journalism, Northeastern University, USA.

Referring the recent murder incident of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the comments of US president Donald Trump that whatever the result of the murder of the journalist US would not forgo lucrative arms deals with Saudi Arab, Kaufman said that when the politicians join the tirade against the media, then there is every possibility that the criminals will get away scot-free.

He said that Saudis are thinking that they can literally get away with the murder. He said “I think this is a serious problem,” adding, “something poses real danger to every society right now.”

According to Prof. Jonathan Kaufman, it would be foolhardy to bring a knife to a gunfight and the journalists should not deal with a challenging situation without being adequately equipped or prepared.

“I think it is something that I am struggling with. Are journalists still following one set of rules, when people attacking journalists are now following a very different set of rules, what should our response be to that? I do not have any answer; I know something, I think about a lot, part of me still feels … we have our values, we have the way we have done things, we believe that is really important.”

In the face of criticism, journalists should not stop doing their job, he said, “I believe I do not want to change myself just because people are attacking me. I feel journalism is still important because of its objectivity and its fairness.”

Former US First Lady Michelle Obama once said, “When they go low, we go high”. Referring to the quote, Prof Kaufman said, now many people say, “When they go low, we go lower.”

He said that the former US President Richard Nixon hated the press and he had to step down.

According to Kaufman, this is not the end and situation will certainly change. So, there is nothing to feel down.

“History does not always follow a straight path; rather it is a roller coaster ride. We do not know, if Trump is just spasm, and four year or two years and six years from now someone else might get elected and we move on or we look back 50 years later and say that this really was a change. Its feels like a change because we are in the middle of it. But we just don’t know how profound it is right now.”

“There was a time when people thought Nixon was a dictator. The world was ending and it was all so terrible. Later, Nixon resigned and things went on,” he added.

Kaufman firmly believes that journalists have to carry out their job and come up with new stories.

The veteran journalist thinks that the journalists have to be much more astute while investigating any incident under an authoritarian regime.

He said, “We have to carry on with our job, I think it is very important to be an independent journalist but you need a platform to get your news published. The reason why we work for big organsitions is because they have a large readership. I think we have to follow our conscience. We have to believe that things will work out well in the end.”

He said that a month ago he came across a newspaper article published in 1924 at Munich in Germany. The investigative article was published before Hitler came to power.

The newspaper ran this story on Hitler and Nazi party corruption. Hitler was being so upset about the investigative story. When he came to power, he (Hitler) shut down the press, Kaufman said.

“There is moment in history when they seize power, they don’t do anything else they first go to the newspaper and destroy it. Because Hitler was so worried about this newspaper, exposing what is going on, he had felt this is the first thing I have to go after,” he said.

“I admire the newspaper which historically did the right thing. Be courageous in bringing out the truth,” added the veteran journalist.

Referring to the power of journalism, he said, “I think that is what we have to do. We should not worry. Richard Nixon had to resign as The Washington Post unearthed the anomalies.”

“All we can do is to do the things that our conscience tells us to do and I hope things will change. I think journalism is dealing with more challenges than anything else is. There is so much going on.”

Speaking on the objectivity of a journalist and about the journalists’ opinion in media and social media, Kaufman said, “Perception is very important. We have to be careful. You don’t’ want to be in a position where people say you are favouring the side or the other side.”

He said that there is no place for opinion in the journalism. A journalist should maintain objectivity without taking any side.

“If you want to be an advocate, be an advocate. For example, you can write an opinion, work for any group or organization. It is important to you but don’t claim that you are a journalist because at the end, we have our values, we have our ethics and we don’t want to do it.”

Referring to his students, he said, “They do not believe in objectivity; they think everything has a point of view. You have to embrace that. I think this is in reaction to Trump’s election. It is clearly happening all over the world.”

There is no such thing as a free lunch, he said. People are beginning to realize the press freedom is important and they are willing to pay for the news.

He said, “When you go to a concert or a sporting event, you buy a ticket. But that does not mean that you are paying for the person playing the violin. You pay for the team, pay for the stadium and pay for the training of the people.”

“In the USA, people decide it’s important to pay for college, it’s important to pay for coffee and it’s important to pay for transportation. They need to realize it’s important to pay for the news as well,” Jonathan Kaufman said.

The writer is the In-Charge of the Chittagong Bureau of The Independent.

Shamsuddin Illius
Shamsuddin Illius is a print and online media journalist. He has been working in the field (fulltime) of journalism since 2010. He is very much passionate about journalism since his early age. Currently he is the Bureau Chief-Chittagong at The Business Standard.

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