Hundreds of media workers march in solidarity with their colleagues who are about to lose their jobs when more then five newspapers and one TV station are threatened with closure. Skopje, 2011 (image by Fosim, under a Creative Commons licence)
In Istanbul, 23-year-old media studies and sociology student Kaja has been clearing out her old room, packing relics from her teenage days into boxes. She is in her fifth year of university, having spent a couple of years in Finland as part of an Erasmus exchange. In an old ring-binder she comes across some newspaper cuttings, carefully cut out and preserved. One of them is the complete issue of a magazine edited by the then-young journalist Orhan Pamuk, in the years before he became a novelist and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“I couldn’t remember why I’d saved them”, says Kaja, turning them over in her mind, “and then I realised - it was because they were examples of good work that inspired me.”
Kaja is disillusioned, and it’s no wonder. Journalists themselves have been the ones making headlines in 2014, whether the targeted attacks by Islamist militant group Islamic State (Isis) or the lengthy prison sentences dealt out to al-Jazeera journalists in Cairo. Even away from the spotlight of conflict zones, trainee journalists worldwide face low wages, unreasonably stretched job descriptions and self-censorship pressures, while tutors at local journalism schools are forced to double as campaigners for press rights.
As researchers in the Paris bureau of Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) prepare to launch their 2015 Press Freedom Index, a yearly ranking of countries according to an assessment of their relative press freedoms, I talk to journalism professors and early-career journalists in Macedonia, Burma and Turkey about what it’s like to break into the media industry in their country.
Macedonian journalism needs real reporting
The EU-bordering country of Macedonia has around 2.1m inhabitants and is saturated with multilingual media outlets - partly the legacy of the Yugoslavia breakup in the late 20th century, which left a disordered collection of TV, radio and print media working in a mixture of Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish and Serbian languages.
A reporting qualification is not essential to get into the industry, but Professor Zaneta Trajkoska, director of the School of Journalism and Public Relations in Skopje, says that the course attracts only those most “serious” about journalism.
Third-year Journalism and Production student Marija cannot remember a time that she didn’t want to be a journalist: “I didn’t even think about college to attend”, she says. “It was always my passion to be interested in people and write about them.”
Macedonia is placed 123rd in the RSF 2014 Press Freedom Index - yet another decline in a four-year consecutive spiral down the rankings. The controversial house detention of journalist Tomislav Kezarovski is one factor, while the volume of government-sponsored advertising has sparked concerns that the media sector is too reliant on the state for its survival. In recognition of this, satirical online magazine Fokus recently ran a spoof piece headlined Study shows depression in Macedonia linked to insufficient attention to government ads. The penalties for those journalists and publishers who fall foul of Macedonia’s punitive defamation laws can be heavy. Fokus is appealing to the Macedonian public to help contest a recently imposed €9,300 defamation fine.
For Marija, the “ugly truth” about breaking into the Macedonian media is that it impossible to enter the industry without taking a political side.
“That’s the biggest problem the youth are facing”, she says. “Print, online media, TV and radio programmes - they are all into politics but they present only one view of the story.”
Despite this, Marija has a scholarship from one of the country’s biggest radio stations and says that she would make sacrifices for a good journalism job in her home country.
“Macedonian journalism needs real reporting that does not hide the economic and political side of the country”, she says.
Tina, Marija’s fellow student, first became interested in reporting at a high school journalism club started by a US Peace Corps volunteer. Freedom of speech is not a problem everywhere, she says; the NGO she has begun working for is open to all topics and pushes her to do more investigative stories. In fact, she says, the biggest deterrent for young journalists in Macedonia is the stifled communication lines between the authorities and the media.
“I know a lot of journalism students who are planning to transfer themselves to public relations because they don’t feel prepared to ask questions and wait all day for an answer from some institution”, she says.
Trajkoska tells me that local media activists have coined this closed access to official sources of information “the ice effect”.
“We are still fighting with the public authorities for the free flow of information that should be on the web”, she says, speaking to me just before the South East Europe Media Forum, a two-day conference in which international editors and media policy-makers meet to share experiences and discuss next steps for countries in the region. How journalists can access their rights to public information is on the event’s agenda, as well as running independent press councils and fostering the development of data journalism.
Like many other journalism schools around the world, confronted with the publishing question of the age - “how to make online pay” - Trajkoska is keen to introduce ideas about entrepreneurship into the curriculum. In Macedonia, she believes, fostering this kind of freelance resilience is in the national interest.
“It will create more media pluralism and diverse news information coming from independent sources of information”, she says, “which is so needed in countries of transition or countries that are aspiring to be EU members - like Macedonia.”
Some people say that the journalist life is like sitting on the lips of jail.
Some 5,000 miles away in Yangon, Myint Kyaw, journalism trainer and general secretary of the Myanmar Journalism Network, is finishing off an article for Mizzima, one of the media outlets previously exiled under Burma’s former military regime. Kyaw used to use Facebook to disseminate daily Network news but as of April 2013, private daily newspapers have been permitted to publish in Burma - one example of how the media scene there has changed since the official government censorship board was terminated in 2012.
“Journalism is quite attractive, because the media sector is now booming and changing faster than the other sectors”, says Kyaw. Three journalist unions, including the Myanmar Journalism Network, link and support the estimated 4,000-5,000 professional journalists around the country. Newsroom expansions have created many new job opportunities, but as worldwide attention is drawn to the eagerly anticipated elections of 2015, journalism training will be needed as much as journalists.
“A lot of journalists here do not have a degree, and they come from different backgrounds”, says the 51-year-old trainer, one of the lucky Burmese journalists to have trained overseas, first as a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley in the US and then for two months in Bangkok. “Some publications give on-the-job training for two weeks, one month, or at most three months - but the smaller ones cannot.”
As well as delivering workshops on citizen journalism, Kyaw tutors at the internationally backed Myanmar Institute of Journalism (MIJ), which opened its doors in Yangon and Mandalay this year. The MIJ offers part-time journalism diplomas to journalists with at least two years’ professional experience.
“We have to solve many issues for the country’s future”, says MIJ executive director Cham Toik. “We need many qualified journalists [to report on] issues such as poverty, urbanisation, environment, industrialisation and investment.”
Aung Khin Oo, 26, is a reporter at a weekly journal and one of the students attending the MIJ’s Monday-Saturday morning course.
“Many Burmese journalists are eager to attend the MJI but their editor or employer would not allow it”, he says. “I am very lucky to be here.”
Oo fell into journalism after resigning from his well-paid storekeeper job over “payment unfairness” and persuading a magazine that his inquisitive instinct was enough to take him on. A journalism diploma will help him financially, he says, since many employers use a lack of formal training to justify a monthly wage lower than the average $150.
Burma jumped up six places to 145th on the last RSF Press Freedom Index, reflecting suggestions that conditions for Burmese journalists are improving, but risks remain and some are taking new forms. Religious riots broke out in Mandalay earlier this summer in response to tensions between the Muslim and Buddhist communities.
Oo is sceptical that the government has significantly relinquished press controls in Burma, saying that the recent journalist imprisonment verdicts from cases such as The Unity Journal prove that it is a “trick” for journalists. He hasn’t had conflict sensitivity training - one of Kyaw’s most in-demand workshops - but says he has borrowed some relevant textbooks.
“Some people say that the journalist life is like sitting on the lips of jail”, he says. “I became a journalist because of unfairness. I dislike inequality.”
The value of a journalist is like a window, he adds; if the window is closed, the room will be completely dark.
I trust my friends more than trained journalists.
When the Turkish government’s plans for the urban development of Istanbul’s leafy Taksim Gezi Park were met with thousands of angry protesters, it was 2013 and Kaja was in Helsinki. She woke up to find the internet flooded with messages from her friends.
“Obviously, I was not going to go on the main newspapers’ websites”, she says, with a little laugh. “I knew that the only reliable source was through Facebook. I trust my friends more than journalists who have trained for 10 years or more.”
Kaja was right to be suspicious; while the demonstrators in Istanbul were sprayed with tear gas, CNN Turk was screening a wildlife documentary about penguins. Shortly after, columnist Yavus Baydar was fired from Turkish daily Sabar after voicing reader objections to the newspaper’s pro-government stance during #OccupyGezi, most notably the choice of President Abdullah Gul being presented with a horse in Turkmenistan as its front-page image.
Kaja studies at Istanbul Bilgi University, described by journalism professor Asli Tunc as a “haven” of free speech; the institution’s independence means that it cannot be blacklisted and its tutors are regarded as more outspoken.
“We were telling the students these things in the classroom; media ownership, close links with the political establishment”, says Professor Tunc. “But it was really after Gezi Park, when the students saw with their own eyes the actions that weren’t being reported, that they came to us and said, ‘You were right!’”
Of the three countries considered here, at 154th, Turkey occupies the lowest position on the RSF Index; nationalist newspapers are thriving and the country has consistently floated among the worst offenders in global records for the national number of imprisoned journalists.
Kaja was born into a family that is part Kurdish and Armenian, both marginalised groups in Turkey, and she spent much of her youth aware that there were many subjects that are not to be discussed freely.
“As a journalist I would want to write about the Kurdish genocide”, she says. “It went on in my Dad’s village and a big chunk of my grandmother’s family were lost. Our university is quite liberal; they push us to write and be free - but it’s my 21 years living in this country that has made me aware of censorship.”
“Writing against the government, about Ataturk, the Armenian genocide, on religion, sexuality for young people…” Kaja continues. “I don’t know how big or what kind of trouble you would get into, but there would be some.”
Kaja refers to Article 301, a vague and controversial law, much-revised, which cracks down on those who insult “the Turkish nation”. Earlier this year Prime Minister Erdogan also attempted to place a ban on Twitter and YouTube but it was eventually overturned after rulings from the constitutional court declared that the prohibition was not lawful.
“It’s very hard to be an investigative journalist here”, says Professor Tunc. “We have students who work in big corporations and media conglomerates, they are trying and I respect them. There are some independent news platforms but everything is opinion media. News journalism is expensive.”
Students who arrived idealistic about becoming “real” journalists become sceptical and change their mind when the realities of the Turkish journalism job market sink in. “In this industry“, says Professor Tunc, “there are no ethics, no rules, no codes; students decide they cannot compromise themselves that much.” Sports journalism remains a lucrative area, says Tunc, and there are some encouraging experiments online, but time is yet to tell whether the financials underpinning them will work.
Finland was an eye-opening experience for Kaja, the “amazing” journalism atmosphere there making her decide that actually a journalism career - at least in Turkey - was not for her. “Here, it feels like journalism is not a career where I will be used effectively”, she says. “I have a friend working at a kind of Turkish tabloid, she knows that it’s not a place that she should be working, but she is doing it in order not to starve.”
As Kaja finishes packing, ready to join her husband in Scandinavia, I wonder how many other journalism students, eyeing the trends typifying today’s media culture, have come to a similar conclusion. Is it possible that the future could bring fewer aspiring journalists in the countries where we need them most?