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Opinion

Touchstone

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

ESTORIL – In 1924 at the tender age of 14, Claude Bellanger was already involved in editing the school paper in his town in France. A few years later, he traveled across Europe and North Africa by train – not a comfortable ride in those times – because he wanted to meet people, understand their cultures and respect differences.

As head of France’s national student union, he opposed the rise of fascism before World War II. He became a member of the national confederation of the clandestine press but was arrested and spent six months in a German concentration camp, denying to the Nazis that he was a member of the French resistance.

From that wartime ordeal, according to his son Francois, Claude developed two “life lessons” or rules ­– struggle and hope. 

In August 1944, as the war was about to end, Claude co-founded and published the newspaper Le Parisien Libéré. It would become the biggest newspaper in France, with its circulation reaching a million in the 1970s. He later served as vice president of Agence France Presse.

When the war ended, Bellanger saw the rise of communism and the Soviet Union as threats to democracy. In 1948, he founded the FIEJ or International Federation of Newspaper Publishers, which held its first congress in Paris. 

Claude died in 1978 at the age of 68. Le Parisien dropped the “libéré” in 1986. Its print circulation is now reportedly down to about a fourth of the one million, but like most newspapers, it has a digital edition. In 2015, it was acquired by luxury brands group LVMH or Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE. 

The FIEJ is now the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. WAN-IFRA is holding its 70th anniversary this week in this picturesque coastal municipality near Lisbon. The annual WAN-IFRA gathering together with the World Editors’ Forum, called a newspaper congress, is now called the news media congress.

Mass media has changed immeasurably since Claude Bellanger co-founded Le Parisien and organized the FIEJ, with newspapers challenged by digital technology and new ways of news consumption.

But journalism and the role of the free press remain unchanged, and the concepts that ruled Bellanger’s life resonate as loudly today as they did in his darkest hours.

*      *      *

His son Francois, born in 1963, addressed us at the opening of the News Media Congress here last Wednesday. 

Francois, a law professor in the University of Geneva, thinks the world is in a worse situation today than when his father founded the FIEJ. Democracies and press freedom are threatened not just by the return of authoritarian regimes, he stressed, but also by extremist violence perpetrated in the name of religion. 

WAN-IFRA CEO Vincent Peyregne, explaining the goals of the annual media gathering, quotes Claude Bellanger: “…we meet ‘to try to find points of connection between the spirits, between the peoples, and at the same time not to wait, in a passive way, for the perils to come,’ threatening the freedom of information that is essential to the normal functioning of open and tolerant societies.”

In a blog, Peyregne wrote: “Only those who benefit the most tend to forget that freedom of expression must be preserved at all costs, because it is a fundamental right, a touchstone of all our freedoms, and press freedom enhanced by financially solid, independent news publishing companies is one of its fundamental pillars.”

As in 1948, he stressed, the free press is still threatened by censorship, corruption, intolerance and “barbarism,” although in subtler and more insidious ways.

To support beleaguered journalists, the annual congress hands out a Golden Pen of Freedom award. This year the awardee is Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, who lamented the deployment of vicious social media trolls against her and several members of her team, the cases filed against them, and the ban and other coverage restrictions on their reporters. 

Rappler, like other media organizations whether new or traditional, must also contend with the duopoly of Google and Facebook. The two tech giants, accused of practicing digital colonialism, get content largely for free from news publications and online news sites, earning billions while the media organizations struggle to monetize their content to survive if not flourish.

WAN-IFRA also has a new award, to support efforts to eliminate harassment and discrimination of women in the workplace, which is still widespread in many countries. The leadership award, handed out Thursday night, is meant specifically for women in newsrooms. I was glad to find out that among the first batch of awardees, representing Africa, is my fellow from the East-West Center’s Jefferson Fellowship, Barbara Kaija of Uganda, who lived through the regime of Idi Amin. Barbara is group editor-in-chief of New Vision media based in Kampala.

It’s doubtful that President Duterte and his aides would be moved by the Golden Pen of Freedom award. But Maria is prepared to struggle and hope. “This is a fight we can win,” she told the audience as she accepted the award here on Wednesday.

*      *      *

During another international media gathering last year, there were observations that the proliferation of trolls and fake news on social media made newspapers or traditional media a more reliable source of news. At a meeting here yesterday morning, Jonathan Wright, global managing director of The Wall Street Journal / Dow Jones cited recent tracking of news consumption, which showed what he described as a flight to quality news. 

Still, we have to adjust to the changing patterns of news consumption. Younger generations in particular are used to getting all information on their mobile phones or computers. The annual media congress seeks fresh ways of presenting credible news, and monetizing the innovations so the media organization can survive. The news content for any platform is still best provided by professional journalists who are accountable for their reporting. The rules that guide journalism are unalterable regardless of the medium or platform.

While pondering how to thrive in a rapidly evolving media environment, journalists in many countries including ours must at the same time contend with threats to press freedom.

There are concerns that freedom of expression would be among the first to be curtailed with President Duterte’s plan to declare a state of national emergency. As Francois Bellanger noted in his speech here, among the first to be targeted in a retrogression from democracy are justice and press freedom.

Peyregne has a similar message. “We are aware that democracy is fragile, and that a free, sustainable and therefore independent press is an unchallenged asset that can preserve us from despotism,” he declared.

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE

CLAUDE BELLANGER

WORLD WAR II

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