Training Journalists to use Freedom with Responsibility
A commentary on the projects of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation
By Ronald Meinardus *
Regional Director for Middle East and Northern Africa, Cairo
Today, only a few people remember that the Friedrich Naumann Foundation started her international programs in the Arab world. Our first project outside Germany formally kicked off in early 1964 in Tunisia, where we initiated a cooperation with the African Center for the Training of Journalists (or CAPJC to use the official French abbreviation). It is remarkable that some 45 years later, we are still cooperating with this famous institute that trains journalists from Tunisia and many other countries of the region.
Ever since, training programs for media workers have been an important part of the international work of the Foundation. Our headquarters in Potsdam, Germany, today oversees projects in more than 50 countries in all corners of the world – in Asia, Eastern Europe, the Americas and, of course, also in the Arab world.
As a liberal Foundation our objective is to promote liberal values and principles. At the center of these values stands the idea of individual freedom which – in a liberal perspective – must be sided by responsibility for society. At the same time, the Foundation is an institute of education. We enable and support what is generally termed “civic education”. Civic education covers those fields that are essential for the citizens to participate actively in society – and, thus, also in politics. The world we live in has become more complex and difficult to understand by the day. Therefore, it is important that citizens are given the chance to learn about these complexities. In short, civic education is a condition for the citizens’ (active) participation in public matters. This is the main idea behind the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
In a way, civic education and journalism have s similar societal function. Both aim at informing the people about matters of public concern, thus enabling or empowering them to make reasonable judgements and take decisions. In a democracy, the media also play the role of a “fourth estate” controlling those in power.
Also in Egypt, the media have contributed greatly to more transparency in public affairs. Critics of the dramatic change in the Egyptian media landscape have noted that many publications that see the light of day lack responsibility and are false and even insulting. From a liberal perspective, the answer to this challenge can not be to turn back the clock and lock out the existing freedom of expression. The liberal answer would be to train and educate the journalists and media workers and invest so that they may learn to become responsible in using the freedom which is entrusted to them.
Strong media and well trained (and responsible) journalists are an important component of a modern and liberal society. This explains why – from the very outset – the Friedrich Naumann Foundation has supported media training programs in Germany and many countries abroad. All along, journalists and other media workers have been an important target group. While traditionally we have worked with journalists from the press, the radio and television, we have more recently developed several successful programs for so called citizen journalists (or bloggers). But I will get to that in a while.
While the Foundation started out in Tunisia, Egypt has over the years become the most important country for us in the region. The Foundation has been present in this country for over 35 years. Today, the regional office for the Middle East and North Africa is hosted in Cairo and it is from here that all our projects are coordinated and planned. .
The political environment we operate in may be termed highly dynamic. Over the past decades, Egypt has witnessed major changes. Seen in a historic perspective, the maturing of civil society is arguably the most important change. Thousands of non governmental organizations have surfaced over the past years and many of these groups have filled spaces which in former times were occupied by state or governmental institutions.
As a liberal institute, we welcome this development. A vibrant civil society is an important ingredient of a modern democratic society. While initially our Foundation worked exclusively with governmental partners in Egypt, today we have diversified: the Foundation supports trainings for members of political parties, civil society groups and businesspeople.
At the same time, we continue our cooperation with our governmental partners: We are fond of cooperating with the National Council for Youth; these training programs aim at making young Egyptians from all parts of the country knowledgeable and active actors in political affairs. We are equally fond – and proud – of our privileged cooperation with the training institute of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU). This relationship dates back many years. Hundreds of ERTU staff members have attended training courses sponsored by the Foundation over the years. And whenever I visit the ERTU tower in downtown Cairo, I am pleased to meet many individuals who have passed through these trainings. Importantly, many of these people have assumed positions of responsibility today.
More recently, we have added a new component or dimension to our cooperation with the ERTU. Most of the trainings we co-sponsor are co-organized with Deutsche Welle Academy – the training institute of the international broadcasting corporation of Germany. We share with our friends at ERTU the conviction that this is an ideal combination. It ensures that the trainings are lead by specialists familiar with the most modern technical and journalistic skills in their fields. We have made a point to select such topics for the trainings that we deem of crucial importance for the future of Egypt. Among these topics have been the environment, energy consumption and preservation, the perspectives of alternative sources of energy, the quality of the Nile water and others.
One of the major trends of the recent years has been the ever increasing popularity and also impact of what is generally termed citizens’ journalism. With the Internet and the many new tools digital technology offers, basically everybody who has access to a PC and a connection to the worldwide web can become a journalist – and publisher. While this, without doubt, is a great technological achievement and an unparalleled step for the freedom of expression, citizens’ journalists also – like all journalists – should base their work on knowledge and act with responsibility. It is against this background that the Foundation sponsors trainings for bloggers in many parts of the world. While many of our participants write about political and social matters others prefer to use their online publications for personal matters. We have developed similar programs in the Arab world and have also sponsored trainings for bloggers in Egypt. It is our intention to continue these programs in the future.
No other sector is changing as rapidly as is the media sector. Many of the changes happening in that field have had – and continue to have – major impact on the societies we live in. It is, therefore, crucial to understand these new media and influence their usage in a positive manner. As a liberal educative institute, we believe that training and educating the people, teaching them how to use the new media and increase their competency, is the only solution to this challenge. We are working with our partners to achieve this objective - in Germany, in many other countries of the world, and – of course – in Egypt.
* Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty in Cairo. Before coming to Egypt in late 2006 he has served his Foundation in Greece, South Korea and the Philippines. A journalist by profession, Dr. Meinardus held senior positions at Radio Deutsche Welle before joining the Foundation Back to top