Journalists, NGOs wrestle with their conflicting needs

ruom 2

Both staff and freelance journalists and individuals who work at nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) jammed a discussion last week about working together. (Photos: Ruom Collective)

An intriguing organization that specializes in social reportage throughout Southeast Asia sponsored a thought-provoking conversation between NGOs and journalists last week.

The idea, promoted by the impressive Ruom Collective enterprise, was to create an understanding of how each “side” could work together better than they perceive occurs now.

At Meta House, the German Cambodian Cultural Center in Phnom Penh, the event appealed to me because I worked for substantial periods of time on both sides of the desk.  It was a worthy event, though I’d heard many of the same issues explored previously and repeatedly over many years.

On the one hand, the journalists understandably wish for unfettered and unfiltered access to the NGOs’ operations, their clients and their finances.  “Transparency” is a word that surfaced frequently during the earnest discussion, which lasted until a deluge forced an end to the Wednesday evening session after approximately 75 minutes.

On the other hand, the NGOs seek to protect themselves from publicity that would trouble funders and prospective funders.

Some NGOs apparently want reporters to sign waivers of liability to their clients — potentially children and women, really anyone unsophisticated about the news media in a developing country.  They would love to approve direct quotations, if not entire stories, prior to their airing or publication.

Rarely would any professional journalist allow those sorts of approvals and waivers because it would call into question their independence and their ethics.

An issue shared by both the journalists and the organizations was a perception that reports on NGOs activities in this politically charged nation might reflect sympathy for the party and advocacy groups opposed to the strong-arm government here in Cambodia.

Basically, any NGO activity that suggests unmet needs, raises human rights issues, urges democratic reforms, points to systemic weakness or aims to increase political empowerment could be seen as criticism of the ruling party, which serves itself lavishly by permitting rampant corruption and other illegal activities.

That last point aside, the other concerns strike me as essentially no different from those of businesses and governments everywhere: There isn’t an institution, person or organization that doesn’t fear misquotation, isn’t afraid of unintended consequences, won’t want the public to know the whole nature of its laundry, dirty or not.

The entities giving access to journalists want to be able to trust them, while the journalists want to preserve their credibility.

Unlike many businesses and government institutions that may seek or endure journalistic scrutiny, a vast collection of the untoward numbers of NGOs in Cambodia consists of tiny operations lacking any communications professionals to guide and educate them.  Some of them have no idea what actually constitutes news and that sometimes their investment in time, money and energy to promote themselves will have no payoff.

I came away from the event thinking that what is needed, paradoxically, is yet another NGO; it would be dedicated to helping them appreciate how to get across their message, “sell” a story without exploiting their clients and deal with journalists in a way that is helpful without putting themselves and their organizations in jeopardy.

Their problem is that a donor may demand to know what resources have been, in their minds, wasted in the event of a negative outcome, including a piece that isn’t produced at all. Discontented funders might well translate into diminished perks (which can be extravagant) and eventual unemployment.  In a literal sense, that development easily could result in getting NGO’s employees out of their comfort zone.

rumo 3Many of the reporters here are pretty green.  They may not have a firm grounding in ethics, the obligations and means of obtaining the full story and a grasp of the consequences of what appears in print or in the broadcast or social media.

Thus should the news media take more seriously than now is evident the need to train, supervise and mentor the young and inexperienced men and women who arrive in Cambodia with dreams of foreign correspondency along with the possibility of fame they hope to acquire by sending news about an emerging country to the rest of the world.

Am I sanguine about the likelihood of the establishment of a communications NGO for NGOs or, as well, of a firm commitment by the local news media to establish effective staff training?  Hardly.

It is obvious that the organizers of the event, for which they now have a video) continue to demonstrate an admirable level of professionalism. What I particularly admire about the Ruom Collective is that achievement.

Ultimately, the question of professionalism is what underlies this post.  Isn’t professionalism a value to which both sides must aspire and that both sides must assume as an unshakable ideal to which they will strive?

E-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

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