If Trump Won’t Protect the Free Press Abroad, Maybe America’s J Schools Can

Frank Islam

Donald Trump has recently turned his long-running attacks on the news media up a notch. Last week, he devoted most of what was supposed to be a speech in support of a Republican candidate to deriding what he called the “fake, fake disgusting news.” In late July, after a public spat with the publisher of The New York Times, he tweeted that journalists are “unpatriotic” when they report on “internal deliberations of our government”—that is when they do their jobs. “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” he previously told a veterans group. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Such scorn and doublespeak may keep his loyal supporters satisfied. But in general, Trump’s efforts to bully journalists—including occasionally threatening antitrust actions against media companies he dislikes—has not worked, at least so far, with damaging revelations about his White House’s inner workings and his campaign’s connections with Russia appearing in the news almost daily.

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The same cannot be said of many other countries, where the free press is in retreat. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who Trump has hailed, has been using the power of the state to dismantle and takeover the media. Over the past six years, his businessmen allies have gained virtually total control of all of Hungary’s daily newspapers, TV channels, news websites, and political weeklies. In Turkey, President Tayyip Erdogan has been similarly arranging for opposition news outlets to be taken over by government allies, while 81 reporters are still behind bars after 120 were jailed after a 2016 coup attempt against him, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. This year has seen government crackdowns on press freedoms to varying degrees in Venezuela, Kenya, Egypt and the Philippines. Press censorship in China continues to tighten, and in Russia, the last remaining independent media outlets are barely hanging on.

Any normal administration would be looking to take whatever actions it can to fight against these deteriorating conditions. That might include increasing the budgets for various programs the State Department has long used for the delicate task of bolstering freedom of the press and the flow of accurate information in parts of the world lacking both. There are basically two kinds of programs. One is the direct transmission of news into countries with heavy press censorship via U.S.-government-funded outlets overseen by the Broadcast Board of Governors, like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. The other involves grants by USAID to various nonprofits, like Internews and IREX, that work on the ground in these countries to help build the capacity of local media outlets.

It will come as no surprise that the Trump administration proposed major funding cuts in 2018 to both USAID and the Broadcast Board of Governors. Congress restored that money in the budget deal Democrats and Republicans negotiated in February, but the administration repeated its call for major cuts to both agencies in its 2019 budget proposal. Even if Congress again refuses to go along with those cuts, almost no one thinks big increases are in store.

If the federal government won’t play a bigger role in protecting the free press internationally, one sector of America that could fill the gap is American higher education. That might seem unlikely, but it turns out that some of the most active efforts to support reporters abroad are run by journalism schools at U.S. colleges and universities. In particular, Columbia University, Northwestern University, the University of Southern California, Western Kentucky University, and the University of Missouri focus strongly on international students and offer fellowships or provide them financial support.

One of the most effective programs is the Alfred Friendly Press Partners (AFPP), which is allied with the Missouri School of Journalism. Founded in 1983 by Alfred Friendly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, AFPP brings journalists to the United States for training seminars at the University of Missouri-Columbia campus and five-month placements in newsrooms around the country, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Time, Huffington Post, Forbes, The Center for Public Integrity, and ProPublica.

The majority of AFPP fellows return home to keep practicing journalism and some have become, among other things, managing editors, government officials, and founders of foundations.  Their track record is impressive, and so are their stories.

Alia Ibriham, a Lebanese journalist, was an Alfred Friendly fellow at the Washington Post in 2002, where one of her assignments—a tough one for a young Arab woman–was to interview American survivors of the September 11 attacks. ”The journalist who went to the fellowship,” she says, “was much less confident than the one who came back.” On her return to Lebanon, she covered some of the region’s biggest stories–from the Arab Spring in Tunisia to the civil wars in Yemen and Syria, first for the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut (where she rose to become managing editor) and then as an on-air correspondent for the international TV network Al Arabiya. In 2012, while reporting from territory controlled by the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group deemed her coverage too critical and had a fatwa issued against her, forcing her to escape. No longer able to report from the ground there, she wound up training other Syria-bound journalists, passing on skills she learned herself, in part, at The Washington Post.

Umar Cheema, a Pakistani investigative reporter, worked at The New York Times during his tenure with AFPP in 2008 as a Daniel Pearl Fellow. After his return to Pakistan, Cheema was kidnapped and tortured for writing stories about the government. He was told to stop. Instead, in 2011, he founded the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan. In his first report from the Center, he disclosed that approximately 70 percent of the parliament, including the President Asif Zardari, had not filed their taxes in 2011. That blockbuster story eventually led the government to pass a law requiring that the tax returns of every citizen be made public. Pakistan is now only one of four countries—Sweden, Finland, and Norway are the others—to have such a law. Cheema gives much of the credit for his performance to his stint at in the United States:

When Yevgenia Albats arrived from Russia in 1990 for an Alfred Friendly Fellowship at the Chicago Tribune, her biggest shock, she told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington last year, was the countless items for sale in an American supermarket. The choices, she recalled, left her “practically unconscious.” Yet the most important lesson she learned had to do with ethics. In Russia, she said, “[i]mmorality went through the fabric of the society, and a propaganda journalism based on lies and fabrication was a manifestation of that immorality.” During her Alfred Friendly orientation, she received a lecture after lecture on the importance of not accepting gifts, even a lunch, from those you are covering. “It seems simple, but in fact, it is not,” she said. “Independence from any power—whether it is a power of authority or power of money – is a prerequisite for true and honest journalism.” Today, she lives by that creed as editor-in-chief of the Russian political weekly The New Times, one of the few remaining independent publications in Russia.

As these and similar stories attest, programs like the Alfred Friendly Press Partnership can have a tremendous impact. But they rely greatly on private funding. One of us, Frank Islam, along with his wife Debbie Driesmann, has funded Alfred Friendly fellows for the last two years.  At a time when the federal government can’t or won’t do more to help brave journalists on the front lines of the fight for press freedom, American philanthropists can and must.

The author is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, civic leader, and thought leader.

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