Boško Jakšić: the dangers of “patriotic journalism”

Boško Jakšić, a prominent Serbian journalist, wrote this text as a commentary to the debate  “The Media War: Clash of Realities in the Ukraine Conflict”, organised by ERSTE Foundation in cooperation with Die Presse, which took place on 1 December as the first edition of a series of talks initiated under the headline: “The European Talks. Controversies and Encounters”. The debate was an encounter of prominent voices who comment publicly on the continuing conflict in Ukraine, from both a Ukrainian and a Russian perspective.

In today’s world, media is no longer content with simply reporting about international events as they take place, but seeks to influence and direct them to a certain extent. Media role in the new generation of regional conflicts, state and sub-state violence is ambiguous, unclear, and often misconstrued. Many journalists tend to assume that media coverage has an undefined yet pivotal role in helping conflict management. At the same time, frequently, there is an undignified rush to pronounce a judgment. The instinctive assumptions made by policymakers, diplomats and the military are often wrong, but followed by media.

So, here we are talking an old story about permanent antagonism between state and army on one side, and media on the another. For the former, success of war effort is in secrecy, for journalism it is in publicity. But, even war reporting is deeply divided in two main schools of thinking. Should a journalist follow his/her own objective idea, or try to be patriotic? At the time of Spanish civil war, two reporters for the same newspaper, The New York Times, put that dilemma bluntly. First, Drew Midlleton, said that his journalistic mission is to report the facts and analyze how they are affecting the war, without personal emotions. Nobody can be hundred percent objective, but objectivity has to be our goal, he said. His elder colleague Herbert Matthews was advocating the opinion of the majority reporters from Spain: “I would always choose an honest, openly biased approach. Journalists have to use the heart, not only the brain”. The first approach brings the risk of propaganda running the stories. One reports what he/she is told. That is why OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media recently stated that the worsening situation with journalists’ safety and the rise of propaganda are among the major threats the free media are currently facing.

I’m a follower of the other approach: Intimacy without understanding becomes loyalty, understanding without intimacy leads to banality. The greatest danger is that journalists become propagandists themselves, followers of the so-called “patriotic journalism”. Do you know who was among the founding fathers of such  journalism? The famous NYT editor and publisher Arthur Sulzberger. Years later, at the time of Falkland war, the reporter for Daily Express openly defended the line that British reporters can’t be neutral: “When your country is at war, reporting becomes part of overall war effort for victory“, he wrote latter.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict is a perfect example of both schools of thinking. What one gets from Moscow or Brussels is most of the time diametrically opposed: fascists in Kiev want a NATO membership; they are ignoring self determination rights of people of Crimea and East Ukraine. Russian troops never fought in Ukraine. Putin never threatened Poroshenko. The same day one can read that separatist want to turn the whole country to Russian Soviet-style colony; that they are violating international law; that Putin has his troops fighting in the east of Ukraine and is threatening Poroshenko. It is regrettable that more real-time technology and capability to report from the world’s zones of conflict have not necessarily been matched by a qualitative improvement in journalism or information flow.

Situations we are reporting of are full of tensions, hatred, pains, emotions, history. We are not dealing with problems in a quiet neighborhood. War environment is aggressive and hypersensitive. Every side in the conflict is convinced to be the owner of whole truth.

Once I was doing a story from Hebron. This city on the West Bank is 95 percent Arab populated with just a dozen of Jewish settlers families nowadays. It was very different before 1929 when Jews were massacred. I mentioned this fact because there is no war or conflict without history. Palestinians didn’t want to talk to me for some time. Yes, they admitted, the massacre happened, but it was such a long time ago. Why did you mention it?

It is on ourselves to choose which professional path we will follow, where we stand, but we, as individuals, and not because we are told to do so. I know it is not easy. During my career I covered a lot of wars around the world, including the most difficult one,  the war in my own country. It is even more complicated in civil wars when you are on daily basis bombarded by conflicting information and conclusions. That’s probably why I, during the war in Bosnia, got a personal phone-call from general Ratko Mladic. I got expelled from the country.

The role of intervention is not to help one side against another, but the week against the strong, the unarmed against the armed; to take the side of the everyday victims of war who, until now, have had no protection. It is a question, finally, of whether we care. Our job is to find the real truth. To uncover it from the ruins. To detect it in the jungle of black-and-white propaganda statements, slogans, articles, interviews.

All the time, I tried to be a journalist first and foremost. That’s not easy when many people expect you to report only about how right your side is and how wrong the enemy is. Did I had an enemy? Yes, the so called “freedom of no reporting” was my only enemy. Censorship, pressures.

I can raise a provocative question: are we sitting here as Russians, Ukrainians or other nationals, or as journalists? In first case, there was no need for this meeting. The free press has a central place in the democratisation processes of our countries because it can provide information the public needs to make things right again, even if we run the risk of being labeled unpatriotic in the course of that process.

2 December 2014

Boško Jakšić
Mr. Jakšić was born  in Belgrade where he graduated at the Faculty of Economics. He joined Politika daily in 1972 and soon after started working at the Foreign desk. He travelled extensivly around the world reporting and interviewing prominent figures. As a war correspondent he covered the Middle East, Asia and Africa. One year he spent in Washington D.C. as Alfred Friendly fellow with The Washington Post. Five years he spent as a Middle East correspondent based in Cairo and four years in Rome, Italy. He was Foreign editor and Editor-in-Chief. Now he is senior columnist covering foreign and domestic affairs. Mr. Jakšić is a regular contributor to Radio Free Europe, BBC, Al-Jazeera and various regional and Serbian radio and TV stations. He’s also member of the European Movement in Serbia.

Listen to the debate as audiocast here: