26 February 2009

University to expose threats to global media freedom

Lionel Barber

The University of Sheffield has launched a unique centre which aims to
expose ways in which media freedom is undermined or abused and to
examine news media standards of independence and truthfulness.

Based at the University's Department of Journalism Studies, the Centre
for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) will study issues of media freedom and
standards in the UK and worldwide.

For the first time journalists, experts and scholars of the media will be bought together with public figures and newsmakers to research and evaluate the role of free and independent news media in building and maintaining political and civil freedom.

The Centre was officially launched in London in February with a conference on press and political freedom - twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The half-day conference explored the part played by the popular demand for free expression as a factor in the anti-communist revolutions, and assessed the evidence that a widespread retreat of press and political freedom has taken place in recent years across many parts of post-Cold War Europe and Russia.

Speakers included Jens Reich, former leader of the New Forum pro-democracy movement in East Germany; Lionel Barber, Editor of the Financial Times; and Miklós Haraszti, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. The conference was held at the leading London think tank on international affairs, Chatham House.

Jens Reich recalled the murder in 2006 of Anna Politkovskaya, one of at least sixteen investigative journalists in Russia who have died in contract-style killings since 2000. Reich called on journalists and intellectuals everywhere to press their governments to remind Russian leaders about the "broken promises to allow freedom of the media".

Sir Tom Stoppard, the celebrated British playwright and patron of CFOM, attended the event and declared: "Without organisations like CFOM and events like today's conference, the fallback will always be towards a diminution of freedom in the media and thence to the diminution of freedom in everything else."

The new Centre will combine the skills and expertise of leading researchers with the experience and understanding of top journalists and editors. Professor Jackie Harrison, who is Head of the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield, will Chair the Centre. She will be joined by journalist and campaigner for freedom of the media, Jock Gallagher, and journalist William Horsley, who spent 15 years as a BBC foreign correspondent based in Asia and Europe.

Commenting on the launch of the new Centre, Professor Jackie Harrison said: "This centre is truly unique in that it will join the expertise of a leading British research university with the understanding of experienced journalists and editors. Both fields are dedicated to exposing ways in which news media freedom is abused and are committed to researching media standards of independence and truthfulness.

"I am delighted that the Centre is based here at Sheffield and look forward to working with my colleagues in academia and the media, as well as other organisations around the world to help independent media build stronger foundations for political and civil freedom."

Jock Gallagher, Director of the Centre, added: "I think the combination of academic rigour and journalistic cutting edge is a very potent mix and that will help provide a new focus and impetus to defend and encourage media freedom and independence. The quality of debate at our launch conference shows the depth of concern there is about continuing threats to that freedom and that there is a strong commitment to resist the pressures."

William Horsley, International Director of the Centre, said: "My belief in the new Centre arises from the plain evidence that freedom of the media and free expression are suffering harshly in large parts of the world, in spite of the astonishing opportunities offered to billions of people by the Internet and ever-faster communications.

"The Sheffield Centre for Freedom of the Media has a bold ambition, to treat the media's role as a vital area of study for political scientists. It will add value and understanding to the work already carried out by an extraordinary array of specialised media monitoring and human rights organisations around the world."

The new Centre will host a number of public events and debates in order to raise awareness and understanding of how crucial independent media are to the health of all nations.

It will also conduct original research investigating key issues such as improving Freedom of Information rules, the sometimes damaging effects of harsh national security-related laws, the impact of new media technologies and consumer behaviour on the editorial independence of public broadcasters and others, and the media's performance in countries where political freedoms are restricted.