Monday, 12 December 2011

EC journalism prize: stories that incite social change

Every year, the European Commission's DG for Development awards a prize to journalists who report about human rights violations all over the world. The worrying works of this year's most talented journalists again had political repercussions. The variety also shows that necessity for development is not reduced to developing countries.  

"To give a voice to those who don't have one"
- the aim of many Lorenzo Natali Prize winners
At the beginning of every reform, revolution or any other political action, a group of people is driven by an imagination of what is going wrong. Often, what is going wrong is not at all obvious. Victims are damned to remain silent. Children, the illiterate population and the poor do not have the means to raise their voice and demand their rights. Media stories are therefore an essential source of social change. Good journalists use words, angles, arguments as their missiles, destroying the reader's pleasant world views and – ideally - igniting his or her will to donate money, protest in the streets, change legislation or promote rights at the court. "The main aim is to give a voice to those who don't have one", says Javier Arcenillas, one of this year's journalists awarded the Lorenzo Natali Prize.

"The Power of Great Stories" is the reason why the European Commission every year awards the Lorenzo Natali Prize to talented journalists who have dedicated their work to the promotion of human rights, democracy and development.  Last Wednesday, December 8th, this year's prize was awarded to 17 journalists from all across the world. A jury of press and NGO representatives (i.e. European Voice, Radio France International, Amnesty International, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism) were appointed by the DG EuropeAid and chose of the best 17 entries out of a total of 1,300.

Beyond the festive atmosphere at the Brussels Residence Palace, the short speeches of the winners revealed the impressions their investigations had left upon them: broken words, eyes filled with tears and angry gestures showed that the journalists themselves had been moved. But what political impact did their work have? Which targets did their missiles hit? Public or political impact was one of the jury's criteria, however, it was not a prerequisite for winning a prize. Still, according to the organisers, the winning reports have had quite some repercussion: they led to the adoption of legislation criminalising genital mutilation in Kurdistan, alarmed the Head of South Africa's Prosecuting Authority about 'corrective rape' of homosexuals, prompted dozens of arrests of members of a child prostitution ring in Mexico, and rescued 500 children from abuse in education centres in India.

The Grand Prize Winner, Tom Heinemann, had his TV documentary "The Micro Debt" broadcast in 14 countries. In demonstrating  how microcredit can increase rather than relieve poverty, Heinemann has joined a choir of critical voices against the microcredit system that entered the media in 2010. Still, his report led to numerous official investigations into cases of microcredit. What relevance does this report have for the Commission's development strategy? "This work provides a new light, but it is of course only one angle. So far, there are still people who believe in the benefits of microcredit for the poor. However, promoting microcredit projects is not one of our priorities at all" , states Catherine Ray, spokesperson of Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs.

Universality of human rights?

According to the recent Communication 'An Agenda for Change', the future European development policy will focus on human rights, democracy and good governance. These values are believed to be universal and according to Catherine Ray, "the Arab Spring is an evidence supporting this assumption." The organizers of the award try to underline this universality by rewarding reports that treat issues on different continents and that were also published in different media all around the world.
And really, there seems to be a common agreement on current human right issues. Because in fact, the central topics covered by the 17 reports are only a few: violence connected to gender or sexual orientation, childrens' rights abuses and labour exploitation.
However, one contribution showed especially that the universality of human rights can in practice appear doubtful: the radio report by the French journalist Florence Bellone strongly criticises the UK social services. Bellone argues that the social services forced an unreasonable high number of children to be adopted in cases where parents were reportedly not capable of taking care of them. This was believed to intrude too far into the family domain. Whereas a state protecting its citizens is usually promoted in the name of development, this work shows a potentially dark side of a (too) strong social welfare state. In terms of criticizing common world views, this piece was certainly the most powerful one.
By also taking into account stories from inside Europe, the organisers express awareness of the fact that Europe must remain self-critical if it wants to set an example to other countries in defending human rights.

by Elena Fries-Tersch