BOISE — It’s not every day that journalists from Angola, Costa Rica, Portugal, Serbia, Singapore and Tanzania are checking out Idaho’s state Capitol, meeting with student-journalists at Boise State, stopping by Idaho Public Television and meeting with various Idahoans.
It’s happening this week, as the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program brought the group to Boise, after trips to Washington, D.C., and Tampa, Florida, and before a visit to Boston. They’re part of a group of nearly two dozen international journalists from around the world on an Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists tour titled, “Media Responsibility in an Age of Disinformation.” The larger group was together for most of its tour, but split into three parts to visit a “small city,” and Boise was their small-city destination.
That’s why Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, was quizzing the journalists on Monday about whether they have public records laws in their home countries that allow them to request and receive copies of public documents, like we have in Idaho. Wintrow noted that all her written records as a legislator, including emails and texts, are public records.
“That is America,” Alpha Abdalah Wawa said to laughter from the rest of the group. He’s a reporter, newscaster and producer for the Tanzania Broadcasting Corp., an independent media outlet that focuses on promoting government accountability.
“In my country, politicians would give you stories that they want you to talk about,” he said. “It’s sometimes hard to access the information.”
The Rwandan genocide in 1994 aroused grave concerns throughout the region about lack of access to government information, he said, as residents weren’t notified of what was happening. As a result, his country and others in the region have passed some laws, but it’s still “not easy” to access government information.
“The military chief has to see what you are writing about, if you can broadcast or not,” he said.
Zoran Strika, a reporter with Radio 021 in Serbia, said, “We don’t have that open public records, and the biggest struggle is to get the real information that you need.”
Jing Chen, a correspondent for Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese newspaper publishing in Singapore, said she requests records, but, “They just keep you waiting there forever,” even if all she’s waiting for is confirmation about her story — a yes or no. If journalists publish without government confirmation of a story, they risk being sued by the government for disseminating false information, she said. “That’s how our government deals with journalists, is by suing.”
Alex Guimaraes Martins, a journalist with Público in Portugal, noted that he doesn’t have those problems with politicians in his country; the rest of the group agreed ruefully, calling Portugal’s system among the “top 10.”
It isn’t uncommon for international delegations to visit Boise under the auspices of the State Department; just last week, a delegation from Cameroon, including the attorney general for the nation’s Special Criminal Court, several non-governmental organization representatives and an official with the National Anti-Corruption Commission of Cameroon, came through Boise. Their objectives included examining measures that the public sector, civil society and business groups take to prevent corruption, encourage ethical leadership and transparency, and ensure government accountability to the public. Among those they met with were state Controller Brandon Woolf, who recently upgraded the state transparency website his office operates.
It’s less common for journalists to visit. And most delegations require translators; all the journalists were fluent in English, so they didn’t need translators.
Among the objectives of their program are to examine the rights and responsibilities of a free press in a democracy; observe operational practices, standards and institutions of the media in the United States; and explore the impact of digital and social media on the availability and accuracy of news.
All agreed that “fake news” is becoming an increasing problem around the world. Said Guimaraes Martins, “‘Fake news’ mainly is propaganda. It’s more widely disseminated because of technology, but it’s propaganda, pure and simple.”
Later this week, another delegation, including a member of the parliament of Estonia; the press officer for the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of France; and the defense and security editor of England’s Daily Mail, among others, will stop by Nampa, as part of a trip examining foreign policy issues of concern to Europe and the United States, including counter-terrorism and security, transatlantic relations, how global trade trends frame positions in U.S. foreign policy and more.
Bill Manny, writer and producer for Idaho Public Television, met with the Murrow group on Monday afternoon. “I was impressed that we had a whole lot more in common than I expected,” he said. Their discussion focused on “the challenges facing both print and broadcast, including public media, in those other countries,” he said. “I was just struck by the parallels rather than the differences.”