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On a Deadline: Knight Center works to advance press freedom in Latin America and the Caribbean

There is little doubt the media plays an integral role in democracy. This relationship is obvious in Latin America, where the media’s importance has often made it a target. Governments, insurgents, drug lords and armies alike have, in one way or another, placed the media in a state of siege and on the defensive.

But things are changing.

Tucked inauspiciously into the busy fifth floor of The University of Texas at Austin College of Communication, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas quietly goes about improving journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean through training, education and awareness, while encouraging high ethical and professional standards. Quietly and quickly.

Rosental Alves

Press freedom remains elusive in Latin American places like Rio de Janeiro’s hillside favelas, but Knight Chair in Journalism Rosental Alves is helping to turn it around through training.

Photo: Rogerio Reis

“The goal was to train 500 journalists in four years,” says director Rosental Alves. “We did it in a few months.”

The Knight Center was founded in 2002 on a $2 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. A University of Texas at Austin professor and Knight Chair in Journalism since 1996, Alves also secured a $1 million in-kind contribution from the university.

Armed with this, Alves and his staff set about trying to change the world, or at least a continent. “We have to let the media know it has a very important role to play in democracy in Latin America,” he says.

The aim was a four-year program with a four-prong attack: staging workshops in Latin America; maintaining a trilingual Web site; hosting the Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas; and strengthening or co-founding independent journalism organizations.

On the Ground

Since 2002, the Knight Center has held nearly 30 on-the-ground training workshops and seminars in six countries, with topics ranging from ethics and computer-assisted reporting to online, investigative and photojournalism.

We have to let the media know it has a very important role to play in democracy in Latin America. Knight Center Director Rosental Alves“We’ve seen that the demand is high in Latin America to improve the quality of journalism,” says Dean Graber, program manager for the Knight Center. “And journalists there have shown so much drive and desire to train and organize.”

In fact, dispersion is a natural result that the Knight Center counts on, especially in countries like Peru, where the media is largely centralized in the capital city of Lima.

In the beginning, the Knight Center focused on Brazil and Mexico, two of the largest nations, with deep resources and vast journalist networks. In addition to working with one existing Mexican organization and co-founding another, the Knight Center helped form the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, which won an award for public service in its first year, Graber says. In the second year, the Knight Center began working with journalists in Peru and Argentina, and then Caribbean nations and Colombia the following year. Now, “we’re trying to work with countries with fewer resources,” Graber says. Paraguay and Guatemala are in the crosshairs for 2005, but specific needs are yet to be determined.

“We don’t have an agenda,” Alves says. “We don’t go to the partner organizations with a curriculum of things we want them to learn.” Instead, the ideal is to create a self-sustaining organization that will carry out its own training and workshops without the Knight Center. And it’s been working. Both Alves and Graber rattle off several examples of trainers disseminating information they have taken from a Knight-sponsored event.

Journalists from throughout Peru

Journalists from throughout Peru traveled to a training in Arequipa in July 2004.

Photo: Peruvian Provinces Journalists Network

“We play the roll of catalysts with these organizations,” Graber says.

Including the reach of the Knight Center’s online offerings, Alves estimates that almost 3,000 journalists have been reached, far exceeding the original goal of 500.

On the Web

The second prong of the Knight Center’s mission revolves around a recently revamped trilingual Web site with a news-monitoring service, a distance-learning center and a newly added blog. The news-monitoring service reproduces headlines from publications around the Americas and sends them out as an electronic newsletter to more than 6,000 subscribers, keeping readers abreast of events across the entire region, and saves links in a searchable archive, providing a valuable research tool.

In addition to subscribers from the United Nations and the Organization of American States, the digest is read by employees of The New York Times, the Associated Press, Reuters and “newsrooms and universities across the Americas,” Graber says.

The big focus of 2005, however, is the distance-learning center, which offers free courses in journalism in English, Spanish and Portuguese to an average class of 15 to 20 students. Though they are not official college classes and worth no credits, the nine courses offered since the fall of 2003 have been successes.

Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas logo“Distance learning is a cost-effective way to teach working journalists who may not have the time or resources to travel to take a course,” Graber says. “It’s a way of reaching more and more students.”

The Austin Forum

In June, the Knight Center will host the 2005 Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas, where representatives of journalism training organizations from all over the Americas gather to brainstorm, idea-swap and network. This year will be the forum’s third, and 23 organizations from 11 countries are expected to participate. The forum has followed the trickle-down effect of the on-the-ground workshops and distance learning courses, with participants taking their ideas and newfound knowledge back home and passing them along to others eager to learn.

Despite this, there is growing concern shared by the Knight Center staff about the future of a free and independent media thriving in a free and independent Latin America. For starters, democracy is losing support. A U.N. Development Program poll released last year states that, “43 percent of Latin Americans are fully supportive of democracy, while 30.5 percent express ambivalence and 26.5 hold non-democratic views.”

“Electing government is not enough to create roots for democracy,” Alves says.

Reporter Álvaro Delgado participates in a rally supporting journalist protection

In Mexico City in October 2004, reporter Álvaro Delgado participates in a rally supporting journalist protection. Delgado, a reporter for El Proceso newspaper, has received death threats for his work.

Photo: Center for Journalism and Public Ethics

Indeed, fledgling democracies often hog-tie themselves by committing so-called “capital sins,” such as consolidation of power and wealth among the elite, control over local media and squandering of natural resources. The U.N.D.P. poll went on to report that almost 55 percent of all Latin Americans would support an authoritarian regime over democracy if it could solve their economic woes.

And focal to the Knight Center’s creed: “Journalism training and professionalism in Latin America are essential to advance press freedom and democracy.”

The Future

The fourth goal of the Knight Center is to strengthen existing independent journalism organizations and help create new ones that will one day (in some cases, that day has already come) function independently, striving for the same achievements on home soil. Along with the distance learning, this could be the most vital in ensuring the work of Alves and company continues.

Due to overwhelming success, the Knight Foundation approached Alves about extending a “gift” of $250,000 to continue the program until 2008. The University of Texas will continue its in-kind funding as well. Alves is optimistic about the Knight Center’s future.

“Even when we are out of money completely, we still have the endowment of the Knight Chair as seed money, and we can raise more money to keep doing other projects,” he says.

“The two extra years give us time to find other funders, and some are already very familiar with our work,” Graber says. “Our progress has been recognized. We’ll focus on the distance learning and working with organizations on the ground. The hope is that it can become institutionalized at The University of Texas, and I think that as long as Rosental is here, we can keep it going.”

It is up to us journalists to be in the vanguard in fighting for FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]. After the stabilization of democracy, journalists must start asking for the next step, which is FOIA. Knight Center Director Rosental AlvesIn the mean time, the Knight Center will provide valuable opportunities for University of Texas masters and doctoral students, such as employment and research. The office usually hums with grad student activity. Erin McCarley updates the Website she just helped overhaul. Lou Rutigliano runs the Knight Center’s Web blog, and sees parallels between the Latin American struggle for a free press and the American debate over bloggers as journalists.

“There are wider battles in many Latin American countries over the licensing and certification of journalists that raise the same general issues we’re seeing when people talk about bloggers versus mainstream media,” Rutigliano says.

Another significant regional issue is the creation and improvement of national Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) similar to that used in the U.S. Alves sees the FOIA as the next hurdle for Latin America, and the onus is on the media.

“It is up to us journalists to be in the vanguard in fighting for FOIA,” he says. “After the stabilization of democracy, journalists must start asking for the next step, which is FOIA.”

But, as with democracy, getting there is only half the battle. In Brazil and Argentina, the Knight Center’s partners are working to establish FOIAs. In Mexico, a FOIA is already in place but journalists rarely use it. “Right now, there is a lack of understanding of journalists on how to use the law,” Alves says. “We’re helping reporters learn how to use the law.”

BY Ford Gunter

Ford Gunter earned his master’s degree in journalism
at The University of Texas at Austin in May 2005.

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  Updated 2005 June 13
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