Suicide and good governance – an issue at home and abroad.

2 September 2003 – While the Hutton Inquiry has been investigating the circumstances behind Dr David Kelly’s untimely death and the row between the BBC and Downing Street, PressWise Director Mike Jempson has been working with journalists in SE Asia on coverage of suicide and governance issues.

In Sri Lanka, where suicide rates reached alarming levels as the economy slumped during the civil war, media reports have been ghoulish and distorted.

PressWise has been working with the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo which has been monitoring coverage and developing training programmes to encourage a more responsible approach to reporting of suicide.

Singhalese and Tamil journalists who attended workshops in Colombo and the beleaguered city of Jaffna last week, were anxious to ensure that their reporting would help to save lives rather than providing graphic details of suicide that might encourage other to follow suite. However, as the leading national paper the Daily News made plain in an editorial, Sri Lanka lacks the psychiatric services needed to assist those suffering from poverty-induced distress.

Earlier PressWise took part in a UN-backed conference in Delhi on reporting poverty and governance issues. Attended by journalists from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the three day-event heard of the difficulties they faced in obtaining reliable information from officials at all levels of government. Those who had the temerity to publish critical stories often faced harassment and worse.

Meanwhile there are few media outlets for the poor. Apparently, between 1997-1999 as many as 400 cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh killed themselves, mostly by “swallowing their overpriced pesticides”, yet not a single English language newspaper, the medium of the Indian elite reported on this tragedy.

However, street and working children at the Butterflies Project in Delhi, whom PressWise trained in radio production three years ago, have now obtained a community radio licence, and plan to join up with street children from six Indian cities to create a national network of newspapers.

PressWise hopes to work with UN Habitat in developing resources to assist SE Asian journalists keen to see more grass roots involvement in local governance issues, especially in the promotion of imaginative ways of giving voice to the poor.

Here in the UK, PressWise is seeking funds to encourage dialogue between listeners, readers and viewers and the media professionals who act as a watchdogs of the public good.

The idea is that this should be an antidote both to the era of spin and the collapsing trust in journalism driven by prurience and the ‘bottom line’.

Mike Jempson
Director, The PressWise Trust

(Bulletin No 92)

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