By Anne-Marie Impe*
This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London. Watch this space for the other 24 essays.
My first contact with Milica Pesic and the Media Diversity Institute was in 2005. Two years earlier, Jean-Paul Marthoz and I had founded the Enjeux internationaux magazine. This quarterly, independent of any party, pressure group or Church, aimed to provide readers with the keys to decoding major international issues while trying to avoid succumbing to the temptation of simplification and peremptory statements. The aim was to offer quality information in order to “shed light on the complexity of reality” and to enable readers to “better understand global issues in order to better act as citizens of the world“.
The magazine’s wish was to “become an incubator of ideas, a place for reflection, debate and analysis, where opposing points of view could collide until they provoked innovative outbursts“, as I wrote in the first issue in my role as editor-in-chief. Our goal was to practice slow journalism, to tackle subjects that other media did not cover and to present forward-looking reporting by spotting, under the turbulence of everyday events, the underlying currents that might foreshadow the future. To do this, it seemed important, as I added in my editorial, to “give the floor to authors from all over the world to propose cross-readings of the same reality (South/North, researchers/field workers, journalists/academics)”. Some of the best minds – about 150 authors representing more than 50 nationalities – gave us the honour of writing for our magazine on relevant themes. The pluralism of voices and the dialogue of cultures were thus clearly part of the DNA of the quarterly from its inception.
The ninth issue of Enjeux internationaux was devoted entirely to cultural diversity. So who better to call on for an article on diversity in journalism than Milica Pesic, the executive director of the Media Diversity Institute? In “Describing the world as it is”, Pesic noted the following: “Diversity is a reality. Whether we are talking about race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, physical ability, political opinion, socio-economic status or sexual orientation, some or all of these characteristics together make up a human being or a group. The society in which we live is plural.”
Yet, she added, “the media rarely reflect the diversity of the societies in which they operate“. She described the efforts of some news organizations, such as the BBC, to “correct this distortion between demographic and media realities” and increase the representation of ethnic minorities in programmes as well as in the newsroom. But she also warned that it is not appropriate to assign these journalists solely to cover their own communities. Recalling the extent to which certain media had fueled deadly hatred in various conflicts around the world, she concluded that “diversity journalism (…) is first and foremost a journalism of responsibility“.
I thoroughly appreciated Milica Pesic’s article and sense that we were on the same wavelength. Yet she and I did not meet in person until some years later, in 2018, at the Perugia International Journalism Festival, where she moderated a compelling and informative roundtable on the rise of the far right and the press coverage of this phenomenon.
“Zinneke” and proud of it
If diversity issues have always been close to my heart, it is probably because of my personal background. I am, in fact, what we call a “zinneke” in Brussels, a term originally referring to a dog that is a mix of two or more breeds. A mongrel, in other words! But this word, which was initially perceived as insulting, has since evolved. It is now more often used to suggest an openness to the multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism that characterise Brussels. So much so that, since 2000, there has been a “Zinneke Parade”, a large biennial event with an often surrealist tone, which celebrates the multiculturality of Brussels.
My father was Flemish, my mother Walloon. And my brothers, my sister and I were “zinnekes” who spent our entire childhood and adolescence in Brussels, happy with our ethnic and cultural mix. At the time of my parents’ marriage, there were still many inter-community unions between Flemings and Walloons; linguistic quarrels between the communities were mainly conducted by politicians. In 1962, an internal linguistic border was established in Belgium. It geographically divided the country into two territories, one Dutch-speaking in the north, the other French-speaking in the south, with Brussels, the capital, remaining bilingual. It was a consequence of growing community tensions in the Kingdom, but it also contributed to increasing identity-based quarrels on both sides, until an ever-growing number of institutions that had previously been national and united – academic, scientific, museum, health and, of course, political –, were split apart.
Today, right-wing and far-right pro-independence parties dominate the political landscape in Flanders more than ever before, while left-wing parties, Socialists and far-leftists prevail in Wallonia. Legislative elections scheduled for 2024 could easily deepen the divide between the North and the South and make the country even more ungovernable. After the 2019 parliamentary elections, the country had been without a federal government for 16 months because the various quarreling parties couldn’t form a coalition government. Will we see the break-up of Belgium this time? The political declarations we are hearing in advance of the elections are hardly reassuring.
What communication for what development?
To a large extent, these incessant sandbox quarrels pushed me to fly away to other, less suffocating environments, as soon as I finished my journalism studies in 1979. I was seeking to learn about other cultures, other ways of living and thinking. I landed in Senegal. I quickly found work with a development project in a shantytown on the outskirts of Dakar, initiated by the Senegalese Ministry of Social Development and the international non-governmental organisation Enda Tiers-Monde.
My job was to use grassroots communication for community development. It was a team effort, with Senegalese facilitators promoting and maximising the participation of the slum dwellers in improving their living conditions, environment and health. An exodus from rural areas had led many of them to settle in this suburban neighbourhood in an unregulated manner on plots of land that were frequently flooded during the rainy season. The shantytown was not connected to the sewage system so all the waste flowed into the sandy streets. Children played in the muck, which exposed them to a range of infectious diseases carried in the sewage. There was no running water either: people relied on public fountains.
The means of communication that we used as tools to raise awareness about environmental sanitation and improving the health of all were varied, but always designed with the slum dwellers: posters, models, exhibitions of photos made by the young people or puppet plays put on with different groups of women in the neighbourhood. The communication initiative that I remember most vividly was the recording of an audio message in Wolof, one of Senegal’s national languages, aimed at alerting fathers and mothers to the dangers that stagnant water posed to their children’s health.
This “communication-action” approach made an impression on me in several ways. Firstly, because the recording proposed concrete solutions that could be implemented by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, namely the digging of individual and collective sumps for waste water. Secondly, because we obtained the collaboration of a local imam, who was convinced of the merits of the project and offered to broadcast the recording via the loudspeakers of one of the mosques. And finally, because following this broadcast, which was critical for the success of the project, most of the fathers dug a sump and the problem of wastewater was solved in large areas of the slum.
To be honest, the health argument was not the only one to convince them: before this effort, the faithful often used to arrive at the mosque to pray with the bottoms of their long basin boubou, a traditional dress, soiled by foul water from their walk in the streets. For many, this situation had become intolerable. An interesting synergy was created, based on a conjunction of interests, from which there are many lessons to be learned in terms of grassroots communication for development.
Journalism connected… to the air on the street
It was also in this context that I fully understood the importance for journalists to be connected to reality and to know the life of the people they were covering. I worked part-time in the slum and part-time as a freelance journalist for a dozen media outlets, including several radio stations (the BBC, RFI‘s cooperation service, DW and Swiss German radio), magazines (including Jeune Afrique Economie and Croissance des Jeunes Nations), the Belgian daily La Cité, the Inter Press Service news agency, etc. It is clear that this immersion gave me a certain knowledge of the field and insight into the living conditions of the most disadvantaged. Because of that, I did not interview a politician or an economic actor in the same way as other journalists who just flew in and out briefly. My experiences also influenced my choice of topics and the angle from which I approached them.
In 2023, journalists leave the office much less than they did 20 or 30 years ago, assuming that the Internet will provide them with the information they need. This is partly true. But working in an ivory tower necessarily disconnects you from reality. As the legendary US Hutchins Commission on freedom of the press stated in 1947, journalism is supposed to give a true picture of the world and events. “Journalists are not responsible for the world as it is, but for the conformity of the image they give of it,” recalled the Belgian journalist Albert du Roy in 1992. It is difficult to meet this requirement without leaving one’s desk! As Jean Dominique, a famous Haitian reporter, reminded us, “To be a good journalist, you have to smell the air on the street.”
I stayed in Dakar for thirteen years. Enough time to discover and appreciate the country, its people, but also its arts and literature. Senegalese literature has some excellent writers, such as poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was also the first president of the Republic of Senegal and the first African to be elected to the French Academy; Mariama Bâ, author of the novel So Long a Letter, a major work for understanding the condition of women, which caused a great stir when it was published in 1979; or Cheikh Hamidou Kane, whose remarkable novel, Ambiguous Adventure, should be read by anyone interested in diversity. His book very accurately portrays the dilemma of the Diallobé chief and his elder sister, the Grande Royale: should they send their children to the whites’ school or keep them in the village and continue to educate them according to the Koranic and customary traditions? “If I tell them to go to the new school, they will go en masse. But as they learn, they will also forget. Will what they learn be worth what they forget?”, wonders the chief. The school “will kill in them what we love and preserve with care today“, worries the Grande Royale. Both characters pepper their inner journey with many subtle reflections.
I was lucky enough to carry out reports or missions in 34 of the 55 countries in Africa. After my return to Belgium, I also had the opportunity to travel in Asia and Latin America. One of the beneficial effects of encountering other cultures is to better understand one’s own, to question, through comparison and perspective, what we had previously taken for granted. One day, when I arrived at work, a Senegalese colleague asked me if I was all right. “Not really”, I replied, explaining that my nine-month-old son was ill and that, even though he was of course not alone at home, I was worried. She looked at me dumbfounded and said, “What the hell are you doing here? Go home and look after him!” A clash of values: she considered my primary role to be that of a mother, whereas I thought my duty was to go to work and not leave everything to my colleagues. An interesting exchange of views ensued about the priorities of each of us, strongly influenced by the culture in which we had been brought up; but we also discussed the possibility of modifying, by personal choice, the cultural software programmed at the outset.
Making other voices heard
Reflecting what I have experienced during my stays and travels, various forms of diversity have always been very present in my articles and radio programmes, in which I try, whenever possible, to give a voice to those who usually do not have one.
Making visible those whom society marginalises, rejects or discriminates against is a challenge, as the mainstream media take little interest in their daily lives. That’s why I have often worked with community media. In this context, I wrote several articles on street children and castes in Senegal. In collaboration with No-Télé, a local community television station in Tournai, Belgium, and DAHW, the German association for leprosy assistance, I produced a 20-minute television report, the title of which was itself a manifesto: Les lépreux, des hommes comme les autres (Lepers, people like any other).
The common thread of my journalistic commitment has always been this: to make other voices heard, in particular those of the most vulnerable, those left behind, the outcasts, and to show that other societal choices are possible. In fact, I have always worked on issues that challenge and put into perspective the conventional or majority opinion and different forms of domination or oppression, be they economic, political, ethnic, religious, gender, ageist or ableist. Isn’t this role of countering power one of the essential missions of public interest journalism, which is essential to guaranteeing the proper functioning of democracy? In any case, this is what I opted for, without hesitation, when I was a student of journalism.
Crimes against half of humanity
The main feature of the last issue of Enjeux internationaux was devoted to women. The title bore a militant overtone that was not in the magazine’s usual style, but which seemed to us to impose itself: “Women, this half of humanity that is murdered, raped, forcibly married, repudiated, excised, beaten, burned, disfigured with acid, stoned, harassed or discriminated against. And who has had enough.” It was when she discovered this issue of the magazine that Mirta Lourenço, then Chief of Section for Media Development and Society at UNESCO, suggested I write a manual for journalists on media coverage of violence against women. It is called Reporting on Violence against Women and Girls, was published in French in 2019 and translated into six other languages: English, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Spanish and Kyrgyz. It is available free of charge online in these languages on the UNESCO website.
Organised in ten chapters, each dealing with a different form of violence against women, the manual provides dozens of very concrete tips to help journalists improve their coverage of this delicate subject. Among these, I will mention three that seem essential to me. Firstly, journalists should ensure that words are chosen carefully and not use language that minimises, trivialises, waters down or even conceals violence. Secondly, they should avoid making women victims twice: once because of the violence they have suffered and again because of degrading or discriminatory media coverage that essentially blames the victim while downplaying the conduct of the aggressor. Finally, they should explain the systemic nature of the phenomenon: violence against women is not one incident, it is not about isolated acts or private intra-family disputes. No. These human rights abuses are recurrent, structural acts that originate in an ancestral patriarchal system that has established relationships of power and domination between men and women.
In the wake of this publication for UNESCO, the Association of Professional Journalists of French-speaking Belgium (AJP) asked me to write a practical guide on the same subject. It is entitled How to report on violence against women? 10 recommendations for journalists and is available on the website of the association. The AJP promotes a policy of inclusion and diversity not only within newsrooms, but also in editorial content, with the creation of Expertalia.be. This interesting database for journalists lists and presents, on the one hand, women experts in different fields, whether or not they come from a diverse background, and, on the other hand, male experts but only those who come from ethnic minorities. The aim is to increase the presence of people from diverse backgrounds, both in terms of gender and origin, in media content. Another way of promoting diversity of content and encouraging less sexist treatment of news is to appoint a “gender editor”, following the example of the New York Times, in 2017, when the Weinstein affair had just broken out. In France, Mediapart followed suit in 2020 by appointing an “editorial manager for gender issues”. And in Belgium, RTBF, the Belgian French-speaking public service broadcaster, created a position of “diversity and equality manager”.
The taboo of elder abuse
Another form of discrimination I was interested in was ageism. This was long before the Covid 19 pandemic revealed to the general public the conditions in which elderly people lived in residential and care homes. My mother was looking for a nursing home to live in. I accompanied her on her visits and was shocked to discover how the human rights and dignity of the elderly were being violated in some institutions. During the 2010s, there was little coverage of the elderly in the media. So I decided to investigate the fate of the elderly in nursing homes.
But the sector is complex. In order to get to know it better and to deal with it with all the rigour and precision required, I trained to become… a nursing home director. The training lasted one year and took place in the evenings and on Saturdays, which allowed me to continue my work as a journalist. I have always believed that journalists have a duty to know and must “understand in order to make others understand“, as the French writer and journalist Françoise Giroud used to say. After graduating, I published a series of articles on institutional abuse, the glaring shortage of staff, the high and not always appropriate consumption of medication in many institutions… I also participated in an investigation called Nursing homes in the blind spot. The human rights of the elderly during the Covid-19 pandemic in Belgium, carried out by the Belgian section of Amnesty International. My most recent reports were published in November, 2022, by the daily Le Soir. They dealt with the use of restraint in nursing homes – that is, immobilising persons by tying them to their armchair, by locking them in bed with rails or by making them take tranquilizers, antidepressants and antipsychotics.
In order to see for myself how elderly people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive impairment were treated, I took advantage of the holidays, a period when the shortage of nursing staff is particularly acute, to offer my services as a volunteer. And as I had a degree as a nursing home director, I was welcomed with open arms. While in some institutions the welfare and dignity of the elderly is respected, this is far from being the case everywhere. And in the facility I investigated, run by a private commercial group, the condition of the elderly with Alzheimer’s-type diseases was terrible. Those who had no family would never get taken outside; as there was no garden, they were confined to their room or a common area without ever again breathing in the open air. I am not talking about confinement due to COVID, but about the ordinary daily life of these people that prevailed before and continued after the pandemic.
The highly ideological coverage of migration
At the request of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), I returned to Senegal in March 2022 to conduct a training course for local journalists on how to cover migration. This is a particularly sensitive subject and is handled in a very ideological, often Manichean way by many news organizations, who offer a positive or negative perspective without any nuance. Some media fuel their circulation by exploiting the xenophobic feelings of a part of the population. I gave the participants an example of a Belgian daily newspaper which, on page 1, ran the headline: “The 2,000 bone tests have spoken. 70% of migrants are ‘false’ minors!” On page 2, the same newspaper drove the point home: “1500 migrants lied about their age“. However, on page 3, another article mentioned that these bone tests were not reliable: “This test is not accurate at all“, the headline read.
This was a perfect example of sensationalist journalistic treatment that reinforced fears and prejudices. By stigmatising migrants (70% are liars!), the article contributed to society’s rejection of them and to the rise of racism. I also showed the workshop participants that the Senegalese media also engaged in the stigmatisation of migrants, with this headline from a local daily newspaper: “Begging: Dakar, the foreign invasion“.
As Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, Director of Research at the France’s National Council of scientific research (CNRS) and a leading specialist in migration, notes: “…the media play an essential role in the formation of collective imaginations“. This point highlights the importance of the approach known as the “journalism of responsibility,” which MDI director Milica Pesic mentioned in her article for our magazine Enjeux internationaux. This key professional obligation is clearly recalled in Article 9 of the World Charter of Ethics for Journalists, adopted at the 30th Congress of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in Tunis, in 2019: “Journalists shall ensure that the dissemination of information or opinion does not contribute to hatred or prejudice and shall do their utmost to avoid facilitating the spread of discrimination on grounds such as geographical, social or ethnic origin, race, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion, disability, political and other opinions”.
*Anne-Marie Impe is a journalist and essayist. She has written several handbooks for journalists: How can we cover migration in an ethical and relevant way? (EFJ, 2023); Reporting on violence against Women and Girls (UNESCO, 2019), and is the author of Human rights in my Municipality (Amnesty International, 2018). She has been the editor-in-chief of a quarterly magazine, Enjeux internationaux,and taught journalism at the IHECS Brussels School. Before this, she worked for 13 years in Senegal with a communication for development project in a slum and as a contributor for international radio stations and magazines (BBC, RFI, DW, Jeune Afrique Economie…).