Reflections on the International Festival of Journalism in Perugia

by Antonio Zappulla, Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 24 April 2023 13:33 GMT

It was a huge honour to speak at this year’s International Festival of Journalism in Perugia, and to be amongst so many leading lights in the profession. From the impact of AI on journalism to how we must combat legal threats to press freedom – here are five highlights from the festival.

  1. Fuelling distrust in media is a powerful political weapon to dismantle democratic institutions. Journalists need to fight back.

We know that journalists can become the enemy when holding power to account. But what is the impact of independent news reporting in countries when the audience it serves simply do not believe it’s the truth? Press Freedom hero Carlos Dada, Co-founder and Director of Central American digital news outlet El Faro, spoke of the challenges he faced in exposing corruption and organised crime in El Salvador during the presidency of Nayib Bukele, whom 90% of the El Salvadorian population support. In a powerful conversation with Deputy Director of the International Press Institute Scott Griffen, we learnt how Carlos and his team have battled multiple politically motivated lawsuits, smear campaigns, surveillance, and threats to personal safety - all aimed at silencing El Faro’s reporting. Meanwhile the vast majority of the country’s citizens buy into state-run propaganda that makes a hero of the President and demonises the press. “I often think the healthiest thing would be to quit. But silence is not an option if we stay,” said Carlos. “When we are under harassment, we do have agency. We need people to know that the press aren’t paralysed.”

The argument for fighting fire with fire is strongly shared by media and human rights lawyer Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, of Doughty Street Chambers. She told a packed auditorium during a separate panel discussion on countering the weaponisation of the law that journalists needed to be able to use the same ‘lawfare’ tactics against the perpetrators as were being used to silence them. “The enemies of press freedom are creative. We have got to get creative to defend and counterattack,” she said. Spotlighting abuses of the law that criminalise journalists is also key, according to Jodie Ginsberg, President of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “We need to be vocal in our defence of journalism and journalists to push back against these repeated smears,” she said.

However, we shouldn’t assume that everyone sees the value of independent journalism in making decisions about their own lives. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s (RISJ) Trust in News Project that examines trust in digital news in the key markets of Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, 50% of those surveyed in Brazil, for example, believe journalists manipulate the public to serve their own agendas. “When powerful leaders use that rhetoric, they find an attentive audience,” said Eduardo Suarez, Head of News at the RISJ. “The decline of trust in media and attacks on journalists are two sides of the same coin,” Elodie Vialle, of the Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society, told a captive audience.


  1. There are humans behind AI, and we still have power.

The rapid advancement in AI, such as generative language models, has catalysed new fears that the future of the profession is at risk. This was a hot topic of the conference, mentioned across panels and audience questions as the idea of technological innovation intersected with issues related to sustainability, trust, disinformation and power.

However, Lisa Gibbs, Director of News Partnerships at Associated Press (AP) urged us to see the capacity for AI to support “augmented - rather than automated – journalism". It is less an issue of a loss of control, and more a matter of education. Gibbs cautioned that many newsrooms are rushing into things they don't understand or have the infrastructure for because of the perceived pressure to urgently integrate AI to their work – “particularly for smaller newsrooms that have a less established culture of innovation and experimentation”. AP’s recent survey of 200 US-based news organisations confirmed that AI is generally not yet widely in use among smaller newsrooms, and that ‘experimentation with AI and automation technologies requires the capacity of staff, a strong foundation with current technology, time and money.’ Fellow panellist Chris Moran, Head of Editorial Innovation at the Guardian, echoed the urgent need for in-depth staff training about AI, rather than a focus on how it can be most immediately deployed within the newsroom.

A dangerous tendency for us to anthropomorphise technology, multiple experts cautioned their audiences, leads us to forget that it is humans who are implementing this technology. “AI is not good or bad,” said Uli Koppen of Bayerischer Rundfunk, “it’s about how we use it.” It is people who are training and iterating AI-based programmes through providing datasets for them to learn from, and people who are applying these programmes to their work. We design the tasks it is assigned to, and “it is our human values that become incorporated into AI”, said Nick Diakopoulous of the Computational Journalism Lab at Northwestern University.

An appropriate infrastructure and ethical framework by which to govern the application of AI is therefore increasingly urgent and essential, said Uli Koppen and Adeline Hulin at UNESCO. UNESCO recently launched a report on the missing links in AI governance and AP has worked on an AI framework that mirrors many of the ethics and values applied to their usual editorial work. The time for the media ecosystem to rally together to lobby for a cross-sector solution is now.

Moran ended on a positive note, reminding us that while the impact of AI on media will be significant, we must remember that “the essential purpose of journalism is to bear witness to what is happening in the world around us.” Without prompts to programme it, generative AI cannot fill that role.


  1. We need to counter audience desensitisation when reporting on climate issues

During a discussion moderated by our own Editor-in-Chief Yasir Khan, we heard how climate change is still being covered as a ‘niche’ topic because many audiences still believe it’s an abstract problem. Others become disengaged from the focus on a litany of climate emergencies. Journalists need to get smarter about bringing to life the way in which climate underpins and intersects the critical issues of today. Abigail Edge, senior newsroom strategy consultant at Fathm, raised the challenge journalists face in making climate change breaking news when it’s a problem that’s always there. “We need to find new angles. We should encourage open communication and collaboration. Everyone can learn from experts when it comes to reporting on climate,” she told us. This was emphasised by Meenakshi Ravi, from Al Jazeera English, who added: “We need both the specialists and the generalists when it comes to climate reporting. If we really want journalism to connect, send it to grassroots organisations who understand the community. Offer it as a resource.”

Speaking to a packed room, TRF’s new Inclusive Economies Editor Amruta Byatnal – who’ll be joining our team of reporters on our recently launched news platform Context - said the key to making climate reporting more accessible is to make clear how it intersects with other topics in which people are actively engaged. “Every beat lends itself to climate issues. It’s about understanding who your reporters are, what their skills now and how they can be best used,” she said. Alejandra Sanchez Inzunza, co-founder of Dromonanos, an independent producer of journalistic projects in Latin America, added: “We are not climate reporters. We specialise in social issues but climate is everywhere. It’s in every part of our lives.”


  1. Lawfare is on the rise and it's essential we get creative to combat it

It was encouraging to see an increase in panels dedicated to shining a light on the weaponisation of the law against journalists. As explored in the Foundation’s new report, launched with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University during the Festival, journalists are being hit with a surge in legal threats – designed to cripple reporters, sow distrust in the media and stifle unwanted narratives.

The number of powerful accounts we heard in Perugia speaks to this growing trend. Ronan Farrow, Matthew Caruana Galizia, Maria Ressa, Lina Attalah, Patrícia Campos Mello and Sebastien Lai shared the devastating physical, emotional and financial consequences, and how legal harassment is often a precursor to other threats such as online abuse, physical violence and even killings.

To illustrate the aptness of the term ‘lawfare’, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC powerfully mapped the trends we are seeing to three military concepts:

  • Attrition warfare: As illustrated in the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had 48 cases against her at the time of her death, journalists are facing a barrage of legal cases. This tactic of wearing down journalists – who often have low resources – to the point of collapse mirrors the military tactic of attrition warfare.
  • Decapitation: We are increasingly seeing that states and powerful actors are targeting prolific journalists, media owners and media houses. This strategy of decapitation is used not only to silence these journalists, but to send a clear message to other journalists that they could be next.
  • Asymmetric costs: This concept relates to ensuring that the cost of your opponent’s losses is higher than the cost of attacking. The ability for these legal attacks to drain resources was powerfully put into perspective by Maria Ressa, who said that in a year and a half, almost $1 million was spent on legal fees, as opposed to growing her news ouetlet, Rappler.

So where do we go from here? Jodie Ginsberg summed it up nicely: in order to tackle these legal attacks on journalists, we need to shorten them, and make them less complicated and expensive. This will require proactive strategies – such as using the law creatively or ensuring that newsrooms, journalists and lawyers have the resources to fight these cases – as well as strong networks that work together to build and fortify a solid defense.


  1. Networks and alliances can uniquely unite and empower us across all issues.

Journalists in exile are rendered stateless, said Carlos Dada. “They are refugees”, added Ivan Kolpakov, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Meduza, rationalising a split identity where they exist “neither here nor there”. The turmoil and solitude of this existence cannot be underestimated, an emotional panel of exiled journalists told a packed audience: forced to flee your home and yet striving to reach those still living in it with authentic and reliable news reporting, whilst repeatedly adapting your business model to new challenges and contexts. Despite their differing countries of origin and their unique cultural and political contexts, journalists living in exile across Europe have found in one another a crucial community and beacon of hope. The Network of Exiled Media Outlets (NEMO) has spearheaded a movement for peer-led learning and collaboration. From navigating bureaucratic donor processes to innovating funding streams, to content creation and building trust and loyalty among readers and subscribers, the founders of NEMO said an essential facet of support can be found in sharing knowledge and experiences.

Dictators, autocrats and other abusers of power learn from one another, and we see the same tactics deployed globally regardless of countries’ variances. Journalists such as Maria Ressa, Rana Ayyub, Patrícia Campos Mello and Sebastian Lai had all observed similar behavioural patterns by malign state actors who target journalists with legal attacks to discredit them and silence their reporting. It is vital that we replicate this knowledge-sharing when developing and providing support to those who are similarly targeted, said both Jodie Ginsberg and Caoilfhionn Callagher. Alliances such as the Legal Network for Journalists at Risk are key. Led by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Media Defence and the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Legal Network coordinates the different types of support available for journalists and media outlets in need, from urgent legal representation to to systemic support to improve the legal environment in which the media operates.

And what more appropriate platform to showcase the strength and capacity of networks than the International Festival of Journalism itself. With 500 speakers and more than 100 sessions attended by delegates from across the globe, journalists, legal experts, media freedom advocates and donors were united for four days in Perugia to learn from pioneering experts and peers, develop their skills, forge new opportunities for collaboration and hear about the latest developments relevant to their work. The profession may face multifaceted threats, but through collaboration and information-sharing, we left the conference with renewed confidence that the media ecosystem can safeguard its resilience and survival.

I would like to thank all the fantastic speakers who joined us for the Foundation’s panel discussions, who lent their valuable time to share their expertise and inspiring insights on pressing issues facing journalism. Particular tribute must be made to the courageous journalists who shared personal experiences of the attacks they face simply for doing their jobs, and our partners the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

As we look ahead to the media community’s next major annual moment, World Press Freedom Day (3 May), I carry with me the energy, excitement and optimism from Perugia as we seek to engage with a wider ecosystem of policymakers, media freedom advocates and donors in New York. See you there!

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