Friday, December 3, 2021

Public records are lifeblood of journalism, says American scribe

American journalist Ryan Beckwith says that public records are the lifeblood of journalists so they must not be denied access to them. He offers that whenever reporters are denied access, they must wage a war with the help of lawyers to have access to records.

Beckwith is Features Editor at Roll Call, a newspaper based in Washington D.C, which reports news of legislative and political manoeuvrings on Capitol Hill as well as political coverage of congressional elections countrywide.

Beckwith was in Gaborone at the invitation of the US Embassy and the Botswana National Assembly for a five-day workshop to help foster a discussion about standards and practices in journalism as they relate to parliamentary reporting.

The talkative Beckwith spoke to the Sunday Standard over dinner hosted for him and resident reporters by the American Embassy a day before he flew back to Washington.

He is passionate when he talks about the need for journalists to have access to public records. He is emphatic that the only way journalists can prove something is to see it themselves and to interview someone who knows about it or to find a public record which mentions it.

“Journalists rarely see things first hand. Sometimes people don’t want to talk. If you don’t have access to public records, you may not be able to prove something when there are serious problems,” he says.┬á

Beckwith says Botswana can draw lessons from the US Federal Freedom of Information Act.
“Most, if not all, of our 50 States have State laws which guarantee access to public records created by those States but the laws aren’t enough. We need reporters who regularly request public records and use them responsibly for news stories. You need lawyers and judges who understand the importance of public records because sometimes you’ll have to sue the government to get them,” he said.

Beckwith shares the notion that politicians and top government executives have to declare their assets and liabilities saying financial disclosure is an important way to show that politicians do not have a conflict of interest and be transparent.

“Obviously no one likes to share personal information about their finances but that is the trade of what we sometimes have to make. In the US candidates for President now regularly release their tax records voluntarily. There is no law that requires them to do this. And it [release of tax records] often leads to stories they probably wish they were not printed and it has become the norm. Politicians would be even worse off if they didn’t release them,” Beckwith says.

The scribe says exactly how much information should be released will always be a matter of debate as different countries may decide to draw the line in different places.

“There is no one answer on some of these issues. Politicians, journalists and voters will revisit the arguments frequently,” he says.

Beckwith observes that misconception some people had or still have is that Botswana is unique in the problems that journalists face getting information and the concerns politicians have about being treated unfairly by the media.

“We have the same arguments all the time in the US and we will always argue. It’s like arguing about society. It is a perennial debate and that’s the way it should be,” Beckwith says.

Asked about his views on what constitutes a free press, Beckwith says there should be no criminal punishment for issues of libel or any other reporting.

“The government can’t say you can’t write something except in extreme cases. Anyone can still be sued for libel in a civil court,” he says.

Beckwith doubts that the regulation of the media by the government in terms of who can be a reporter works.

“Even if they do, the danger is too great in that the future politician will find┬á┬á government in a situation where your country’s leaders are corrupt. Your democracy will fail. I am not sure if I am for self-regulation. I understand that there are some circumstances where the press may need to regulate itself,” he says.

Self-regulation according to Beckwith has its own downside and he illustrates to buttress his point.
“There may be limited seats on a plane carrying the president to another country. In that case the press itself will have to decide which reporters from which publications get a seat. But that is a very narrow circumstance. In other cases where the press self-regulates, there’s a risk that the larger newspapers may use that as an excuse to hurt their competition,” he says.

Having said that, Beckwith says journalism is a craft that anyone should be able to practice even if it is not their full time job.

“Look at it this way. Some people play football on Sunday with their friends while others are members of the Zebras national team. Anyone can play football,” he says.

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