In this blog, George Coiley reflects upon a side event organised by the Urban Journalism Academy, held at the Habitat III regional summit in Toluca, Mexico (April 2016).
On a map El Paso and Juarez appear as a single city straddling the banks of the Rio Grande, but the river represents the Mexico-United States border, and as such is a symbol of disparity rather than commonality. El Paso is the safest city of its size in the US, while in the last decade Juarez has fallen prey to extreme gang-related violence. The stark difference is revealed by the homicide rates; in 2010 Juarez’s were 700 times higher than El Paso’s. The insecurity in Juarez has led to a mass exodus, with people fleeing the worse affected neighbourhoods and either settling in safer areas or attempting to enter El Paso.
At the Habitat regional summit in Toluca, the importance of encouraging participatory and inclusive planning was frequently stated. Urban insecurity is a familiar phenomenon in Latin America and the experience of those whose everyday lives are characterised by vulnerability should help shape the New Urban Agenda (NUA). Yet in reality the experiences of affected citizens are rarely heard in government-led, top-down processes of urban development. The media could play a crucial role in this process, by ensuring that the concerns of vulnerable and marginalised citizens are taken into account. For example, National Public Radio (NPR) published an extensive series on the Mexico-US border, and in doing so NPR highlighted the plight of neighbourhoods in Juarez that have been left behind.
An abandoned house in Riberas del Bravo, Juarez. Source: NPR Media
With this context in mind, I attended an event organised by the Urban Journalism Academy entitled ‘Livable and inclusive cities: the global challenge of sustainable development’, moderated by Gregory Scruggs, a writer for Citiscope and a commentator on the Habitat III process. The panel was made up of a high level Habitat III official and three journalists. The discussion revealed a fundamental disagreement about the role of the media between the official and the journalists in attendance.
The official seemed to understand the function of the media as predominantly one of information dispersal. He expects journalists to play a crucial role in situating the NUA within their respective national urban agendas. His aim is for the Habitat III process to work collaboratively with journalists, ensuring they are given sufficient information that they can subsequently relate through a range of media outlets. He recalled interactions with the press during his time as a government minister and acknowledged that it is always better for decision makers to give too much information than too little. It is then the journalist’s task to make sure this information is reported in an honest and understandable manner. He thinks that this knowledge transfer is particularly important for encouraging participatory processes. For example, he stated that currently ‘youth don’t know how to engage’ and it is the job of media to both equip them with the necessary knowledge and to teach them how to engage in formal participatory processes. If an engagement gap prevailed amongst young people, he argued, it would eventually lead to resistance and violence, implying that an important utility of the media is defusing threats to authority. He also argued that the press’ desire for a story can lead them to only report on the eye-catching or shocking, something that he understands and accepts, but thinks should be discouraged if possible.
While the journalists on the panel acknowledged their role in informing citizens and clarifying public policy, each one of them put a much greater emphasis on the ability of journalism to democratise processes such as Habitat III. Raul Cortes, the Director of News of EFE Media in Mexico, framed the discussion as the establishment versus the media. He said that when relations between government and journalists are good, a virtuous circle allows for citizens’ concerns to inform policy. However, he also claimed government transgressions can equally create a vicious circle, with journalists forced to hold government to account rather than providing a voice for citizens. Moreover, in his wider discussion he implied suspicion regarding those in power, saying that while social media is in no way a substitute for journalism, it does have the advantage that it cannot be shut down by government.
Helen Morgan, of DEVEX, emphasised the need for cross-sectoral collaboration, in particular with academics and NGOs. Particularly relevant to urban development, she stated that it is the job of the journalist to ‘physicalise the stories’ of urbanisation, putting a spotlight on those most vulnerable and citing various examples where this has been achieved, including the NPR documentary cited above. Raquel Picornell, of Foreign Affairs, echoed the other two journalists by arguing for the power to enfranchise citizens who otherwise are impotent in processes like Habitat III. She highlighted the increasing prominence of citizen journalism, citing a programme in Bolivia that provides journalism training to stimulate bottom-up participation in development processes.
Informal Housing made up the backdrop to one of the meeting’s venues. Photo Credit: GLI Member Megan Bethell.
The substance of the discussion reveals a significant disagreement with regard to the role of the media. No-one questioned its value, but the official emphasised its broadcasting capacity, while the others argued for its ability to democratise development processes. In my opinion, the official’s view most accurately describes the current relationship among media, the state and the public. Journalists have no formal input mechanism in the Habitat III process and while it is impossible to track the influence their stories have, it is tangential in comparison to that of participants who operate within the process itself.
At the very least this is a missed opportunity because, although the ministers and experts involved in Habitat III take citizens’ views into account, the voice of civil society in the Habitat III process is muted. There is a forum for formal citizen participation: the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), which is comprised of civil society stakeholders like NGOs and Major Groups. However, the representativeness of certain elements of GAP has been questioned and its influence is limited compared to member states. With this in mind, there is a strong argument that mechanisms should exist for journalists to play a much more active role in the Habitat III process.
George studies politics and philosophy, and is in the third year of his undergraduate degree. George has been awarded a scholarship to continue his studies in Sheffield, by undertaking an MA in Political Theory.