As part of WUSC’s Free Speech Initiative, News Director Nick Vogt and myself interviewed Randy Covington on 90.5 Minutes of the News.
Covington is the Director of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers Newsplex and a professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He has worked at television stations across the United States, for the Associated Press and in radio. As part of the Newsplex, he travels around the world to present workshops on investigative journalism and new media.
In our conversation with Professor Covington, we focused on free speech around the world. “Generally, the medium that has the largest audience is television,” he said. “It’s not by coincidence that in much of the world television is government owned and government controlled.”
Covington, who has experience training reporters in Russia, cited the country as an example. According to him, once Vladimir Putin took power, he moved to limit independent television stations in Russia in order to silence dissenting opinions.
We also talked about the role of governments in restricting the newest place people are expressing themselves – the Internet. With the Arab Spring and the “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong, the Internet took center stage. “They try their best,” Covington said of authoritarian regimes. “This Internet thing – it’s like whack-a-mole. You think you’ve got it under control, but all of the sudden this information is getting out. People will seek the truth.”
Another role of the Internet and new media is citizen journalism. How do citizen journalists fit in with free speech? According to Covington, “traditional media organizations have yet to embrace the power of the crowd. As a result, we suffer. But it’s not like they are going to do our story about why this government agency is corrupt. We’re gonna have to do that story – but they’re going to help us.”
Towards the end of our interview, we focused on an incident that made headlines last October. Covington, along with his colleague Joe Bergantino, was arrested in Russia on alleged visa violations. Covington suspects it was attempt by the FSB (the successor to the KGB) to stifle their workshop on investigative journalism because it was just a little too much free speech for the government to handle.
The pair were hauled into court. “The thing that struck my attention when I walked in was this big iron cage that they used to put the defendants in,” he said. “Fortunately they trusted us and didn’t put us in the big iron cage.”
Covington recounted how the session began. “[Bergantino] was up first and he’s trying to make the argument ‘I have a visa from the U.S. embassy’…and the judge cut him off and says ‘you don’t really need to make that argument, because you’re guilty.”
Ultimately, neither was jailed or fined, but they were ordered to stop the workshop.
Covington says one of the most jarring things about the whole incident was the reaction he got from two hotel employees when he asked their opinion on his arrest as they were checking out. “I have never seen such fear in my life as the fear I saw in their eyes,” he said. “For me, that…really hammered home what we take for granted.”
As Covington and Jay Bender both pointed out during our Free Speech Initiative interviews, we do take free speech for granted. Hopefully our conversations about it on WUSC have helped to educate about the need for and importance of free speech.
You can hear part of our interview with Randy Covington here.
For WUSC News, I’m Ben Turner.