A 31-year balancing act for journalists' union chief.
THIRTY ONE years ago, journalist and unionist Andreas Kannaouros was voted in as president of the Journalists' Union (CJU) for a three-year period. At the next election cycle, he ran again, and won. And then again, and again, and again and again.
In total, the septuagenarian won ten elections at the CJU, at least eight of them unopposed. Today, the 78-year-old is putting away his pen as the final round of voting takes place at the union for a new president. He chose not to run for this one.
When the CJU was officially founded in 1960, there were 27 founding members. Today, there are over 540 members. In 1979, Kannaouros became the fifth and subsequently longest-serving union president.
The Cyprus Mail caught up with the familiar public figure, commonly referred to as "Mr President", to discuss the highs and lows of journalism in Cyprus from his days as a budding journalist in 1952 to the present.
"The tragedy of Cypriot journalism is the lack of specialisation. It's a big issue. In European papers, you may get up to 120 journalists each specialising. Here there are so few, and this is our shortcoming, that we are not experts on our subjects. In any case, standards of journalism are falling worldwide," he said.
Kannaouros' own foray into journalism began in 1952 with the AKEL-backed newspaper Neos Democratis. Two years later the paper closed as a result of emergency measures imposed by the British colonials. It was replaced in 1956 by Haravghi.
"There were three daily newspapers in the 1950s, two or four pages the most. When a six-page issue came out, we'd plug it with a big headline in the paper saying: 'Tomorrow a six-pager'," said the outgoing union leader.
"It was a very difficult period. Journalists had a curfew pass allowing us to move freely, but anyone stepping out late in the evenings was always in danger of indiscriminate shootings."
Journalists played multiple roles in the 1950s, taking on a more active social role pre-independence. When the curfew left the less fortunate without food, those with curfew passes would attempt to deliver much needed supplies.
"I'll never forget us using our passes to take bread to those who were isolated. They were difficult times for sure. We had a curfew pass but this did not guarantee our safety," he said.
Journalists covered the daily strife of the people under colonial rule, including crime, hangings of young EOKA members, emergency rule, demonstrations and the chaos caused by storms at a time when drainage systems did not exist. Some of the issues covered are still newsworthy today, like the latter, though one aspect that we don't read too much about anymore is the abject poverty of Cypriots.
"I'll never forget how on Saturdays, Nicosia was flooded with people descending from the rural areas like Tylliria carrying tins to collect a piastre (former currency) or two," said Kannaouros.
When Cyprus finally achieved statehood and the pension system was introduced, this level of poverty was slowly eradicated.
Another area of social and political life which saw "tremendous changes" was journalism. "A journalist's job has become more stressful, more pressured, with competition in the media adding to this. Now a journalist is chasing time. They look at the clock on the wall, and complain that the clock is racing. We want to stop the clock, where as other workers will say, "Ah look at that lazy clock, it's not going anywhere'," said Kannaouros.
The union leader acknowledged that journalists are more independent today than they were 40-50 years ago but is quick to question how much independence the current crop of journalists have.
"To be honest, how respected is journalistic independence? How many intervene and curtail this independence? We have interventions both from within (the media organisation) and external. Perhaps most are within."
He also flagged the role of advertising, which may try to put conditions on the work of journalists. "A public relations officer has a different role than that of a journalist. The one tries to beautify things, while the journalist's role is to tell the truth however hard it may be."
Kannaouros welcomed the growing space for investigative journalism in Cyprus, and the uncovering of scandals and abuses of power that never used to see the light of day.
"Abuse of power remains. It was greater before, but it still remains along with bad governance."
He highlighted the lack of transparency in public life in Cyprus, perhaps best highlighted by the government's recent attempt to gag public officials from feeding journalists with information on the generous multiple pensions received by retired and current public officials.
Kannaouros pointed to the laws passed which prevent public employees from giving information to journalists.
"This is the criminalisation of information where as in other European countries, it's the opposite, it is criminal for a public servant to refuse to give information. Here, classified documents are the is an essential human right to have access to information. The public have the right to know."
In the past, journalists were also kept out of parliamentary committee meetings which were all held behind closed doors. Even today, cameras are not allowed in.
"They say the MP will start acting like a populist in front of the camera. Well, let him, the TV channel will expose him and let the people decide. Either way, he leaves the room and becomes a populist anyway."
On freedom of speech, the seasoned journalist spoke of the need to balance such freedom with responsibility. You can't destroy others because there is freedom of speech," he said.
He referred to a case when as chief editor at Haravghi, a mother called him crying because the paper had published the names of five teenagers caught for burglary. "We didn't serve those children by putting their names on the front page. We didn't help them. Here a journalist has to show responsibility."
Speaking of his work at the union, Kannaouros it was only two years ago that the union managed to abolish criminal libel laws, where a journalist could go to jail for slander.
Asked what he would like to see in the next decade for journalism, he said: "I'd like to see the standards of journalism rise."
Kannaouros hopes his successor will continue efforts to open a Mass Media Institute for trainee journalists. Currently, around 35-40 per cent of journalists have any university degree.
"The romantic era when journalists who only finished primary school became great journalists has passed. The education levels of journalists need to increase. Especially now we have a large number of new journalists with the explosion of new media."
So, what does a union president of 31 years plan to do now with his time? "I will try to get closer to God, and with this I mean, to music and all the wonderful things God gave which we overlook. I'll get closer to my family," he added.
Copyright Cyprus Mail 2009
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