Barbara Trionfi

CV in brief 17 years’ experience Education: MA in International Relations, Webster University | BA Chinese Studies from Ca’ Foscari University (Venice, Italy) | Tongji University (Shanghai, China) | Shandong University (Jinan, China)  Career so far: International Press Institute | Webster University Languages spoken: Italian, English, German, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese Find Barbara online: LinkedIn Exclusive Skype Interview by Lauren Chaplin, 5 March 2017

CV in brief

17 years’ experience

Education: MA in International Relations, Webster University | BA Chinese Studies from Ca’ Foscari University (Venice, Italy) | Tongji University (Shanghai, China) | Shandong University (Jinan, China) 

Career so far: International Press Institute | Webster University

Languages spoken: Italian, English, German, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese

Find Barbara online: LinkedIn

Exclusive Skype Interview by Lauren Chaplin, 5 March 2017

You’re the Executive Director of the International Press Institute. What does your job involve on a day to day basis? 

I work with the great team of experts, which represents the IPI Secretariat’s staff, to define and implement strategies. The International Press Institute works with a network of journalists, editors, and media executives all over the world to protect press freedom and promote quality journalism.

Because we work in such varied environments, with different socio-political backgrounds, it’s very important that our action on the ground is best suited to the specific challenges of a situation. Therefore, the core element of all this is strategizing, i.e. being aware of what the problems are, which is only possible thanks to the input of our members and trusted partners on the ground. It also means understanding what needs to be changed and defining our goals, and strategies, together with the local communities. 

To strategize well, we have to be very realistic about what we can achieve. For example, in a country torn by an armed conflict, we cannot expect to implement a perfect patch of laws that will protect media freedom. This is not the realistic short-term goal for a country in such an unstable political situation. Rather, our strategy is likely to aim at working with partners on the ground to ensure that the journalists that operate there are safe and can carry out their profession without being wounded, attacked, or killed. 

In a more stable socio-political environment, we aim at ensuring that proper laws and respect for the rule of law leads to protection of press freedom rights and the dissemination of a broad spectrum of different ideas and information. In such realities, IPI’s role could ensure that legislators carry out proper consultations with all stakeholders, including media and civil society representatives, before implementing legislation that will affect them. 

Then there’s also the question of our interaction with partners on the ground. In some countries, it’s very dangerous for them to work with us, because it might get them into trouble to partner with foreign entities defending human rights. This needs to be taken into consideration. 

My core responsibility is related to securing funding for the organisation. IPI is supported partially by the media industry itself, partially by trusts, foundations and individual donors. A key task is convincing donors that media freedom is a priority. We operate in countries where there are many other priorities to tackle, from malnourishment to women’s rights issues, so we have to convince donors that the development of a free and professional media is what can bring about long-lasting change. 

You’ve worked at IPI for 17 years. Over that time, have attitudes around the importance of media freedom changed, or has the priority level remained fairly constant? 

Attitudes have changed. The promotion of media freedom was certainly very high on the agenda throughout and immediately after the end of the Cold War. Since the turn of the century, however, an increasingly greater focus has been placed on the promotion of quality journalism, rather than press freedom per se.  

More recently, however, as populist feelings grow and there is a perceived increase in security threats, governments which seem to lack a full understanding of the pillars of democracy have been elected, and tend to clamp down on press freedom and media rights.

At the same time, we have experienced an increase of attacks against journalists who cover conflicts, as if journalists themselves had become a party to the conflicts. This has led to a new focus on the need to protect press and media freedom. 

It's interesting that you mentioned the rise of populism, which we’ve seen coincide with the rise of so-called ‘fake news’. Does IPI have any strategies in place to counter the erosion of trust in the media? 

Absolutely! This is a big focus of our work at the moment. As concerns about so-called “fake news” grow, there is also a tendency to implement new regulations aimed at limiting the dissemination of so-called fake news. On one hand, such new regulation threatens to restrict legitimate speech, with great losses of information; on the other, we are left with the problem of defining what ‘fake news’ is, and who should have the right to decide what amounts to “fake news”. 

In many countries legislation criminalizing the dissemination of “fake news” has existed for years, and it has been abused by those in power as a means to clamp down on dissent. If we allow state authorities to define what fake news is, in countries where the interests of those in power come before the public interest, any information or opinion critical of those in power, or exposing their wrongdoings, will be deemed as “fake news”, and punished with criminal fines. So, the problem that we face today is that a growing number of governments are considering passing laws which theoretically limit ‘fake news’, but in reality, are limiting free expression in general. IPI works with the media community to develop self-regulatory means which can expose fake news whilst preserving quality journalism and free expression. 

Also of concern to IPI is that the liabilities for the dissemination of alleged fake news are placed on the intermediaries, so social media platforms are held responsible for the information disseminated by their users. There’s a strong push on intermediaries to censor content on their platforms deemed as fake news. We feel that very often, however, intermediaries lack the necessary knowledge and resources to do this, especially when their users share information in so many languages and different social contexts. Again, the risk is that of losing legitimate information, or allowing private tech companies to act as censors. So, that’s a challenge we’re facing. 

You’re very passionate about press freedom, and you’ve worked at IPI for most of your career. When did you become interested in press freedom and freedom of speech issues?

It was during my years in China. My first university degree was in Chinese Studies, and I spent a lot of time in China as part of successive research scholarships. I happened to be there in the years after the Tiananmen movement, when intellectual debate about democracy and human rights was taking place in particular within university circles in China. All this was fascinating for me, and I decided to write my university thesis about free expression and censorship in the Deng Xiaoping era, which brought me in contact with Chinese authors who had been censored. That’s when I started being interested in understanding how far a state can and should go in regulating the dissemination of information, and it was then that I felt that this was the direction I wanted to go in my professional career. 

You’ve progressed from being an intern at IPI to Executive Director. Can you tell me a little bit more about that career path? 

I started out on a 20 hour per week internship at IPI. During my internship, I was told to write a feature about press freedom in China, which I felt very lucky about. IPI made all its resources and contacts available to me and allowed me to work very independently from the beginning. In the end, instead of working 20 hours a week as agreed, I would work 40 or 50, because I knew that this was my opportunity to write about a topic I felt strongly about, and have my research published. IPI liked my report and promoted it throughout its network. After a few months, they called me back and offered me a job, and ever since then I’ve had the privilege to work independently on a number of projects. 

I gained the trust of my supervisors, who advanced me in my career, and I certainly always took my work very seriously and given it possibly more than what would be expected, but always received a lot in return. My job is my life, second only to my family, and I think that passion has helped me a lot. 

When you were starting out you demonstrated tenacity and dedication. When you’re hiring people, what do you look for in them?

I look for dedication. We work for the protection of human rights, to help journalists who are threatened, and that means that we have to work long hours or on a weekend to do so, then we will also work as much as needed. 

I look for the ability to work in a team, and value diversity as a great strength of ours, because we work in a multicultural environment, both at the secretariat in Vienna and with colleagues around the world.

Then, of course, I will look for specific skills, most importantly the ability to communicate well. 

What do you feel your biggest achievements have been during your time at IPI?

Success is what motivate us and our donors. When we are able to ensure that a certain law which limits press freedom is amended, for example, or when we contribute to the implementation of legislation which is right in line with international standards, then that’s a battle won. When a media outlet producing good independent news can survive in a restrictive environment thanks to the resources we have been able to offer, that’s great news. 

But human stories are the biggest achievements. Every time we are able to secure that a journalist gets out a prison, that’s what gives meaning to our work. And when journalists who are freed from prison can continue to practice their profession, either in their own country or from exile, that for me is the biggest achievement. 

Recently, for example, IPI contributed to the effort to get Mazen Darwish, a Syrian journalist and human rights lawyer, released from prison, after years of being tortured. He was able to flee to Beirut and eventually to Germany. A few months later he was able to travel to Vienna for an IPI event. He told us that the letters he had received from us during his time in prison kept him going, because he knew there was a community out there fighting for the same ideals as his. And he knew that, in spite of all the time he spent in prison, he hadn’t been forgotten. This for me is what gives sense to my work. 

You meet a lot of inspirational people. Do you have any role models, and if so, who?

When I was growing up, I remember that my grandfather was my role model: a person of great charisma and even greater love. He taught me to always take full responsibility for my actions in life, and not blame others if things don’t work the way I would like to, but always admit my mistakes and learn from them. He also taught me that ethics must always be the foundation of any decision in life. And that those of us lucky enough to have access to good education, we hold an even greater duty to ensure we make something meaningful out of our lives. 

Today, I don’t have a single role model, but many people whom I thoroughly admire. People who are so true to their ideals and values, people who constantly seek to do what is right, not for themselves, but for the societies and countries they live in. People who are confident enough to know that they can change the world, but humble enough to be aware that they can’t do this alone, and either they join forces with those within society who share the same values, or they won’t win their battles.

I feel lucky because many of the people I meet in my job are incredibly inspiring: these days I am thinking at one of IPI Board Members, who is currently held in prison in Turkey: Kadri Gürsel, columnist with the daily Cumhüriyet, is a person who chose to not compromise, even if he knew he has been living and working in a very difficult and restrictive environment. The only compromise he has ever accepted is for the sake of press freedom and human rights, and a journalism that promotes these rights. It’s a tough choice, and I don’t know if I would define him as a “role model”. But Kadri’s ability to remain to true to the very principles of the journalistic profession has been an inspiration to all of us at IPI, and to many of his colleagues in Turkey, and I can only wish he will be freed very soon.