Interview with Hiroyuki Maegawa, UN correspondent in Geneva for 'Asahi Shimbun' | Novembre 2013
Hiroyuki Maegawa works for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun as its UN correspondent in Geneva. Asahi Shimbun, based in Tokyo, is one of Japan's leading newspapers. with 7.7 million copies a day for the morning edition and 2.9 million a day for the evening edition. It also has an English language online edition, as well as Chinese and Korean ones. In total, 2,000 journalists, editors and photographers work for this newspaper which counts 35 foreign correspondents. Hiroyuki Maegawa talks to us about his work in Geneva, the issues he reports on, the role media should play in international cooperation and his views about international Geneva's media coverage.
When did you arrive in Geneva?
I arrived in October 2010. I have therefore spent three years in Geneva, and this month, I will begin my 4th year here.
Where were you before that?
I started working as a journalist for Asahi Shimbun in 2001. Before coming to Geneva I was working in the international news section in Tokyo, reporting on security issues, nuclear weapons and disarmament.
What prompted you to come and work here?
My editor proposed me to come to Geneva as a correspondent, which I accepted. Asahi Shimbun has been keeping an office inside the Palais des Nations for more than 10 years now, and I am, by the way, also head of office in Geneva.
This being said, the post of UN correspondent in Geneva remained vacant during 2 years and 9 months before my arrival, mainly for economic reasons due to the economic crisis and the restructuring of our newspaper. So during that time, the editors thought that they could do it from London, Paris, Rome or Vienna.
Do you only focus on international Geneva or do you cover other issues related to Geneva and Switzerland?
I am covering UN-related international news in Geneva and some news in Switzerland. So, I cover both international and national news here. By so doing, I am trying to report from the international point of view, because Europe in general is still far away from Japan.
In relation to international Geneva, which issues do you cover? What is your media/ audience interested in?
I basically cover everything that happens here in the UN and in other international organizations. In term of my readers' and editor's interests, I would say that they are particularly interested in disarmament issues. But disarmament is a very slow process and you don't have big news everyday. Explaining the processes in Geneva takes time and I cannot do it everyday. I would say that I do write such an article every six months.
There is also a huge interest when human rights issues related to Japan or to our neighbours, like China or DPRK, are being addressed in Geneva. There was for instance a big interest for the Commission of inquiry on North Korea that has been created by the Human Rights Council. I wrote an article about that, in coordination with one of my colleague based in Seoul, and interviewed one of the Commissioners.
And of course, there is an interest to news related to Iran or Syria, as these are global issues. So I also cover these.
I also sometimes receive my colleagues from Tokyo and from all over the world. who come here to report on a specific issue. For instance, during the negotiations of the Minamata Convention (new treaty on mercury), one of my colleague who covers this issue in Tokyo came to follow the negotiations and we wrote an article on this issue. During the Iran Talks in October I also received one of my colleague from Teheran. In total, I would say that I receive 5-7 colleagues every year.
In your opinion, are there issues that would deserve more media coverage/that are underreported?
Of course, like standardization and standard-setting. These are very important issues but it is very hard to sell this kind of articles to the editor. The work is full of hot news like Syria, North Korea, China or Japan, where we have Fukushima. So if you compete with those hot news, Geneva news can be very hard to sell. So I have to find the angle, I have to find the meaning, I have to find the significance and I have to find some story that could relate those hard talks to some news. This is my job and what I am trying to do everyday.
How do you see the evolution of international Geneva's media coverage?
I would say that the strategic importance of Geneva on the international arena is decreasing. The world is changing. Ten or twenty years ago, what was decided in Europe, in the United States or in Geneva had a huge impact. But it is very different today as you have emerging powers and economies like China, Russia, Turkey, India, Argentina, Mexico or Brazil.
According to some responses I get from my editors and readers, Geneva and some institutions here have to do more to adapt to the reality of the 21st century. They have to reform and reset the agenda. Simply put, Geneva itself or the UN is not newsworthy anymore.
If you look at the foreign correspondents based in Geneva, you will see that most of them are struggling to sell their stories to their editors. But if you can find some angles that are of interest to readers, you can still make it.
We, as journalists, also have competitors as today everyone can communicate via Twitter or Facebook. As professional journalists, we need to ask harsh questions, tell the hard facts and good stories that should be quoted in social media, and that does happen.
What role do you think the media should play in international cooperation?
Media can bring more transparency in authorities' activities, like decision-making processes and tax-using, including on issues related to international cooperation.
The most important job journalists or media can do is to ensure that the public has access to information. By making the authorities or the politicians answer the questions, the public can know how their tax money is being used. They delegate their role through election, and in the democratized world, the authorities should be held accountable as much as possible.
How is your typical day?
Since I work for a Japanese newspaper, I have to cope with time difference, which is of 8 hours now. When I wake up in the morning in Geneva, Japan is already in the evening. So, if I want to have an article published, I need to alert the editor the night before otherwise, it will be too late. My articles are always in competition with other articles, and if they don't interest the editor, they would not be published. So, I basically work around clocks and sometimes on weekends, because we publish everyday, even on Sundays.
Your next story?
I am going to South Africa to write about tuberculosis. As the Geneva correspondent going to South Africa I will be looking at the work of international organizations there, like the Global Fund, about the international discussion on the eradication of tuberculosis and the post-2015 framework.
What I am trying to do is to connect Geneva with the field and with what happens in the field. If you sit here in Geneva and read the reports, it is ok but very dry. So I am trying to connect the discussions here and the data that are being collected here with the field so that readers can see that what happens in Geneva relates to the field and vice-versa.
When my editor told me to go to Geneva, he told me that I should not only be based in Geneva but that I should travel to the UN Member States because that is also Geneva. All the international organizations based here have a field presence and he also encouraged me to use these connections.
Very few correspondents do that here, and most journalists here cover only what happens in Geneva. But I am trying to connect Geneva with the field. It is hard but worth it. And you find that there is a lot of good people in Geneva who are really committed about their job which relates, everyday, to the field.
Your last one?
I also published a portrait of Klaus Schwab when he received the Grand Cordon of Order of the Rising Sun, a decoration from the Emperor. This was published on the second page of the morning edition as part of a series focusing on personalities. To do this portrait I met with Klaus Schwab and interviewed him.
On average, how many articles on international Geneva are taken by your editor per month?
I would say between five to ten per month.
Does 'Asahi Shimbun' have correspondents in other international cities?
Yes, we have a correspondent in New York who covers the UN and the Security Council. We used to have one in Nairobi but not anymore. We also have correspondents in Brussels to cover the EU and the Netherlands, Luxemburg and Belgium, and in Vienna for the UN and Eastern Europe.
Your impressions about working and living in Geneva?
Sometimes I feel the gap between the seriousness of the talks that happen here and the peaceful and calm life in Geneva. It can be disturbing.
But Geneva is a nice, calm and safe city. I live here with my wife and two kids. But I have to say that it is a bit boring. I am not a sports guy, I don't do hiking or skiing and I appreciate more the cultural stuff. I like opera and I wish Geneva had an opera house.