Journalism on and under fire

While journalists today have more opportunities to collaborate, they are also threatened as never before. Online harassment and abuse against journalists, government-sponsored threats, and killings saw a significant increase in the last year.

Censorship has taken a new form: take, for instance, internet shutdowns and online hate speech. Journalists experience threats to their privacy, as their email and social media accounts are often reviewed, thus threatening not only data and sources anonymity but also their own personal safety. The level of trust media organisations experience has been deeply affected by the weakening of Western democracies and Western values.

Financial challenges make media organisations dependent, however, and as a result, “we never know where we stand,” explains Julie Posetti, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Reuters Centre for the Study of Journalism, at the session “Journalism’s perfect storm? Confronting rising global threats from “f*ke news” to censorship, surveillance, and the killing of journalists with impunity” at the International Journalism Festival 2018.

Even though social media is a powerful tool to give voices to citizens, it has turned into a weaponised threat to journalism. Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor Rappler, adds that new platforms such as Facebook are the main source of information for people in the Philippines while at the same time social media is used to target any kind of criticism, specifically after the elections of Rodrigo Duterte. Anyone who criticises the Philippines’ drugwar receives serious threats of rape or death on Facebook, Maria Ressa explains. Her media outlet collected enough data to show that such threats were manufactured, and when they told their readers, the government started attacking directly traditional media organisations. Such targeted personal attacks impact the quality of democracy.

According to Jay Rosen, an associate professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University, there is a campaign going on to discredit U.S. news organisations, which is led by the president himself and that is actually working. The absurdity goes so far that “among Republicans, Trump is more trusted as a source of information than the traditional media,” explains Jay Rosen. This strategy works firstly because one can’t have a debate when there is no common object on the table; secondly, because the president himself is a source of misstatements; and thirdly, because media looks aggressive when it fact-checks him.

This weakening and mistrust in western media give enough ground and justification for other countries to mistreat journalists. As Courtney Radsch from the Committee to Protect Journalists explains, more journalists are in jail right now than ever before. Governments are the ones that imprison journalists and often on false news charges. “We are seeing the very decline of media freedom around the world,” she adds. “There is an impact of the decline of U.S. leadership around the world and we see it in terms of access to the press, but also in terms of justifying throwing the press out of a country.”This phenomenon is a tool to manipulate the public sphere. To be an investigative reporter nowadays seems to be as dangerous or even more than being a war reporter”, she further stresses. From her point of view, Europe is not leading on press freedom, as what we all need now is advocacy and global leadership on press freedom, not stand-and-see policy: “We can talk about UN resolutions, but countries that sign those still have record high numbers on killings of journalists.” She believes that what journalists can do is to put the spotlight on those cases of journalists that have been attacked or murdered and undertake investigations.

Guy Berger, director for freedom of expression in UNESCO, compares the media environment to a fish that we need to protect against extinction and prevent from the escalation of toxic trends. “Journalism is the good bacteria in the belly of the fish, which is in a stormy ocean of nationalism, war, refugees and of environmental degradation. We need the good bacteria to survive in order to have a healthy ocean to develop sustainable development, human rights, and democracy.”

How to protect these healthy journalism bacteria, however? Through collaboration between media organizations, journalists, and platforms, answers Maria Ressa. For her, there are long-term, medium-term, and short-term measures that need to be taken with education falling under the category of long-term measures and media literacy under medium-term measures. What is crucial right now is to convince social media platforms to collaborate as they are the only ones that have the power to act right now. “Facts are not determined by popularity but this is our world today. We need to help platforms deal with the reality and the context of the world they’ve helped create.”