Journalism – the dangerous business

I wrote recently about the moral purpose of journalism, in part I noted:

The bottom line is that, consciously or unconsciously, reporters and editors often concede their independence to political actors. Equally, states often go to extreme lengths to coerce or cajole the news media into toeing the line

There’s another deep philosophical argument: Is the conscience of the journalist easily equated with the broader public conscience?

In this context, one of journalism’s most important roles is that of awakening the public’s conscience. Journalists must decide when the alarm must be sounded and how best to do so.

(The Global Journalist, p.4)

I am still thinking about these issues, they’re not yet fully resolved in my own head, but I think it’s a debate that anyone with an interest in honest, truthful and insightful news media should engage in.

However, it’s never too late to sound the alarm: journalism is a dangerous business for courageous reporters who threaten powerful political and economic interests.

At a time when the news industry is in such dire straits – closures, redundancies and declining public trust – the very future of journalism is at stake. If the major news organisations, particularly in print, collapse, what happens to investigative and agenda-setting journalism? Who is going to perform the watchdog function and protect the public interest?

How to should journalists react to the declining value that there work seems to have?

Journalism remains important, we need reliable news. We also need courageous journalists who will seek the truth and shine a light on corruption without fear or favour.

But it’s not easy and a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, highlights just how dangerous it is for journalists to actually stick to any kind of moral purpose in their work.

The CPJ report is called Getting away with murder 2009. It is depressing and alarming and should be required reading on all journalism courses around the world. Every news organisation should be covering it and promoting the work of the CPJ, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange and Reporters Without Borders.

Getting away with murder 2009 covers the CPJ’s “impunity index”, the number of unsovled murders of journalists and newsworkers:

CPJ’s Impunity Index, compiled for the second year, calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a country’s population. CPJ examined every nation in the world for the years 1999 through 2008. Cases are considered unsolved when no convictions have been obtained. Only those nations with five or more unsolved cases are included on this Index, a threshold reached by 14 countries this year.

Iraq is at the top of the list, closely followed by Sierra Leone and Somalia. Russia is surprisingly ranked at number 9, probably because of the weighting given to its larger population. In Russia 15 out of 16 journalist murders since 1999 remain unsolved.

CPJ Impunity Index 2009

CPJ Impunity Index 2009

The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Barometer for 2009 is also fairly sobering. So far in the first half of 2009, 16 journalists have been murdered and 144 are in prison, 9 media assistants are in jail and 67 cyberdissidents around the world.

The RSF also has a press freedom predators list which names the heads of state and other leading government figures who are culpable in these deaths and jailings.

The International Press Institute also maintains a greusome “death watch” listing of journalists and the deadliest countries for press freedom. According to its figures, the IPI says 23 journalists have been murdered, or killed in “crossfire” so far in 2009.

Reporters and editors are targeted by thugs because there is some deadly secret that the journalist is trying to expose and that the murderers and conspiritors want suppressed. I think this clearly demonstrates that there is a moral purpose to journalism and that sometimes this is not evident in relatively safe countries like New Zealand.

There is sometimes a complaceny that creeps into our comfortable lives and we think that journalism is just about being a conduit from the authorities to the people. However as the RSF, IFEX, CPJ and IPI reports all clearly indicate, this is a luxury that can be taken away at any moment (vide Fiji).

Not only is the moral purpose of journalism to expose lies and corruption and to help democracy flourish; the moral purpose of journalism also includes a responsibility to stand up and be counted when it comes to exposing the dangers that reporters and editors face in the line of public duty.

There’s also a moral responsibility on all of us – newsworkers and audiences – to honour those who have died and to take up the cause of those who are unjustly imprisoned for just doing their jobs.

The IPI honours a number of “heroes” of media freedom from around the world. We should all strive to be on that impressive list.

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