Journalism: A Profession under Duress

George Plathottam George Plathottam
19 Dec 2022
Journalists, no doubt, are prophets. A journalist by his or her profession and personal commitment is called to uphold what is true, what concerns the well-being of the people who do not have much power or influence.

The word ‘prophet’ is familiar to the people of different faiths. According to the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition, a prophet is someone specially called by God to speak in His name. Often his or her mission entails speaking the truth to those in power, pointing out falsehood and error, besides exposing malpractices and abuse of power. 

Obviously, such a task entails a lot of risk. Journalism today is a profession under duress. History is tainted with the blood of journalists who have been killed because they spoke the truth. Journalists, no doubt, are prophets. A journalist by his or her profession and personal commitment is called to uphold what is true, what concerns the well-being of the people who do not have much power or influence. Due to the very nature of the work of a journalist as a watchdog, especially of having an eye on those who enjoy power, his or her work is often compared to that of a prophet. 

In today’s highly competitive and commercialized world, corruption and malpractices have tainted the hallowed profession of journalism. Not all journalists today are honest and upright. There are those who sacrifice the ethics of the profession for power, profit or other personal gain. The nexus between those in power and the media is on the rise. In many instances, political leaders or their parties own and run the media and the journalists are forced to toe the line of these ‘owners’. This obviously means compromising on the values of objectivity, freedom and transparency. But the vast majority of journalists are faithful to their mission. In spite of some aberrations, the profession continues to enjoy much credibility. Many young people look to journalism as an academic choice and career option for the challenge the profession offers. 

In the 1970s there was a surge in young people entering schools of journalism as they drew inspiration from the work of two young journalists of The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Their courageous and persistent work at exposing the scandal in the US administration came to be called the Watergate Scandal. Their work eventually contributed to the resignation of the then US President, Mr Richard Nixon. Their brand of journalism came to be called ‘investigative journalism’.  For their heroic reporting, Bernstein, Woodward, and The Washington Post received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973. Watergate continues to be a symbol of investigative reporting worldwide, and the suffix “-gate” is used to describe scandals everywhere.

Some five decades later, journalism and the courageous work of journalists received a shot in the arm when a diminutive Filipino woman, Maria Resse and her colleagues who ran an online media portal, Rappler, was conferred the 2021 Nobel Prize for Peace. For journalists across the world, it was a bold statement acknowledging their prophetic work which the Philippine government under President Rodrigo Duterte tried to stifle and silence through intimidation and a series of court cases. When the whole world acknowledged the work of Resse and her colleagues and praised her for winning the Nobel Prize, the Duterte government uttered not a word of congratulations! It was again a victory for honest, courageous and prophetic journalism, and a slap in the face of the powerful political class that tried to choke and suppress the voice of truth.  

Journalists continue to be prophets of our times. Their work entails courage and conviction -- courage because they have to take on the high and mighty; conviction because they need to stand for truth and integrity. However, the journalistic profession comes at a heavy price. Journalists, especially freelancers, women journalists, or those who work with small and medium newspapers, hardly have any means to stand up against the mighty and the powerful except their pen. Like the prophetic voice, journalists’ voice can be stifled and silenced, they can be jailed and even put to death. Journalistic organizations like the Indian Catholic Press Association must boldly stand up in support of those who dare to speak the truth. 

The year 2022 marks the tenth anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. In a message for the day, the UN Secretary-General, Mr António Guterres, noted that many journalists had lost their lives while covering conflict, but the number of media workers killed outside conflict zones has risen in recent years. “In many countries, simply investigating corruption, trafficking, human rights violations or environmental issues puts journalists’ lives at risk,” the UN Chief said.  Journalists face countless other threats, ranging from kidnapping, torture and arbitrary detention to disinformation campaigns and harassment, particularly in the digital sphere.  He emphasized the need to bring the killers to justice and prosecute those who threaten and inflict violence on journalists. 

The Director General of UNESCO, Ms Audrey Azoulay observed that for too many journalists, “telling the truth comes at a price.” She reminded the Member States of their obligation to protect journalists and to ensure that the perpetrators of crimes against them are punished.  The UN also noted that “threats to the safety of journalists, far from abating, have taken new forms in the digital age, especially for women journalists.” According to them, the failure to investigate and address attacks online has real-life consequences, affecting their mental and physical health. The UN asked Member States to ensure that all journalists are free to carry out their vital work free of threats, intimidation or any form of reprisal online or offline. 

It has been particularly hard for women journalists to do their work without fear. Among the leading women journalists on the line of duty who have been killed in recent times include Gauri Lankesh, the editor and publisher of a Bangalore-based weekly, the Gauri Lankesh Patrike. Lankesh, who was an outspoken journalist, was shot dead on September  5, 2017 in a calculated cold-blooded murder  when she was returning home from work. Another prominent woman journalist of Al Jazeera Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead on May 11, 2022 by Israeli forces while covering Israeli army raids in the city of Jenin in the northern occupied West Bank. Abu Akleh was wearing a press vest and was standing with other journalists when she was killed.

According to the 2017 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, India ranked 136 out of 180, a position quite out of keeping with India’s image as the world’s most populous democracy. Since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 43 journalists have been killed in India. The number tallied by the International Federation of Journalists is far higher: 73 journalists killed since 2005. In the cases of 30 journalists murdered since 2010, being tracked by the Indian media watchdog The Hoot, there has been just one conviction.

The 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows that journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked by the organization. These countries are classified as having “very bad,” “bad” or “problematic” environments for press freedom, and are identified accordingly in black, red or orange on the World Press Freedom map.

The Index data reflect a dramatic deterioration in people's access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage. The coronavirus pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting in the field. The data show that journalists are finding it increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories, especially in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

There is a disturbing decline in the public trust in journalists. The 2021 Edelman Trust barometer reveals 59% of respondents in 28 countries saying that journalists deliberately try to mislead the public by reporting information they know to be false. In reality, journalistic pluralism and rigorous reporting serve to combat disinformation and “infodemics”, including false and misleading information. “Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. Journalism provides the most effective means of ensuring that public debate is based on a diverse range of established facts. 

The 2021 Index demonstrates the success of Nordic nations like Norway (ranked first) Finland (second) Sweden (third) and Denmark (fourth) in upholding press freedom. In contrast, only 12 of the Index’s 180 countries (7%) can claim to offer a favourable environment for journalism, as opposed to 13 countries (8%) last year. 

It is the task of every lawful citizen to ensure that people with genuine motives enter the profession and those who are on the job are ethically guided. It is necessary today to watch the watchdogs and not blindly believe everything that they publish or broadcast is for the public good.  It has become increasingly important to encourage good journalism and to educate the public to be more critical and discerning with regard to news and information that the media put out. Independent journalism and media come with a price which the public should be willing to pay.

Journalism Profession Bible prophet journalists Indian Catholic Press Association António Guterres UNESCO Press Freedom Index Reporters Without Borders Issue 52 2022 Indian Currents

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