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Journalism, the Lifeblood of Democracy, Is Facing an Existential Threat

Press Freedom Day: in a World of Fake News, Could Facts Still Save Us?

by Sherwin Bryce-Pease
Press Freedom

Representatives of Member States pose for a group photo ahead of a panel discussion entitled, “Safety of Women Journalists in Conflict”, to mark World Press Freedom Day (3 May). The event was convened by the Permanent Missions of France, Greece and Lithuania to the United Nations on behalf of the Group of Friends on the Protection of Journalists. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

What is dangerous is when the journalist is viewed as the problem for reporting on the bad behaviour, rather than the bad behaviour itself. When facts no longer matter, then peace deals break apart; when facts don’t matter human rights are abused and impunity reigns; when facts don’t matter, wars become protracted rather than brief

Sherwin Bryce-Pease, President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), gave this speech during the event entitled, “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies”, on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day (3 May) that was celebrated this week at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Today I will argue that one of the casualties of an increasingly polarized world is the press, the traditional media, your daily newspaper or favourite online news site, the evening news or the radio station you listen to to get the latest news. There is a concerted effort to undermine our profession and it’s working; just take a look at the fake news websites that spread disinformation at our expense or this not so subtle creep that has somehow legitimated a convergence of entertainment and news, where the facts are no longer sacrosanct.

Our profession is being abused, the credibility of stories undermined, their authors, editors and the institutions that run them constantly disparaged in the knowledge that there are no real consequences; that its okay to bash the media because nobody in power really likes having them around anyway even though publicly the romance is real. When a certain United States President issued a recent travel ban against 7 and then 6 countries in Africa and the Middle East, a so-called news story about free visa travel to the United States from places like Ghana and South Africa started doing the rounds. I would get emails from excited South Africans planning their next holiday asking me if it was true. It angered me not only because these fake news websites exist in the first place but that society is so easily swept up in the euphoria of these lies. And because societies are so gullible due to reasons I will not delve into here, the risks to real journalism have never been greater.

No President is arrested for insulting the press but print or broadcast a story that shows a president in a poor light, and in some places you are arrested, thrown into jail and accused of treason. In other places, we are called up and berated – or worse – our editors take the calls from aids or chiefs of staff who cajole or threaten, depending on time of day. And the outrage from those you expected would defend you? Well, the outrage is often muted, the response generally in the form of broad written statements that acknowledge the importance of a free and open society but fail to the address the specificity of the insults, the arrests or the flagrant abuse of power. Those statements are generally issued on World Press Freedom day and are expected to offer cover for every infraction that might occur anywhere in the world for the next 365 days. Why has saying the right thing become so much harder for those who have the ability to make people listen? Why is saying the right thing something to be well scripted and coordinated so as not to offend leader A or B – in an era when the populist insults directed against the press grow louder and more targeted. Taking the higher ground sometimes just shows weakness and often has no impact in effecting the change we all hope to see.

The Committee to Project Journalists has labeled Turkey the world’s worst jailer of journalists, closing 178 news outlets in the space of five months. A news poll in the United States says Americans trust what comes out of the White House more than they trust the reporters covering the Presidency. Media Freedom is constantly being restricted in South Sudan, something that was highly unlikely as the country moved towards independence in 2011. Journalists are berated by law enforcement in South Africa, forced to delete images off their phones or cameras or accused of taking sides in political discourse through reporting the facts that one side or another rejects. That we work in a contested space is not at issue here, such is the nature of the job. What is dangerous is when the journalist is viewed as the problem for reporting on the bad behaviour, rather than the bad behaviour itself.

And here’s the real kicker – in a world of fake news and alternative facts, the facts are what still save us. Facts are often the difference between the right choice and the wrong one. Climate Change for example should no longer be a debated and yet it’s still contested. The leaps we have witnessed in science just in our own lifetimes, helps us make the best decisions from healthcare to agriculture, because facts matter. When facts no longer matter, then peace deals break apart; when facts no longer matter, people die because of disease or hunger; when facts don’t matter human rights are abused and impunity reigns; when facts don’t matter, wars become protracted rather than brief.

Goal 16 of the SDGs calls for the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies, recognizing how a free press is closely linked to access to information and the promotion of human rights. The SDGs will be severely threated or compromised if the media continues to suffer from an incontinence of attacks while sacrificed at the alter of short-term political expediency.

So, it might not be too far fetched to suggest that journalism as we know it is facing an existential threat from forces that seek to undermine public trust in what we do. In the end we still believe that truth matters, facts reign and lies fade under the bright lights of an open and free society. But journalists, or free press NGOs cannot fight that battle alone. We need voices from the grassroots, to editorial boards, the executive offices of multinational companies, heads of government and state and multilateral organisations to speak up, boldly and loudly in the face of unprecedented levels of deceit that not only threatens how journalism functions but how a rules based society works; one that seeks to effect change and secure a sustainable future for everyone. Under the circumstances I have just laid out, it is incumbent on everyone to be a bit more wily but for those in power to more publicly challenge those who abuse that privilege. In other words, check the source of that story before hitting share on twitter on facebook.

As former South African President Nelson Mandela said and I quote: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.” Close quotes. If anyone would like to disagree with Nelson Mandela, I’d love to hear why?

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