WHAT the twilight says about the future of the media is certainly not lost in hyperbole or ambiguity, particularly in the United States where journalists have experienced one of their worst years plying their trade. If, as they say, “all press is good press”, then the question arises as to whether a democracy can survive when the fundamental “goodness” of the press (in its reverential role as watchdog, gatekeeper, mediator and educator) is constantly under political, economic and legal attack.
At any rate, international journalism last Wednesday (May 3) had occasioned yet again to release some pent-up emotions in the face of increasingly insurmountable operational challenges — ranging from financial pressure and “fake news”, to censorship and open hostility and intimidation.
Given President Donald Trump’s sustained rage against the “media machine” – whom he has often labeled “the enemy of the people”, “fake news” and “the most dishonest human beings on Earth” – the observance of World Press Freedom Day this year takes on extra significance, morosely reflected under the theme, “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies”.
In its present avatar, international journalism seems set to release even more frustration in the months ahead as the fetid pit of populism unearthed by President Donald Trump (his campaign against the mainstream media has truly upended many precedents) has forced some media outlets into drastic verbal retrenchment. Already, several erstwhile outspoken reporters in the US have turtled — after having found themselves in the line of fire, in a profession that the United Nations (UN) considers one of the most dangerous in the world. Yet, whether the media fights back triumphantly or sits back silently, does a cruel future beckon for investigative reporters?
From the face of it, the statistics do suggest that assaulting and ostracizing journalists (especially the prying type) is indeed getting easier. According to Freedom House, 2015 was the worst year for press freedom in over a decade. It estimates that “only 13% of the world’s population lives in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”
While non-governmental organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have championed the cause of threatened and imprisoned journalists for over 20 years, some major hurdles remain in the global effort by investigative journalists to report on human rights violations, give voice to the oppressed, and expose corruption and bad business practices.
The German Newspaper Spiegel reports that “since late 2009, at least 17 journalists have been killed or abducted in Europe in the course of their work. Seven of these incidents took place in Russia, the most dangerous place in Europe to be a journalist.”
This sad state of affairs is once again a poignant reminder that despite the vigilance that a free and independent press provides to democracy, these are certainly not normal times, and the current events around the world — from the unhinged brow-beating of media houses by President Trump, to the jailing and killing of journalists in Asia and the Middle East — offer depressing insights about the limits of democracy and press freedom, and emit vivid flashes of lurid conspiracism and Orwellianism.
Journalists often try to juggle several balls at once: to report political news without appearing too cautious and selective, to engage with government without being too close and beholden, to expand their influence without losing their depth and focus, and to serve the public interest and shine a light onto the practices of powerful individuals, businesses and governments without landing in legal trouble. It would be surprising if they didn’t drop at least one ball.
We need no reminder that a free press is a prerequisite for a functioning democracy and economy. Simply put: without high quality journalism, achieving better, stronger and more inclusive economies is not possible.
Crucially, the quality of public debate will continue to deteriorate as long as the quality of ideas promoted by the media (including social media) remains wanting. Simply reporting the news is not enough – more balanced analyses and back stories are needed in order to provide citizens with candid and clear-cut formulation of problems, as well as the facts necessary for intelligent choice.
Fair and balanced reporting must be the standard practice in the divine effort to scrutinize the government in power and to challenge it. There will always be a very delicate balance to be struck between the protection of State security and the need of the media to be free and independent. Perhaps this is the very source of the tension between the media and the government.
Yet progressive governments do recognize that free and independent journalism reinforces democracy, justice and the rule of law. On that point, the role of the media in supporting democratic development and in stimulating intellectual growth is now increasingly recognized in international policy statements, as the media’s capacity to deliver serious investigative journalism and intelligent analysis of economic trends becomes more crucial than ever.
For comments, write to Clementwulf@hotmail.com – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.