Journalists and the truth under threat

by Fr. Shay Cullen

“Young journalists at an economic conference” | Photo by European Parliament via Flickr/Creative Commons

A Japanese journalist has been arrested and held in prison in Myanmar for reporting the news. He is accused of reporting “fake news” under the tough restriction on reporting by the military junta. The killing goes on, but it is not mainstream journalists that are widely reporting it. A new generation of amateur volunteer journalists- the civil reporters- often in the thick of the demonstrations reporting live over the internet when it is not shut off.

In Zimbabwe, two Spanish journalists, David Beriain and cameraman Roberto Fraile have been killed in an ambush attack against an army convoy in the tri-border Sahel zone of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso in the African Sahel region. They were walking to a national park where poachers and armed groups are active, killing wildlife like elephants and rhinos.

Life for professional journalists is increasingly precarious and dangerous. Many countries have introduced draconian anti-terrorism laws and media restriction laws that consider criticism of the government an act of subversion or even terrorism. While trying to report the news, many professional journalists have been arrested, jailed, and killed.

In 2015, there were 73 journalists killed; in 2018, as many as 56 were killed. In 2019, there were 26 killed. In 2020, another 32 killed, and so far in 2021there have been 5 killed, according to the Committee to Defend Journalists (CDJ). Shocking records of violent response against the Free Press, most have been murdered for reporting unfavorably about corruption among politicians and criminal gangs. Others were caught in the crossfire in war zones.

“Life for professional journalists is increasingly precarious and dangerous. Many countries have introduced draconian anti-terrorism laws and media restriction laws that consider criticism of the government an act of subversion or even terrorism.”

That is not all. Hundreds have been jailed. Since 2020, the number of incarcerated journalists is 274 in jails worldwide for their work telling the truth. The majority are in prisons in China and Turkey. There are 30 plus journalists jailed in each. These countries are among the most severe violators of human rights and free speech. They are oppressors of journalists and manipulators of the truth. Many more journalists are imprisoned in India, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and Syria. In Belarus, 10 are in prison for reporting on the demonstrations.

Then there are the new generations of reporters from the streets, jungles, and mountains around the world who give their lives in getting the truth out to the world using smartphone cameras and recording connected to the Internet. In Myanmar, more than 700 people have been shot to death with bullets to the head, and some have been killed reporting police and military violence. The technology has made for a more efficient and effective way of reporting live, but it is fraught with danger in conflict zones. In countries like the United States, we see street-side reporters reporting by video, sometimes live, acts of police brutality. The reports highlight the news bulletins around the world. The day of the citizen journalist is here.

People once considered their life and work as journalists as among the most respected, adventurous, and exciting professions. They were mostly professionally trained in schools of journalism and universities. They worked on every kind of news in every sphere of public and private life. The international journalist was considered a revered figure reporting from war-torn and disaster-prone regions. After the next big scoop, the most ambitious was exposing crime and corruption, reporting wars and conflicts, and deepening politics and human rights issues. Those days of the protected member of the press are no more. They are targeted persons to be silenced and killed.

“Those days of the protected member of the press are no more. They are targeted persons to be silenced and killed.”

Reporting the news honestly and truthfully was the code of conduct in years past. They are long gone since the onslaught of attacks against the media and journalists in recent years over the internet platforms. Around the world, the attacks are disgusting and blatant lying by politicians spurred on by Trump and his supporters who have sought to undermine the credibility of a Free Press. They branded the truth as “fake news” because it did not favor their point of view or criticized them.

It is a common practice by politicians, police, security officials, and military to silence the Free Press and hide their criminal behavior that is frequently corrupt and detrimental to the people’s good. Before and later as president of the United States, Trump went further and openly challenged and called out journalists by name and ridiculed and insulted them in public. He called all reporting “fake news” if it criticized him. He was so successful at this that “fake news” became the cry of every politician, tyrant, killer dictator, a business tycoon who had a dark side to hide. Regimes passed laws that branded critical reporting as communist propaganda and jailed and manufactured baseless and false charges against many journalists and tried or succeeded to close television stations and media outlets.

They can gag truthful reporters and honest critics. The organized social media trolls spread political propaganda and lie through a network to keep the oppressor’s image looking clean. They use internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Reddit, and TikTok. These are used by the enemies of the truth, allowing the spread of propaganda, personal attacks, false news, and hate speech.

“For truth and freedom of the press to be respected and flourish, they must stop the proliferation of propaganda on the Internet, false news, hate speech.”

After public outrage, Trump is now banned indefinitely from Twitter and Facebook after instigating his followers to attack the US Capitol building in Washington on January 6, 2021.

There needs to be a review and rewriting of Section 230 of the US Internet legislation known as the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Section 230 gives immunity to website platforms. It says, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” That’s why abuse is rampant.

For truth and freedom of the press to be respected and flourish, they must stop the proliferation of propaganda on the Internet, false news, hate speech. Repealing section 230 is the way to guarantee the truth will prevail.

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