by Riz Khan
It’s a double-edged sword. Technology has made the life of journalists so much easier and yet so much more difficult. Even in the least-developed countries, where simple infrastructure such as paved road is a luxury, access to mobile phones, the portability of satellite broadcasting systems, the growth of delivery platforms, and the popularity of 24-hour news channels enable a news story to make it into the homes of hundreds of millions of people instantly.
THE PRESS: 2010
• Main Index
Institutions Fail to
Defend Press Freedom
• Exposing the Internet’s
• Across Continent,
• In Latin America, a
Return of Censorship
• Partisan Journalism and
the Cycle of Repression
• On the Runet, Old-School
Repression Meets New
and North Africa
• Suppression Under the
Cover of National Security
Which is a problem for those who want to control the flow of information. Reporting is hard to manipulate when the information can be on television, radio, and the Web before anyone else can get their hands on the message. So what are the options if this reporting is to be stopped?
More and more, intimidation has become the tool of choice: Scare journalists into staying away from a story; make sure they understand their interference is not welcome. A few dead bodies along the way should help. Perhaps nowhere is that more clear than in Mexico, where drug-related bloodshed has encompassed thousands of lives, including those of many journalists. To drive home their brutal point, gangs dump beheaded and mutilated bodies on roadsides. When that isn’t enough, spraying the offices of media outlets with machine gunfire adds a little emphasis.
In reality, it’s not so much the high-profile international journalists who face the greatest dangers, although Iraq and the former Yugoslavia took their tolls, including the life of my friend Terry Lloyd. International correspondents are often visitors who don’t file on a daily basis and aren’t as deep into the stories or issues. They can simply be refused an entry visa into a country. The true champions, resisting the threats and pressures every day, are the local reporters.
I was impressed recently to hear the story of Brazilian newspaper journalist Daniela Arbex, who has that rare persistence to follow through on a story despite extreme difficulties and threats. She has won numerous awards for stories in the Minas Tribune that, among other things, exposed the neglect of rape victims, the abuse of mentally ill people, and the enlistment of schoolchildren in the drug trade. In each case, her reporting changed government policies. A different challenge faces Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist and daughter of two Holocaust survivors who lives and reports from Gaza and the West Bank. She faces vitriolic condemnation from Israelis for daring to criticize her country’s policies in the Palestinian territories–although she has also had some pretty tough words for Palestinian leadership, too. In spite of the conditions she faces, Hass continues to challenge any abuse of power.
As we know, the ruling authorities pose the greatest threat in many places, targeting news sources directly or imposing restrictive rules that make the job of reporting important stories that much harder. Few countries are an exception to this rule; every government would love to control the flow of information.
When it comes to targeting journalists, fingers are often pointed at the “usual suspects,” such as Iran and Egypt. But it goes much further: International organizations have made similar judgments about Sri Lanka, Somalia, and others. My own TV channel, Al-Jazeera, has been the target of more governments around the world than any news channel in history. There’s a price to pay for speaking out, for showing the missiles not only being fired but showing them landing, to quote a colleague.
So what happens in an era of blogging, tweeting, social media, and citizen journalism, where anyone can be a “reporter” or mobilize support for an idea? What does that do to the flow of information and who controls it?
That is, perhaps, the biggest game-changer. For journalists, it blurs the lines between official and unofficial media, making it harder for established news organizations to distance themselves from what might be perceived as politically biased viewpoints. It has particularly affected news media in the United States, where traditionally neutral channels now feature more programming and personalities with a clear and usually outspoken point of view. The raising of the public temperature through aggressive commentary may help ratings, but it doesn’t necessarily help journalists do their jobs effectively.
There is also the risk, in an increasingly networked world, of the smallest offhand comment turning into an unexpected landmine. Leading media figures such as White House veteran Helen Thomas, longtime CNN journalist Octavia Nasr, CNN’s Rick Sanchez, and NPR’s Juan Williams have all discovered that offering an opinion can cost one a job. In each case, they spoke outside their own, regular media affiliation (and their comments reflected rather different viewpoints), but overall it added to that blurring of lines between traditional news and the brave new world of socially networked commentary.
Given the power of social networking–which has brought down governments, mobilized opposition, and created demands for accountability–it is understandable that many authorities feel a threat to their control. Witness Google’s tussle with the government of China. Globally, bloggers are already facing the same hazards that traditional journalists have always endured: intimidation, imprisonment, torture, and even death.
The situation is made more complicated by the traditional media’s willingness to invite more and more participation from the public: “Send us your e-mails,” “Contact us through Twitter,” “Share with us on Facebook,” “Just text us.” The old world is trying to meet the new one head-on, but where does it leave fair and balanced reporting by trained journalists, and how can media outlets safeguard their neutrality and credibility?
This leads to my final question: At what point does the growing volume of public commentary render media outlets and their journalists even greater targets? As I said, it’s a double-edged sword and, in this case, everyone is in danger of getting cut.
Riz Khan is host of “Riz Khan” and “Riz Khan’s One on One” on Al-Jazeera English.