The greatest danger to journalism lurks in men’s hearts

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This year’s world map coloured according to levels of press freedom shows the highest number of countries in black, the lowest level, since the report started in 2002. (Internet)

In her provocative monologue at this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, that seems to have drawn bellyaching laughter and sanctimonious outrage in equal measure, US comedian Michelle Wolf skewered pretty much everyone under the sun, as is often the way in this unique annual event, but pointedly deigned to spare the print media. Only to deliver the blow back-handed, by saying it was because “it is illegal to attack an endangered species.”   

It spoke to the rampant disruption caused by technology that we have been witnessing for some time now within the industry, whereby the emergence of digital media platforms such as websites and apps have served in many cases to render print versions obsolete, particularly in countries that have taken to these changes most readily, the so-called early adopters. With the NASDAQ index for tech companies regularly overshooting itself and Silicon Valley in the US state of California assuming the stature of a powerful and assertive nation-state, for a while it did seem as if nothing would be allowed to stand in their way. Besides, the world had already witnessed what they did to the music industry. There was no reason to believe journalism would be spared.

And yet, twenty or so years later, not only is the media still here, even print is holding its own outside the traditional growth centres located mainly in the industrialised countries of the West. But thanks mainly to higher education levels now prevailing in the rapidly developing economies of the global South, and the greater credibility the accrues to the printed word. To cite the most shining example, newspaper circulation in India has grown from 39.1 million copies in 2006 to 62.8 million in 2016 – a 60 percent increase, according to figures maintained by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. And it’s not exactly as if Indians aren’t keen on technology.  

Other factors also play into the resilience of print specifically (subscribing to or following certain print publications can bestow a reader with a particular status within societies, such as liberal or conservative, and the failure of digital platforms from really taking off as revenue generators, except if you’re Facebook or Google) and indeed, journalism more generally. What else is there really, to fill the essential role earmarked for journalists in democratic societies? Can we really imagine, can anyone actually even conceive democracy without the thrum and the thrill of a free press? 

Well, multitudes as it turns out, if you go by the findings reported in the latest edition of the World Press Freedom Index 2018, the flagship report published annually since 2002 by French NGO Reporters Without Borders, or Reporters Sans Frontières, their original French name that also gives them the acronym they are more commonly known by (RSF). The report clearly demonstrates that the single-greatest threat to journalism today is no longer disruptive technology, where a threatening outlook has given way to a climate of cooperation as the media and tech companies explore ways to cooperate, rather than exterminate each other. Instead, it comes from something altogether more old-fashioned, even ho-hum: vested interest groups, like politicians, or the so-called establishment, or others who seek to exercise control over society’s narratives and advance aims and objectives  that play to their advantage. Even more worryingly, the danger is driven by the emergence of something primal within our species, hence far more difficult to tackle: hatred.

It is notable in fact, just how many times the word appears in the commentary accompanying this year’s index. It is most starkly stated right at the outset: “Hatred of journalism threatens democracies.” Thereafter the report states how it reflects “growing animosity towards journalists.” The next sentence mentions “hostility”.

The second paragraph of the analysis states: “The climate of hatred is steadily more visible in the Index...Hostility towards the media from political leaders is no longer limited to authoritarian countries.”

Then in the third, you get “democratically-elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion.” Already one is left thinking, who would be a journalist? And yet as someone belonging to this most hated of tribes in a country ranked 146th out of the 180 on the list, one can hardly profess to not know what the report’s authors are getting at. Here in Bangladesh of course, we are also confronted with a key obstacle that is not part of the metric used by RSF in compiling its index: government policy. Yet that is possibly the biggest obstacle of all, one that breeds a sense of despair and futility that quickly translates into the pernicious and self-defeating practise of self-censorship, whereby journalists effectively stunt their own professional growth. 

The chaos sown in the profession by the dreaded Section 57 of the ICT Act is still fresh in the memory, and indeed in many cases still playing itself out, even after an assurance from the law minister that it would be curtailed, more-or-less admitting that it was a flawed piece of legislation. Currently the media along with its advocates in Bangladesh are apprehensive most of all above another piece of legislation that is purported to be enacted with the aim of doing away with all the weaknesses of Section 57.

Yet the draft of the Digital Security Act, currently in the form of a bill awaiting the day it is placed in parliament and voted on, has already drawn criticism for not going far enough to assure journalists that the government has no intention of undermining them in the fulfilment of their important role, much less to endanger them in any way as they go about doing their jobs.  As one head of a Dhaka-based NGO told Amnesty International: “The purpose and spirit of these laws is the same, which is to restrict. It’s about sending a message that you need to be careful when you criticize the government.”

Recently a delegation of the Editors’ Council, a platform of editors of national dailies, met with the law minister and expressed grave concerns over six sections in particular (sections 21, 25, 28, 31, 32, and 43) of the proposed law. They are said to have demonstrated how the problematic sections would greatly hamper freedom of speech and independent journalism in the country, eliciting a fairly positive response from Law Minister Anisul Haque, who proposed to set up a meeting between the Council and the parliamentary committee that is scrutinising the bill prior to its placement in parliament. No doubt we all would be keeping a close eye on developments on this front, seeing it as a good opportunity to test the government’s sincerity.

The World Press Freedom Index however, while leaving out government policy, does include the level of pluralism, media independence, the environment and self-censorship, the legal framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information, in arriving at its index.

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