Behind the news – Head in the sand

Journalists are human beings. They stay up late and attend parties and the next morning they are sometimes lazy. They can be careless and make honest mistakes. But they never venture out with malice and the spirit of rancour in their hearts. Picture: FILE

This week something stopped me in my tracks.

My eyes caught a front-page headline that screamed out in bold letters the words “Don’t Talk To The Media”.

The only thing I felt was missing from that headline was an exclamation mark “!”

That would have given it a loud shriek and a scary howl, like the sound effects of a horror movie.

I am normally the first person to be in the newsroom every day.

Yes some of us catch the bus to work at 5.30am and a headline like that made the empty newsroom a very lonely place to be on a Monday.

I felt sorry for the organisation that made the remark and others who feel that stifling the media or keeping journalists out, is the most logical way of solving the rise in poverty and hardships that have bombarded us since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moreover, I empathised for the struggling families and citizens, who will have to go through these trying times without the advantage of having the media as their advocate and rights defender.

The headline provoked me to try another attempt at reassuring citizens, groups, organisations, businesses and authorities that we are never the “enemy” or a group of people to shun, ignore and stay away from. We are to be embraced and cherished.

As far as threats to press freedom goes the Monday 18th article was not as bad as it could be – journalists get verbally threatened, harassed, gaoled and murdered.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 58 journos were killed in 2018 while 56 were killed last year.

Those killings were for honestly carrying out their job, which means there is an underlying and pervasive issue here that needs addressing.

There seems to be a growing move inclined towards threatening, intimidating and undermining the work of the media. Journalists are human beings.

They stay up late and attend parties and the next morning they are sometimes lazy.

They can be careless and make honest mistakes. But they never venture out with malice and the spirit of rancour in their hearts.

Some can be unethical and biased and this can affect their ability to effectively hold people accountable, or to write with objectivity and to reason with impartiality.

Furthermore, the social media landscape and the prevalence of fake news and misinformation have tainted the work of journalists in general, at times to the extent that the media and its work are demeaned, if not scandalised.

But although journalists have flaws, vilifying and demonising the media and the body of journalists they represent injures democracy and further disempowers men, women and children – the very people whose voices the media tries to amplify.

It injects distrust into the public sphere and destroys the wonderful platform the media works tirelessly to create for debate, awareness, exchange of information, advocacy, engagement and civic interaction.

Some officials simply cannot stand being subjected to media questioning and scrutiny, as recognised in open justice and transparent leadership.

In retaliation, they create personal vendettas with the media in an attempt to tarnish its democratic standing and intimidate its journalists.

This is childish and short-sighted.

To stifle the media during a crisis or to use a crisis to justify a deliberate attempt to curtail freedom of the press, is not the brand of democratic governance we want to portray or promote.

The public stigmatisation or propagation of negative perception of the media, as a society watchdog and purveyor of truth, serves no advantageous and valid purpose.

It has no place in Fiji.

Laws and policies are made to serve us, to make life easy for us, to uplift our living standards and allow us to enjoy human dignity and the rights that we rightfully deserve.

So if we citizens are at the heart of the law, if we drive development agenda, then the work of the media in bringing to the public sphere the genuine concerns of vulnerable citizens and the poor during a crisis is not only justifiable but necessary.

If this form of awareness-raising, needs identification and amplifying of citizenry voices will not help hold authorities accountable, or apply democratic restraint on leaders or influence them to change for the benefit of the governed, then the media has no mandate, it cannot serve society and its people.

I believe, muzzling the media in any form, to avoid policy scrutiny and criticism simply means deliberately weakening transparency and accountability mechanisms and processes that are vital for progress, stability and survival.

Also, it must not be accepted but instead – vigorously condemned, within the confines of the law and with responsibility.

By denouncing it means we are not saying “we can’t work with you or find you revolting”.

We are simply negotiating for space to conduct our work in accordance with the law and to be given the
recognition and the support we need.

The notion of journalism without fear or favour cannot be taken lightly.

It is a foundational tenet of all modern democracies.

It must be guaranteed in law and in practice.

It must be an integral part of our democratic culture.

This means that any policy that exists to limit freedom of expression, as a fundamental and interconnecting right, will affect society’s enjoyment of other rights with which press freedom is intrinsically and inherently associated.

Freedom to express the aspiration and feelings of people, who feel betrayed and let down by their authorities or leaders’ decisions and actions is an entrenched human right.

It is a way of getting things done! Period!

This means the press cannot be stifled when honestly fulf ling its duties.

It also means that if press freedom is ever “limited” then by right and in line with governance ideals, it should be strictly necessary and justifiable according to democratic principles.

Discouraging the poor from raising concerns via the media, during this pandemic, works against the collective interest of society, justice and freedom.

It means removing the democratic oversight and safeguard that must be present in order for people to prosper and enjoy life.

Shunning the media is like the case of the ostrich burying its head in the sand when frightened.

In the real world, problems don’t disappear into thin air when they make us uncomfortable
or expose our imprudent decisions, choices and deeds.

They only make our mistakes fester and snowball ,and work to our own detriment.

Until next week, stay blessed, stay healthy and stay safe!

  • The views expressed are the author’s and not of this newspaper.

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