“Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive...that is why our press was protected by [the Constitution]...not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasise the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply 'give the public what it wants', but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mould, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion...so it is to the printing press—the recorder of man's deeds, the keeper of his conscience...that we look to for strength and assistance, confident that with your help, man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.”
— John F Kennedy
Over the last two decades, if not more, the global press, if taken as a whole, has largely failed to live up to the lofty ideas and ideals talked about by former US President John F Kennedy and countless other visionaries who understood that “a critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy,” as Nelson Mandela said. That is why journalism and journalists around the world today face so much more danger, as it is through those failures that they have lost two of their most powerful allies—the truth, and a citizenry armed with the truth that understands that there can be no real freedom without truth, and no truth spoken, without a critical and independent press.
Take the case of the Iraq War for example. Wasn't it the press that told us the same lies about Iraq having Weapons of Mass Destruction as did the politicians? And while you could blame that on the western mainstream media, didn't most media outlets around the world also then sing from the same song-sheet, without investigating?
Perhaps I am being a little too strong in my criticism. After all, except for a handful of western media houses, most media outlets in the world have huge resource constraints and therefore “have” to rely heavily on western news outlets and agencies (most owned by the same handful of corporations). But, then again, say that to the millions of dead Iraqis and the millions more in Iraq and other places who lost their homes and their loved ones, and see how they feel.
Despite that, investigative and independent journalism is not yet dead; far from it, in fact, as there are thousands of incredible and principled journalists who are challenging propaganda and lies around the world, as well as some of the most powerful individuals, governments and organisations in the world, whose interest it is in to keep people divided and in the dark. Although, as the percentage of journalists who are courageous enough to be critical and not conform dwindle, the threat to silencing their voices is daily becoming more pressing.
Take for example Julian Assange, who has been silenced for over a month now with no communications allowed with the outside world—whose voice is so powerful that even the great Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, said this of him: “He not only is one of the few authentic heroes of our time, he also has shown to all of us how to be a hero today, that it is possible to be a hero today.” But regardless of how one feels about Assange, the fact remains that Wikileaks is the only news outlet in the world that has a 100 percent record for accuracy for over 10 years which is unheard of. And here is another major problem that we, as a global society, have today—our obsession with the messenger, all the while overlooking the more (if not only) important message.
But the reason I mentioned Assange is because he is one of the biggest names in the media industry in the world today. And the fact that he has been silenced shows the incredible censorship and pressure that is being exerted on journalists and publishers by powerful quarters across the board, any and every time they refuse to toe the line.
And that silencing is oftentimes done through more than just censorship and pressure alone—as the Committee to Protect Journalists recorded, 48 journalists were killed in 2017 and 530 were killed between 2012 and 2016, according to Unesco. In February, The Washington Post reported that, “Last year was the most dangerous year ever for journalists...a record number were imprisoned and threats against the press seemingly have become common, even in the West.”
Among those killed in 2017 was Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist who specialised in reporting on government corruption, nepotism, money laundering, links between Malta's online gambling industry and organised crime, etc. Suspecting that she was murdered (by car bomb) to suppress some serious wrongdoing she had discovered, an international consortium of 45 journalists from 18 news organisations, including The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde and the Times of Malta, began working on the Daphne Project in an effort to complete her investigative work. The published findings of their investigation began with this message of defiance, “Even if you succeed in stopping a single messenger, you will not stop the message.”
At a time when there is so much pressure on the press, the Daphne Project should give journalists a lesson of revolutionary proportions. That is, with the attempt to censor the press increasing internationally and the threat to journalists becoming a global phenomenon, it is time for journalists to stand together both domestically and internationally.
It is time for journalists to realise that those who wish to silence the messenger are actually much more concerned about suppressing the message. And if there is unity among journalists and media outlets, the threat of the “Streisand effect”—whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicising the information more widely—along with the possibility of more journalists investigating the information that powerful quarters wish to keep hidden, should they come after the messenger, would surely act as one of the strongest safety nets for all messengers and, more importantly, all messages.
People, on the other hand, need to realise that they too must support independent journalism and the right to free speech and expression for everyone. They need to realise that when they tolerate the suppression of one person's (or outlet's) right to free speech, that leaves one less voice to speak up for them, should their right ever come under attack. What people should also realise is that the attack on the press today is also an attack on free speech/expression itself—the only process by which we can ever hope to discover the truth that we, as individuals, and as a collective, are looking for.
That search must continue because true to what Assange said, “You can't build a skyscraper out of plasticine, and you can't build a just civilisation out of ignorance and lies.”
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal