Journalism in the Real World: The Treacherous Path to Finding the Truth

Simple tools of a sometimes misunderstood trade

Working as a journalist for top newspapers around the world is often portrayed as a glamorous job. Fictional journalists, depicted in films and television programmes, become action figures and superheroes, dedicated to uncovering the world’s truths and injustices no matter what the cost. With the many opportunities to travel, the prospect of interviewing famous and powerful figures, or even the chance to become a celebrity of sorts yourself, the life of the successful journalist appears to be an exciting prospect.

But these popular misconceptions mean that the essential reality of journalism is all too often overlooked. In actuality, many reporters working around the globe are simply ordinary men and women doing a job, often in difficult environments and in countries with little democratic freedom and under volatile and powerless governments. For all too many, the reality of working as a journalist is far from glamorous, and increasingly perilous.

The dangers which many reporters face on a daily basis have been revealed in a report published in December by media advocacy organisation Reporters Without Borders. The most shocking statistic the report presents is undoubtedly the fact that in 2010 fifty-seven journalists were killed in the line of duty.

Publishing the information in its annual report, the organisation reveals that the three countries in which most journalists were killed were Pakistan, Iraq and Mexico, although the deaths were spread across all five continents, and in total journalists were killed in 25 countries. The report suggests that the main cause of the deaths is thought to be gang crime and militias, while fewer journalists are dying in war zones.

Although the exact number of deaths is disputed, as other organisations have suggested other figures based on different criteria – the International Federation for Journalists reported 94 deaths, while the Committee to Protect Journalists suggested 42 – the overall message is clear: journalists in regions throughout the world continue to face the possibility of death on a daily basis, while simply trying to do their job.

While the number of deaths has fallen – seventy-six journalists were killed in 2009 – the report indicates that more and more journalists are being kidnapped and kept as hostages. In 2010, fifty-one reporters were kidnapped, whereas the figure for 2009 was only thirty-three. This perhaps indicates that the perceived importance of reporters to governments and other organisations is growing, and that they are increasingly used as “bargaining chips”. The 2009 statistic includes the abduction of French reporters Henri Ghesquière and Stéphane Taponier, who were kidnapped along with their three Afghan assistants in the Kapisa province of Afghanistan in December 2009, and who are yet to be freed. Along with Nigeria, Afghanistan was the country where the most kidnappings took place.

It is telling that the countries with the highest number of reporter deaths are those without secure governments. Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Jean-Francois Julliard emphasised the need for these governments to take more responsibility for the safety of their country’s media, and said the report showed that more must be done to protect journalists to ensure that they can continue to work in some of the world’s most dangerous countries. He argued that “If governments do not make every effort to punish the murderers of journalists, they become their accomplices,” and added that if the murders are allowed to continue “reporters – national or foreign – will no longer venture into certain regions and will abandon the local population to their sad fate.”

It is a fact not often referred to in the Western world that for many countries there is a great deal of censorship, and no such thing as a free press. As the report shows, in some of the most politically turbulent places in the world simply being a journalist or having links with the media can result in being targeted by criminal gangs, who fear exposure or investigation. The report reveals that 127 journalists fled their home countries due to the impossibility of working there safely, and also reveals that many were physically threatened to prevent them from publishing their findings, with 1374 incidents of this kind last year.

Further statistics make clear that many more journalists are under threat not simply from renegade militias but also from governments themselves. The report affirms that 535 journalists were arrested worldwide, suggesting the collusion of government authorities in attempts to gag reporters.Even on the internet, which is celebrated for its relative lack of restrictions and the way it enables free and democratic speech, there are a growing number of attempts at censorship. The report reveals that 152 bloggers were arrested in 2010, while citizens of a massive 62 countries were subjected to some form of Internet censorship.

Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Julliard also touched on the perception that the role of journalists and the media is being increasingly politicised, also perhaps providing an insight into why bloggers too are beginning to be viewed with suspicion. “Journalists are seen less and less as outside observers,” he explained. “Their neutrality and the nature of their work are no longer respected.”

But despite the apparently bleak picture, there are positives to be taken from the report. Arguably, the threats made to and attacks on journalists serve to highlight the importance of investigative reporting and the continuing influence of the media. The fact that governments and criminal gangs are attempting to curtail the freedom of reporters shows that they are seen as real threats to regimes worldwide. Clearly, the media still have a power and an influence which even the governments and gangs themselves cannot equal.

The vital nature of journalism, even in the most impenetrable regions in the world, is clear. The fact that these statistics are freely and publicly available goes a long way to demonstrate that regardless of the efforts of governments and criminal organisations across the world, the relative freedom that the media enjoy is still being kept very much alive.

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