Intimidation of Journalists: Public Presumption and Empowerment of Rights

Democracy is a machinery that must be consistently exercised by people from all classes to create a truly just society. The communication of free and open discussions is engaged in by journalists, and the nature of their job requires a high degree of freedom for there to be wider public engagement. As nations across the world were embroiled in countermeasures designed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, the journalists in Italy found themselves in a quandary as a result of the public’s ill reception towards the enforcement of new Covid-19 restrictions. In October 2020, the curfew and extension of the lockdown introduced by the Italian government aggravated the hospitality industry, who in turn brought their exasperation to the streets of cities such as Naples, Florence, and Rome. Amidst the upheaval fomented by hundreds of apoplectic workers, the integrity of the press was wrung into interrogation; the public rancour towards the media was outrageous when one of the protestors declared them as “terrorists” working for the government.

Physical violence is just the tip of the iceberg: a trend of polarisation and erosion of trust in news sources, when provoked by conspiracy theories of media, contribute to the public menace towards journalists, who are upbraided to have been ravaging society with deceptive news that skew the people’s value judgements. Journalists became even more vulnerable to such attacks as the tensions that enmeshed society was exacerbated by economic concerns. Italian journalist Raffaella Cosentino, who works for the national public broadcaster Rai was perturbed by a group of protestors when she attempted to cover the demonstrations stridden towards the region of Sicily. Protestors slandered her team, labelling them as traitors solely because they work for Rai. The team left the scene when their safety was in jeopardy; the situation became increasingly precarious when one of the men transgressed the line and threatened to destroy their cameras. Cosentino explained, “When the tension is high, you are more on the frontline and face a greater risk”. Cosentino’s recount of her harrowing experience depicts the harsh working environment of journalists that are consistently confronted by such threats.

Scurrilous portrayal of the media is not foreign. Perhaps we should question the prejudice that underpins the intimidation of journalists: why is the media constantly the target of public resentment? Its notorious reputation originates from a perception that it is unscrupulously manipulated by politicians to control the tides in the political sphere. The media possesses immense power in crafting political viewpoints because it is often the immediate point of reference for people to validate their judgements. It is an efficacious tool for the government to sway the electorate’s opinions and strategically win their favour in the implementation of policies catchy headlines and emotionally charged graphics are sufficient to shape the public’s conception towards a legislative affair, considering the ubiquity of media. A government that controls the media evades accountability by filtering the information authorised to be channelled to the public, which greatly contravenes the fundamental principle of democracy. The attempts of the former President of the United States, Donald Trump, to consistently inflict diatribes upon his critics with the label of “fake news” demonstrates the vulnerability of the press in being employed as a tactical political gambit and shield.

The public trust in the media crumbles in an avalanche when certain media empires willingly discard their identities as impartial providers of information. In the race of gaining readership and positive ratings, some medias lose focus and fail to maintain a healthy dosage of sceptical objectivity in their approach to public policy. Instead of leaving matters to the autonomy of the public to carry out independent and liberal evaluation, they seek to predict their reactions and present contents that are in tandem with the societal expectations. In a remark, The Atlantic acknowledged the unhealthy inclination of skewing hyperbolism in sensational news stories, “When it’s easier to find news sources that confirm people’s biases, it’s also easier to find news stories that inflame people’s outrage.” The objectivity of news becomes highly dubious; the coverage appears to be a façade embellished by the intentions and ambitions of various powers.

However, it would be unconscionable to assume the abandonment of journalism ethics and professionalism by the entire industry, altogether eradicating their functions as the checks and balances on the government. Conscientious journalists uphold the core values of honesty and objectivity; they act as the “watchdogs of democracy and are the nation’s amiable allies. As a means of communication between the people and government, their feedbacks and criticisms suggest ameliorations ought to be taken into consideration when establishing policies and therefore, operate as a form of public scrutiny on the government. Their critical opinions boldly rupture the bubble of ignorance and invite members of the society to reflect on the navigation of society. Their essentiality in propelling forwards the wheel of democracy should be appreciated, for as quoted by Glenn Greenwell,A key purpose of journalism is to provide an adversarial check on those who wield the greatest power by shining a light on what they do in the dark and informing the public about those acts.

Suppression and mistrust of the media is a worldwide problem. In Sudan, several journalists have been subjected to violence and repression. On October 26, Fayez Selik, a journalist of El Demokrati, was detained after expressing his condemning statements of the Sudanese military coup in an interview. The Sudanese military triggered a chain of brutality against the media personnel, in which the arrest was unjustly extended to managers of media broadcast stations and other journalists. According to The Guardian, several journalists who were seized from their offices were released while some remain missing. The military’s ruthless endeavour to silence opposing voices is a violation to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an act that confers freedom of opinion and expression upon everyone. International Press Institute (IPI) Deputy Director, Scott Griffen, called for fervent international response to the attack of journalists to protect the democratic awakening of the Sudanese media that has been gradually recognising their freedom of expression.

Cosentino highlighted the relation of changing political climate and public animosity towards the media, “It is clear that if you have politicians who empower this menace of journalists in the public, it can’t be a good message.” While the regulation of the freedom of opinions and expressions instigates impassioned debates, the public should acknowledge, and journalists should be fully conscious, that they are independent individuals. The essence of journalism as a discipline of verification is to empower the informed; to present the facts and information to assist people in making the best possible choices about their lives, communities, societies, and governments. Tormenting, intimidation, and coercion towards journalists are blasphemies to democracy and intolerable. The government should empower journalists and the media to encourage them achieve higher independence by strengthening their protection through legislation. However, what are the prospects, considering the interference of political reality?

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