Hate the message, but not the messenger

Freedom of the press has never been more important – or more under threat.

The presence of these threats isn’t new. The free press has probably never operated without criticisms or attempted restrictions by those they report on, while at the same time those same people use them as a tool for their own messages and ends.

But what is new is the vehemence and spread of these threats, and the willingness of governments to be so open about not just criticisms, but active steps to block and prevent press operations.

The criticisms of United States President Trump and his engagement with the media are well documented – and valid. If the President of the US can demonstrate such active disdain for the media, with no consequences (or importantly fall in popularity), then why not others.

And it appears that Trump really was just the tip of an iceberg.

Disturbing trends have emerged in Australia and the UK, both of which apparently prize free press. The decision to ban Russian media from attending the Conference on Media Freedom in London, ostensibly because they spread ‘disinformation’ (ie. Fake News), smacks of a deeper political motivation. RT itself put it perfectly in their statement; “It takes a particular brand of hypocrisy to advocate for freedom of press while banning inconvenient voices and slandering alternative media.”

Regardless of one’s political leanings or opinions on the validity or quality of journalism from outlets like RT and Sputnik, the idea of restricting press because one does not like the stories they write speaks to a disturbing view on the role of media and the control over it by governments.

A similar attitude is almost percolating in Australia. Just last month, the Australian Federal Police carried out unconnected raids at a media office and journalist’s residence. The raids were apparently carried out in pursuit of information about the release of information classified as “official secret”, in relation to stories about Australian elite special forces operations in Afghanistan and additional special powers for Australian spy agencies. Officially, the raids were to uncover if the journalists involved had committed a crime against Australia’s national security rules, and to uncover the sources of information. The raids also, worryingly, included accessing metadata from journalist phones.

Journalists have an obligation to protect their sources, so that important stories, especially whistleblower stories, can be told without fear. Intimidating journalists into revealing their sources, or threatening sources directly implicitly or explicitly, has very real implications. Stories that need to be told simply won’t be.

This was seen with the Harvey Weinstein case in the US – sources who had legitimate information indicating Weinstein was the sex predator he has now been revealed to be, were unwilling or unable to come forward for fear of the consequences. Had the story been broken earlier, some of his later victims may have been spared.

Seeking to pursue criminal charges against a journalist for reporting a story sets a concerning precedent – how far does it go? For now, it is National Security touted as the reason journalists must be brought back into line. What next?

So what does all of this matter for communications?

It has implications for what we say, when we say it and how we say it. For the messages we share, the rationale for these, and who we share it with. Communications is not just one way yelling into the void – it is a conversation, two ways, that exists within and is influenced by a bigger context.

But mostly, this matters for all of us. A free, uninhibited press is one of the basic foundations for democracy. Without it, there is no ability to hold those in power to account.

In response to the rising tide against a free press, there are numerous pieces published defending the importance of the press, trying to stem the tide and bring sense back into an increasingly shrill discussion. The CNN compilation of essays from 2017 is particularly compelling.

Being a journalist is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Many die each year and many more are imprisoned or persecuted. Just for doing their job.

The more we let a free press be treated as a negative force in society, rather than a positive imperative, the more journalists are at risk. And the more important stories will not be told.

I have no doubt that the journalists who were deemed acceptable to attend the Media Freedom conference this week will point to these trends and seek change from politicians. But I do doubt it will make a difference.

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