Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Journalists Live Dangerous Lives

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, February 27 / 23

Zack Gross

Every day, if we follow the news – whether on-line, via the newspaper, on TV or by radio – we see that our world is a never-ending welter of stories about everything from medical breakthroughs, to space exploration, to the climate crisis, to on-going conflicts, to government announcements, and on and on.  The people who bring us these stories, working in the mainstream media, live interesting lives that involve meeting famous people, traveling to faraway places and dealing with important issues.

Most of these people also work in a profession that brings with it the danger of controversy, harassment and even death.  I wouldn’t agree with the idea, espoused by some commentators, that we live in a “polarized world”, but I would say that we live in a world where there is more misinformation (or disinformation), less civility and more violently expressed anger.  While journalists are most often just the messengers of the news, they face a daunting amount of opposition as if they were themselves the news.

My wife and I were watching CBC’s The National recently and were very impressed by an interview with the Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, who was facing numerous charges in her country, all false, because she was reporting on corruption, human rights violations and political murders.  She was returning home, at the time of the interview, to face these charges and we were relieved to see that she was acquitted.  Her story, chronicled in her new book How to Stand Up to a Dictator, illustrates how opposition to her government has made her a target for harassment and arrest.

Her book also illustrates that social media has become a tool of undemocratic forces to keep the voices of opposition quiet.  Maria Ressa began to use social media in order to get ordinary Filipino citizens to cover local stories and put forward their opinions independently, but she found that ultimately those she opposed began to use social media against her – spreading false news to attack her character and her work and to create false narratives about the politics in her country.  In recognition of the growing non-democratic forces in our world today, in 2021, Ressa was one of two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, sharing it with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, “for their courageous fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia.”

Over my many years of writing these Small World articles for the Brandon Sun, I’ve received a small number of angry responses.  These have mostly come from climate crisis deniers, who must be quite embarrassed now.  But for many journalists, their work puts them, their families and their colleagues “in the line of fire
.”  United Nations statistics show that in the past five years a journalist is killed somewhere in the world every four days.

Forty percent of these deaths happen in conflict zones, but 60% happen where there is no ongoing war.  Ninety percent of these death go unpunished and, in fact, many are not even seriously investigated.  While ninety percent of the deaths are of males,  three-quarters of women journalists have reported being harassed and threatened by on-line extremists and partisan media. The largest number of documented cases of journalists’ deaths have been in Asia and Latin America, but no region of our world is exempt.

In recent years, COVID coverage has been a major source of the harassment of journalists, but those covering stories of the human rights abuses of autocratic regimes and those covering environmental issues have also been at risk.  There have been high profile cases of the killing or threatening of investigative journalists looking into climate crisis issues, for instance the recent high profile killing of a journalist in Brazil’s Amazon region, who was looking into that government’s burning of the region, affecting the climate crisis and committing genocide on the indigenous peoples of the area.

There are four cases of Canadian journalists killed “on the job”, two in conflict zones in Afghanistan and Syria, one who was tortured and died in Iran, and one who was assassinated by an extremist related to Indian politics.  Beyond this, those who follow the Canadian journalistic scene worry that the shrinking of mainstream media and the growth of social media will mean that the news we receive will be less credible, more volatile and less representative of mainstream thinking.  Opinion will become the news and facts will be harder to access.

So, hats off to our working journalists!  Stay safe out there!

Zack Gross is Board Chair of
The Marquis Project, a Brandon-based international development organization, and co-author of the new book The Fair Trade Handbook: Building a Better World, Together.

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