Without Fear or Favour: The Importance of Free and Independent Journalism in a time of Crisis
by Apenisa Vatuniveivuke, NFP Youth Wing General Secretary
Opinion piece published in the Fiji Times on:
Saturday 8th May 2021
Former United States President Richard Nixon, disgraced and forced to quit the Presidency over the infamous Watergate scandal, once told a group of his aides that, If he were doing a good job, bad press won’t hurt him. But, if he were doing a bad job, good press won’t save him.
However, history has shown us that perhaps Nixon’s view of the power of the press was fundamentally flawed. As good as he was in doing his job as President of the United States, his ultimate downfall came about due to his version of so-called “bad press”, to Journalists doing their job-- without fear or favour.
Those whose fearless reporting brought Nixon’s downfall were Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. And Nixon faded into oblivion because his version of “bad press” was an effective watchdog holding him to account.
Fast-forward more than 46 years later, the social media age has taken a stranglehold on the news. Dissemination of news through social media has become a norm. In the social media age, governments and organisations now have the power to connect directly with the public instead of relying on journalists to be their intermediaries.
I am sure you may have heard somewhere to “not to believe anything until it’s on the Government's Facebook page”. While having access to timely information is certainly welcome, it gives rise to a whole host of other problems.
Namely, if the government has all the answers, then who is asking all the questions? This Opinion will focus on the important role that journalists play in times of crisis, national unease and uncertainty. The risks that are involved in reporting the truth in Fiji can be mitigated by how the public can play a part in the proper dissemination of the truth.
Rethinking ‘Bystander Journalism’
Traditionally, the role of journalists was to report on the news in an objective and often dispassionate way; this is what is known to scholars of journalism as ‘Bystander Journalism’. However, many followers of the two paper-based media organisations in Fiji may have started to notice that the line between the reporting of facts and the stating of opinion have become increasingly blurred. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. Feature articles or so called ‘Analysis’ pieces take the facts and present them from a subjective point of view. There is a difference of opinions on whether this makes a difference to the way that the reader, listener or viewer interprets the news. But, the general consensus is that these pieces make a clear indication of the newspaper's journalistic bias and/or editorial position.
But, being subjective does not always mean self-interest in journalistic terms. In fact, the principle of ‘bystander journalism’ has been challenged publicly as far back as 1997 when the BBC’s former Senior War Correspondent, Martin Bell spoke in support for what he termed ‘attachment journalism’. Bell argued that attachment journalism is, “Journalism that cares as well as knows; that is aware of its responsibilities and will not stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, victim and oppressor.” Therefore, the idea of attachment journalism has to be emphasised especially in a time of great national crisis; where proper, good faith and subjective journalism is necessary for the interpreting of a myriad of facts for the safety, security and the good judgement of the public. All of this of course has to be done in a conscientious way, without fear or favour.
Scrutiny versus Security
In a time of crisis, no amount of official justification should absolve those in power from proper journalistic scrutiny. Indeed, during the Cold War, one of the most dangerous periods of human history, former U.S President John Kennedy speaking at a correspondent’s dinner about responsible journalism in a time of peril remarked to journalists that, “no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know”. Certainly now more than 50 years later, with the danger of the cold war being but a distant memory we should expect that official concealment of pertinent facts should be behind us.
The principle must never change, unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts do more harm than good. It impares public confidence. It ingrains within the national psyche a general cynicism towards the news and further erodes the already precarious position that journalists are already facing-- making it harder to properly inform the public to take the steps necessary to prevent them and their families from acquiring the virus.
Scrutinising Fiji’s Covid- 19 Response
The peril this time round is a global pandemic. Where proper scrutiny and clear public information is more important than ever-- it’s literally a matter of life and death. Where journalists should be empowered, more than ever before to ask the questions that they think is for the benefit of the public. It is never for the government to say what is or isn’t fit for public consumption. It is always for the journalist to apply their skills and conscience to interpret the facts (which should be given to them freely) for the information of the public.
Recently, it has been noted that the excuse of there being no need to “point fingers” has been applied as a blanket explanation to prevent journalists from asking tough questions about how our response systems have failed us so miserably. While the explanations from the Ministry make for good sound bites and add to the now online spectator sport of journalist bashing, it does not answer the main pertinent questions: How did we get our Covid Response so wrong? And ultimately, who should be held responsible. It makes no sense to not be able to scrutinise how lax enforcement of border quarantine rules, especially by those who are supposed to be enforcing them, played a part in the now increasing number of positive cases. It also makes no sense to be prevented from asking how flights that brought in passengers from India were still allowed into Fiji after the discovery of the highly contagious ‘double-variant’ B1617 strain, the existence of which was being widely reported by the international press from as early as March, 2021.
A Crisis of Confidence
All of these create from within the public a crisis of confidence in journalists and journalistic institutions. When the pandemic is long gone, the journalists will be left behind to cope and compete with “official” sources for the attention of the public (the span of which has alarminingly decreased to mere seconds). The loss of faith in journalists does more than harm to the reputation of the journalist. It emboldens those that are anxious to tighten their grip on information to continue in their assault on a free Press. It endangers the ability to practice journalism in an environment free of fear and in its finality confuses the public into accepting dubious yet polished press releases as fact.
What should we do?
Now more than ever we need to encourage and constructively criticize our journalists. They are a young team, I know many of them personally. This is probably the first crisis that they are reporting on. This is also a once in a generation pandemic-- something that despite all academic preparation no one was ever fully prepared for. Now more than ever we need bold and courageous journalism and we should demand it and if necessary, fight for it. I encourage all Journalists to keep reporting the news. Without fear or favour.
On a final note, I wish all Journalists a Happy World Press Freedom Day. And a blessed Mother’s Day.
And yes, each one of us, particularly those in leadership must put our Motherland above self-interest and personal advancement.