‘Journalism is under attack’: Experts explain why it needs defending

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Harry Gray Calvo, Media Relations and Public Affairs Specialist, World Economic Forum


  • In panel discussions at Davos 2022, leading human rights experts and prominent Ukrainian reporters discussed media freedom and safety of journalists in today’s increasingly challenging global context.
  • Far more needs to be done to protect free and independent journalism and the essential social function it plays across the world.
  • Watch the Press Freedom session here, and Ukraine: Reporting from the Frontlines session here.

“Every year the world press freedom map gets darker,” said Christophe Deloire, Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders. His organisation’s annual Press Freedom Index has chartered a recent backtracking of media freedom and an increase in targeted attacks against journalists globally.

“Every year the world press freedom map gets darker.—Christophe Deloire, Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders

Free and independent information at risk

“The autocrat’s handbook always begins with shutting down the independent media,” warned Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. “Journalists play an essential social role to inform the public, so an informed public can then hold governments accountable for their actions.”

Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General, went further. “Free and independent information is at the heart of the global system itself. If we do not maintain the space for press freedom today, the world order of tomorrow will be biased, one-sided, and detrimental to us all.”

All human rights leaders agreed about the urgent need to take concrete steps to better protect journalists worldwide, including through the establishment of a specialized international body. “Our work is not just about protecting individual journalists. We also have to defend and safeguard the ecosystem itself, to enable reporters to carry out their social function,” said Christophe Deloire.

Social media

During the wide-ranging discussions, the panellists looked at other threats to journalists and their profession. The rise of social media was another recurring topic of discussion.

“Social media has become a way to evade journalistic accountability,” said Kenneth Roth.” “Modern algorithms are written to promote engagement – because engagement is profitable – but this has the downside that facts can be buried beneath a flood of unmediated information.”

Cancel culture

Patrick Chappatte, of the Freedom Cartoonists Foundation, also raised the contemporary challenge of cancel culture. “An important question is how we can reconcile the just causes of modern activists with the notion of freedom of expression, including the right to offend.”

Many of these questions remained open, but all panellists emphasised that everyone can take action to promote quality journalism and media freedom. “All stakeholders can support and defend quality journalism through their choices as consumers,” concluded Christophe Deloire.

Frontline reporting

In a separate panel discussion at Davos 2022, two Ukrainian journalists – Sasha Vakulina of Euronews, and Mstyslav Chernov from the Associated Press – gave moving personal accounts of the horrors of war in their home country.I thought I had war reporting experience,” said Chernov, about the first civilian casualties he witnessed, “but you can never get used to it.”

Both reporters also warned about a targeting of journalists in Ukraine, where dozens have allegedly been killed, detained or tortured since the outbreak of the conflict. “We understand that there are casualties in any conflict zone”, said Sasha Vakulina, “but what we see in Ukraine are journalists being specifically targeted. Their names are being published, and their faces are being spread.”

Misinformation

Mstyslav Chernov is one of these journalists. He was one of the last international reporters in Mariupol and many of his now-famous photographs became the focus of a concerted misinformation campaign. Chernov was forced to flee after his name had been exposed online.

We are entering a new era of misinformation.—Mstyslav Chernov

A conflict of values

“We are entering a new era of misinformation,” he warned, “One where the images we show and the facts we present are becoming irrelevant.” Chernov recalled pre-war discussions about whether traditional journalism had become outdated in the era of social media. He has since realised that fact-based journalism from trusted sources is now more important than ever, as a counterweight to the rise of misinformation and social media-fuelled propaganda.

During the previous panel, Kenneth Roth had noted a “tendency to look at contemporary inter-state conflicts and rising tensions solely as geopolitical, when in fact they also reflect a conflict of values.”

All panellists throughout the day made clear that it is up to us as media consumers to pick a side in this new era of conflicting values.

“Journalism is not just about free expression” said Christophe Deloire, “Ethics, methodology and editorial independence are all key towards maintaining media freedom. The most important question of the day is what can you do – as an individual or an organisation – to promote quality, free and independent journalism in the face of the wide range of challenges it is up against.”

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