UCD Volunteers Overseas Film Series is running throughout the month of April to shed light on issues not spoken about enough. Tessa Ndjonkou addresses the need to highlight the role of critical journalism in upholding values.
For over a decade, the distrust of press freedom has grown into a global trend. The most probing examples of this were seen at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests as response to the murder of George Floyd, throughout Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump’s reelection campaigns, the feminist-led protests against gendered police brutality in Mexico and the exponential rise of “news deserts”.
The HBO documentary Endangered chronicles the increasing insecurity and danger of pursuing a journalistic career in our contemporary society. The film screening is one of many that will occur throughout the month in UCD cinema as a part of UCD Volunteers Overseas’ (UCDVO) Film series initiative to raise concern on global issues that are often overlooked. The documentary is a testament to the courage and the resilience of journalists across the globe who, despite the risks associated with their profession, continue to pursue it because they value critical and honest journalism.
On the matter of the press freedom, the United States Constitution clearly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” For Carl Juste, one of the journalists followed in the documentary, that article is null in today’s America.
As a photojournalist deployed on the frontlines of the Black Lives Matter protests, he describes the police and civilian intimidation of journalists as having “reached a whole new level” with reporters being arrested, assaulted and tear-gassed on-air despite making their status known.
Endangered challenges the idea that journalists are only threatened in areas formerly known as the global south and not in regions that actively define themselves as “democratic” in the western world.
The global pandemic and the rise of the far-right and identitarian movements forces us to reckon with the possibility that press freedom is not as embedded in our values as it is in our constitutions. Notably, press insecurity is more likely to escalate when it is supported by the government. Throughout his coverage of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, Olivier Loughland, the US southern bureau chief for the Guardian Newspaper was antagonized, scorned and heckled. His position as a reporter, especially as one wearing a surgical mask during the pandemic, made him an immediate target for pro-Trump supporters. In a particularly impactful scene, he watches in stunned silence as CNN reporters covering the January 6th capitol insurrection are taunted and brutalized before their equipment is thrown on the floor and vandalized right in front of law enforcement.
Although Laughland was left physically unscathed by the events, the same cannot be said for many journalists across Mexico where state-mandated violence against journalists has become the norm. Sáshenka Gutierrez, a photojournalist based in Mexico City, describes Mexico as “the most dangerous place to be a journalist.” Journalists are often targeted with gratuitous violence when they are covering stories, especially those deemed critical of the government or law-enforcement. Still, Gutierrez stresses the importance of her profession in maintaining the truth and empowering those whose means and outreach are otherwise limited.
The price of promoting the truth has always been steep but is becoming increasingly so as misinformation spreads and is embraced by certain politicians.
The price of promoting the truth has always been steep but is becoming increasingly so as misinformation spreads and is embraced by certain politicians. Reporting critically on Jair Bolsonaro’s ambiguous campaign cost news reporter for Folha de Sao Paolo Patrica Campos Mello her reputation as a journalist and as a person. After becoming the target of defamatory and sexist remarks she eventually sued the ex-Brazilian president for “moral damages” and won.
As the fourth estate is increasingly threatened by the rise of misinformation and distrust in national and international media, new journalists must face situations typically encountered in war zones and autocratic states. The threats to the journalist profession are not just concerning because of their economic implications but also because of their political, social and moral ramifications. Indeed, we are already seeing the long-term effects of poor media trust and literacy. Documentaries like Endangered serve to remind us all what we stand to lose if we turn our backs on the press. While new journalists will have to adapt to the new challenges facing the field, institutions and channels exist to protect journalists while keeping media accountable such as the Office of the Press Ombudsman or the Committee to Protect Journalists.