The Power of Journalism and the Future of the Global Fourth Estate

This year two journalists were announced as the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Winners. They are representative of a community in the tens of thousands globally working to hold the powerful to account from the world of politics, economy to the armed forces. Across every political arena, public advocacy and community in the pursuit of the facts, the power of journalism to inform and to strike out as an independent voice, at the risk of imprisonment or personal harm, is truly one of the greatest examples of putting service above self in the pursuit of growing a globally informed society.

Democracy requires a strong fourth estate and, putting aside contemporary questions about local journalism funding and the future of our own media sector in New Zealand, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners are a chance for us all to pay tribute to the many hard working journalists and their support staff internationally who go into danger and report on the front lines of war zones, deep dive into the world of criminal cartels, drug traffickers and or fight to end sexual slavery. They put themselves at risk to save others and to inform those of us in more fortunate circumstances about the suffering in other communities. Look at the courage of those journalists who stayed to report on those left behind after international forces left Afghanistan, some at the cost to their lives. They are the lifeline telling us about the trials of those who could not escape and those for whom the return of the Taliban may mean death or a future as a second class citizen, for those from certain minorities, and of course, for the many women facing a deep uncertainty as to their futures.

Last year the UNESCO International Programme for the Development of Communication reported that “as long as journalists continue to lose their lives because of their reporting, freedom of expression will continue to be under siege.” This is a fundamental truth. We in New Zealand are fortunate we do not have the same level of violent assault on our fourth estate but, as a former journalist, I can say safely our New Zealand journalists, particularly those from ethnic backgrounds, face bombards of vitriolic abuse through email, phone and even letter writing campaigns or petitions to cancel their livelihoods and employment. Much like the abuse the Parliamentary Opposition faces for holding the Government to account, we should acknowledge the abuse that also goes to journalists for their reporting on issues that may not always meet the consensus of public opinion.

Internationally 156 journalists were murdered for their stories in the past year. Their lives taken forever from their families and the future of the world for reporting the facts, opinions and actions of others. Countless more have been locked away and jailed, some for years on end on trumped up charges for daring to call out the actions of a State or because their home nation has incurred another’s wrath. These journalists are not bound to one station, one platform or one ideology. They are representative of us all and indeed, they are representative of the global need for the strengthening of our freedoms of speech in an age where misinformation and the control of the flow of content in the hands of a powerful few is at an all-time high; particularly as we see the power of information re-concentrating into particular platforms and places.

As the UN secretary General António Guterres has stated “[Free Press] is essential for peace, justice, sustainable development and human rights - and [is] the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions.” We must not forget how important journalism is to global democracy and the continuation of the growth of a free world. We should not forget those journalists who risked it all in the pursuit of liberty for others. In Ancient Rome and some other cultures those who spoke truth on behalf of the people to the patricians and aristocracy were given sacrosanctity and known as Tribunes of the Plebs they spoke truth to power and were inviolate during their term. In a liberal Democracy we give to journalists a similar right; they are protected in court from revealing their sources in New Zealand and, internationally among western style democracies, we generally expect a degree of inviolability towards criminal charges on the basis of what they write. During COVID-19 Alert level 4, they are considered essential, perhaps the new ‘sacrosanct’ because of the vital role they must play to give us information where we cannot obtain it.

November 2021 will be an important time to remember the power of media freedom and the importance of free speech. On November 19th is International Journalist's Remembrance Day, on November 15th is the Day of the Imprisoned Writer and on the 9th  we should all be marking World Freedom Day. On each of these occasions let’s remember the importance of our speech, of our ability to learn and engage with stories and information because a community of people are out there fighting to ensure you can see it.

In remembrance of those journalists who have given it all for freedom.



Note: This column was originally published on Indian Newslink on October 21 2021