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The year of the fight back

“2019 will be a turning point for journalism that does not shrink from spotlighting and critiquing threats to media freedom and the safety of journalists.”

The good news: In 2019, we’ll get more innovative in our efforts to defend media freedom in the Digital Age. We’ll realize that sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option, and bringing audiences with us in this mission is essential, because 21st century media freedom is about their rights to access and participate in news media too.

The bad news: This enlightenment will be a product of increasing threats to individual journalists and independent journalism wherever and whenever they challenge powerful people — including in Western democratic contexts, where the demonization of journalists and journalism has become a default tactic of the purveyors of disinformation and other authoritarian propaganda.

At the close of 2018, the ugly specter of attacks on journalists — from the murder with impunity of Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s Turkish consulate, to the pursuit of digital journalism pioneer Maria Ressa by the Duterte government in the Philippines — is ringing in our ears.

Such attacks are increasingly markers of illiberal democracies descending into the shadows of totalitarianism, and those democracies that license the murder of journalists with impunity by effectively offering immunity to despots.

Burying the lead is no longer an option.

Historically, it’s been a struggle to convince news organizations to prioritize reporting of attacks against journalists and freedom of expression rights. This was partly because of a (misguided) fear that such coverage reeks of self-interest, and partly because the mythology of objectivity fostered a disdain for campaigning journalism on media freedom issues. This coyness was also partly based on the fact that it used to be easy to characterize such attacks as the scourge of fragile states and developing countries.

But in 2018, two things began to dawn on independent news media around the globe. First, it became clear that press freedom is increasingly under threat in liberal democracies, long regarded as bastions of freely practiced journalism. From the U.S. president’s demonization of American journalists as “enemies of the people,” to the passage of encryption-breaking laws that undermine investigative journalism in Australia (with global impact), and the murder of journalists in Western Europe, the erosion of press freedom emerged as a legitimate story that demands to be reported — one in which the public has a direct stake. Second, this trend was recognized as a news story that could no longer be ignored, and it was reported on with increasing prominence.

Just after I wrote the paragraph above, I received a mobile news alert that Time Magazine had named a collection of journalists it called “The Guardians” as its “Persons of the Year.” They included Jamal Khashoggi, Maria Ressa, imprisoned Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone who were sentenced to seven years jail in Myanmar for reporting on the death of Rohingya Muslims, and the staff of the Capital Gazette, who continue to serve their local Maryland community after five of their colleagues were gunned down in their newsroom.

This vital recognition for those who defend the public’s right to know — delivered via iconic magazine covers — also served as a tribute to the 52 journalists who were murdered for their work in 2018, “who risk all to tell the story of our time,” Time editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal wrote.

Kudos, too, for The New York Times, which led a coalition of news publishers on World Press Freedom Day 2018 in a campaign to highlight the value of a free and independent press. Likewise, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, CNN, The Guardian, and others who waved the flag forcefully and purposefully during the year.

This is why previously proffered rationales by editors against reporting prominently on attacks against journalists and other threats to media freedom are no longer sustainable. Such stories cannot simply be dismissed as self-interested reporting. At the core, these are compelling human stories that should move people to action. But they are not just about journalists and their work. They are about the right of all citizens to access and share verified information produced in the public interest to hold powerful people, governments and corporations to account.

That is why I’m predicting 2019 will be a turning point for journalism that does not shrink from spotlighting and critiquing threats to media freedom and the safety of journalists. We are in the fight of our lives — increasingly a fight for our lives — and we cannot afford to look away. Instead, we must get more innovative in our reporting on external threats to journalism to ensure our audiences come with us. And this means bringing into the public spotlight the mounting attacks on members of the journalistic community — from the rape threats to the racist abuse and menacing messages about targeting our families in retaliation for what we report.

It also means holding to account those who are responsible for protecting us — employers in the first instance, the platforms secondly, and, primarily, the justice system which must be made to bring culprits to book for acts of intimidation, harassment and all other forms of violence against journalists. We need to bring the public with us in this mission — as beneficiaries and defenders of a new model of media freedom, one in which they are participants.

And here’s a good news note to end on: freshly published academic research suggests that storytelling in defense of professional journalism produced in combination with fact-checking pieces can aid the fightback against disinformation, while also strengthening trust and loyalty. It’s an encouragement for journalists and news publishers to continue standing up for media freedom — in new and creative ways — in 2019.

Julie Posetti is senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where she leads the Journalism Innovation Project.

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