In 1986, Dele Giwa, the editor of Newswatch and a former reporter for the New York Times, published articles critical of the Federal state Military Government of Nigeria. He later received a parcel bomb and was assassinated.
Hearing his story as I grew up influenced my view of journalism’s role in the society. It created an awareness of the risks involved in sharing opinions publicly — and the need to safeguard freedom of expression and the press. For some countries in the developing world, American democracy and freedoms are seen as a model of sorts. However, the rise of anti-media sentiment in the U.S. threatens to undercut press freedom not only in this country but also abroad.
Mainstream media in the U.S. has been under assault from President Trump and his supporters for many months now. Media outlets that do not cover the president and related issues “fairly” (re: favorably) have been repeatedly labelled “Fake News.” Mika Brzezinski, and MSNBC co-anchor was mocked on Twitter by the president for the same perceived lack of support. Here in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott made a joke about shooting reporters. The president also stirred up controversy for retweeting a gif of himself tackling CNN.
It is difficult to report with perfect objectivity. For this reason there are best practices in mainstream journalism to hold organizations and individuals to the standard of fact-based reporting. The punishment for deviation from this standard is severe. Once outside the walls of mainstream media, one falls into the world of conspiracy theory with sometimes hilarious, sometimes disturbing but always riveting stories. If we confer legitimacy on fringe media outlets and non-standard reporting, we send a message that facts do not matter and that any news is “good news.”
A free press is both a symbol and guardian of the ideals of a democratic society. It represents the marketplace of ideas, a forum for civil discourse and a place where people can showcase and test competing visions for society. When the press is no longer free, there are no real guarantees for individual freedom. It is fact-based reporting that brings human rights violations to the public consciousness; that sensitizes us to realities beyond the limited scope of our human experience: hunger, disease and war. It is journalism that provokes a response as people reach out to help their fellow men.
Mainstream media reports will never favor only one person’s opinion. But in a society with a free press, the opportunity to share and question ideas is extended to everyone. It is not as dangerous to share opinions here and now as it was in Giwa’s time or in 21st century Turkey. As stakeholders in society, we can choose to participate, instead of joining the media-bashing bandwagon. There is no substitute for a free press.
Cheetham-West is a pure mathematics senior from Lagos, Nigeria.