Treacherous path that journalists have to take

Iraq’s capital Baghdad on October 11, 2021. (Photo by Sabah ARAR / AFP)

You can be a “freedom fighter” storming a “corrupt” Parliament, or you can be a “rioter” invading the place where honorable congressmen work. You can be a “brave journalist” trying to expose the evil in power, or you can be a seditious media element bent on causing anarchy through misinformation. The world is grey, and even the Nobel Peace Prize can’t really change that, no matter how the awarders try.

For journalists have to navigate the greyness more than everybody else in the whole world. Beating others to big awards is hard, risky even, but it can perhaps pave the way for harder and riskier challenges.

Much of the world has congratulated Maria Ressaand Dmitry Muratov. The former, a Philippine journalist, is credited for doing her best to bring the allegedly dark side of her president’s controversial anti-drug campaign to light. The latter had been fighting perceived corruption inside and outside Russia and was deemed a fearless character working where most people kowtowed to Vladimir Putin.

Rodrigo Duterte and Putin, along with their admirers, must have viewed Ressa and Muratov differently. Thaksin Shinawatra, whose own anti-drug war allegedly led to numerous extrajudicial killings, must have sympathized with Duterte and deemed Ressa as rocking the boat. To Durterte, Putin and probably Thaksin, the organizations that recognize Ressa and Muratov must have an agenda.

Neither camp is definitely right or wrong. The undeniable point, however, is that such terms as “fearless”, “bold”, “brave” or “rebellious” are fragile, and when journalists are concerned, the line is extra thin. When the tide turns, “fearless” may become “gutless” and bravery can become cowardice.

Journalism is one of the loneliest jobs in the world. One truth is uttered in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight when a key journalistic character told a powerful churchman offering him “cooperation” that for a news outlet to best perform its function, “it really needs to stand alone.”

By that, rich sponsors are dangerous; you have to be suspicious with wealthy owners; you shall never buy shares because you can never know the companies whose stocks you own will one day need to be investigated; you must never get too close to or intimate with your sources; you can never receive expensive gifts like TVs, iPads or smartphones from people whom or whose organizations you have to write about or even think about writing.

Last but not least, anyone can “toe the line” but you, no matter how popular, or how politically correct, or how likable the line is. “Ideology” is for everybody else, because it can “blur” right and wrong and mess you up pretty badly when you try to do your job.

“Spotlight” is a product of America, where the line, ironically, is also thin. Make no mistake, “freedom of expression” is better there than many places else on earth, but it’s far from perfect, hampered by business and political interests as well as ideological partisanship that have seen the likes of well-known media establishments and Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter frowned upon by many.

There are a few websites perpetuating some controversial information in the United States that have been ridiculed, or dubbed obnoxious, or dismissed outright by the people who matter. The reporters working for those websites can be really biased or mad, or they can be like those “minority” people not so long ago who thought the earth was round.

Again, make no mistake, Ressa and Muratov deserve recognition. Given the environments they worked in, it must be extremely difficult, whether they were brave, or bold, or mad, or insanely courageous. For sticking their necks out alone, they are entitled to the label “courageous”.

That doesn’t mean, though, that they aren’t walking on an ethically-treacherous tightrope like other journalists, that they will never see people they like doing bad things or people they hate doing good ones. Ressa and Muratov have passed one big test, but, for journalists, there is always a bigger test.

Praises and criticism are common in every profession. What is different regarding journalism is that sometimes praises can lead you astray and that when many dislike you, there’s a good chance that you probably are doing the right thing.

By Tulsathit Taptim


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