Stop Press! - or, rather, don't

Image credit: Jon S

There’s no denying that writing for Cambridge student newspapers is a relatively safe vocation to pursue. You might get the odd negative Facebook comment or online disagreement, but really nothing untoward – it is a tranquil introduction to a world of journalism which, at face value, is comparatively benign.

But whilst the bubble of Cambridge student journalism may be a microcosmic representation of reporting in the wider world, there is a facet of the press that cannot be compared to that of the harmless conditions within Cambridge, and instead may take a more sinister turn. The threats that journalists face in certain areas, compounded by the limited international freedom of the press and reproachful public attitude, can transform journalism into one of the most dangerous professions to be involved with to any extent. Whilst the role of the press is crucial, beneficial and valuable, this can come at a cost; the most considerable of which is the risk to the very life of the journalist.

Since the role of journalism was established, restrictions on what exactly can be said in reports have been enforced at an alarming pace: the first handwritten monthly newspaper, the Notizie scritte, published in Venice in the 1600s, was restricted to certain topics. The first English language weekly magazine, A Current of General News, was published in 1622. It was subject to strictly controlled censorship, bolstered by the Licensing Order of 1643,  which was established “for suppressing the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and Government.”

It was after a succession of legal cases in the 18th Century that journalists gained further liberties; though full freedom of the press was still unattained, the declaration found in English Common Law that truth was a valid defence against libel gave the press a previously unguaranteed element of security; a form of protection it needed to be able to perform its role. Yet only since the 1950s, with the right to a freedom of expression detailed in European Convention on Human Rights, has journalism finally been secured against the threat of facing spontaneous libel cases or defamation charges, with censorship become increasingly relaxed in the years that followed.

Despite this, there are still issues, both internationally and nationally, concerning the rights of reporters: the United Kingdom is currently 40th in the World Press Freedom Index, below Namibia and South Africa; whilst North Korea, which ranks last, enforces strict demands on the state-controlled domestic media, controls information coming into the country and prohibits foreign diplomats from possessing any content that is critical to the leadership. Indeed, one of the late Kim Jong-il’s forays into published works was the 1983 tome The Great Teacher of Journalists, a book which proclaims, among other guidelines, that “it is advisable that the newspapers carry articles in which they unfailingly hold the president in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader”. This, clearly, is a sharp contrast to the approach of Norway, ranked first in the World Press Freedom Index, which, from its 1814 Constitution, stresses that “there shall be freedom of expression.”

Even so, individuals involved in journalism at any level may face physical peril as a result of their work: the Committee to Protect Journalists claims that there have been 1246 journalists killed since 1992 across the world, including 182 in Iraq, and 47 in Colombia; and though there is some correlation between the rankings of the Index and the deaths of journalists in the line of duty, with higher rankings equating to fewer deaths, some nations like Costa Rica, ranking 6th in the Index, and Ireland, ranking 14th, have a larger number of journalists killed than North Korea, which has had no reporters perish on its land.

Yet there are also less serious risks involved in journalism: a Gallup poll of 2016, which invited citizens to rate the honesty and ethics of individuals in different professions, indicated that journalists are seen to have the greatest “very low” standard than any other occupation; a state of affairs perhaps amplified by recent disgraces in the world of journalism, such as the News International phone hacking scandal. The reporting of terrorist atrocities is also frequently seen in a negative light, with accusations that journalists are merely helping the terrorists’ causes by publicising them; or being too invasive by interviewing survivors immediately.

And there is no easy way forward for journalism, either: the vested interests of corporations and powerful individuals mean that the press may never achieve full freedom, damaging its output and thus skewing its readership; whilst the threats reporters face on a daily basis in disseminating the truth are unquestionably serious, with the dangers of limitations to this being detrimental to the world as a whole.  Journalism may be the central method of encouraging openness and discussion about worldwide issues; but, whilst doing this, it can face the greatest threats of constraint and suppression to confront any occupation. Though this may not directly affect us in the small world of student journalism in Cambridge, the need to prevent any curbs to reporting remains; and we must do all we can to ensure we continue to spread the news.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest