by Anita Lombardo
Contributing Writer & Radio Show Manager
Much of what we know about the world around us is through hearing, watching, or reading the news. But what does it take to gather and publish a news piece? This question rarely comes to mind while reading a newspaper, especially in countries where press freedom is not often called into question. However, reporting facts and exposing personal opinions can come at the cost of one’s life.
According to the 2020 annual round-up of abusive treatment and violence against journalists released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 32% of journalist fatalities took place in war-stricken countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
During 2020 alone, a total of 50 journalists were killed worldwide, according to the second part of the annual round-up published by the RSF.
The newly published data reveals that, compared to 2016, a significantly higher number of fatalities are taking place in countries considered “at peace”: the killings in Mexico, India, the Philippines and Honduras account for more than two thirds of 2020’s journalist deaths.
In spite of regional differences, the double digit number describing the loss of journalists in 2020 paints a gloomy picture of the capability of countries around the world to protect and uphold an inalienable human right: that of freedom of expression and speech.
“The world’s violence continues to be visited upon journalists. Some may think that journalists are just the victims of the risks of their profession, but journalists are increasingly targeted when they investigate or cover sensitive subjects. What is being attacked is the right to be informed, which is everyone’s right.”
What are then the sensitive subjects that cost tese 50 people their lives? According to the report, the most dangerous stories are investigations into local corruption or misuse of public funds and investigations into the activities of organised crime. Reporter Julio Valivia Rodriguez, who was found beheaded in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, covered the links between drug traffickers and politicians. Indian reporter Rakesh Singh, who had accused a local village chief of corruption in connection with local infrastructure projects, was burned alive in his home. Just to name a few instances of lethal violence against journalists.
Although they may not always be victims of such inhumane and extreme physical attacks, reporters often run the risk of being persecuted, harassed and criticised even in countries where the press is considered to enjoy relatively high freedom of speech. Only a few weeks ago, during the storming of the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump, several reporters were abused, threatened and saw their equipment stolen or damaged by the mob.
Several incidents involving journalists have also been reported in Belgium, which ranks 12th in the 2020 world press freedom index. Among the latest is the detention of Himad Messoudi, a journalist in a national public service broadcaster, RTBF. While filming a protest at a detention centre for migrants in June 2018, the police asked him to turn the camera off and shortly after they confiscated his equipment and arrested him and his four colleagues.
Professor of Journalism studies at KU Leuven, Baldwin Van Dorp, explains that while writing their stories, journalists in Belgium are not always free from external pressures and influences. Rather than political interference with the press, economic powers may hinder the ability of the press to be critical and even lead to self-censorship. For instance, journalists might fear criticising their own media company or the big advertising companies funding the press. And even when a journalist wants to “cut free” from such interference, alternative employers might not always be that easy to find. A problematic aspect of press in Belgium noted by professor Van Dorp is indeed the limited number of media companies on the market.
“Only a few years ago there were twenty or thirty companies but now there are only two public broadcast reporting news. It’s not a monopoly, but we are very close to it.”
Media ownership in Belgium is indeed concentrated in the hands of just a few media companies. For instance, according to Media Landscape, the market of printed news in Flanders is divided among three major private groups: De Persgroep, Corelio and Concentra. The merger between the latter two in the joint venture, Mediahuis in 2013 gave life to the biggest print publisher in the Flemish market, which distributes some of the most well known newspapers, such as De standaard, Het nieuwsblad and Het belang van Limburg. According to their own website, Mediahuis is also "the most important player in the Flemish regional television market", managing popular channels such as ATV, TVL and TV OOST.
Psychological intimidation can also lead to self-censorship among journalists in Belgium. “You feel insecure as a journalist because you are afraid of reactions on social media, of receiving offensive emails” commented Professor Van Gorp.
Even at a smaller scale this appears to be true, for example in the context of student-run publications. “Journalism is a risky business… you get a lot of hate and nasty comments for some articles you write. This is mostly invisible and also indirect…. in the form of comments on Twitter for instance, but it’s not nice to work in this environment” said the Editor-in-Chief of Veto, Daan Delespaul. Protests and criticisms for some articles written by students come also from institutional figures, such as the rector or national politicians. “It has happened in the past that politicians and the vicerector had called us with some remarks.” Delespaul says. He notes that Veto faces the challenge of striking a balance between being critical and maintaining a good relationship with the professors and rectorate, as leaning too much on the former side of the spectrum might risk compromising later careers of its members.
Reporters always have something at stake when deciding to expose and comment upon the disturbing aspects of the reality we all live in: sometimes it is their psychological wellbeing and their sense of safety, and sometimes it is even their own lives. Death threats, psychological intimidations and pressures experienced by the press are evidence that the price to pay for “digging deep” can be very high, but faced nonetheless daily by million reporters worldwide: isn’t that a bit heroic after all?
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