‘Journalist’, in the way most people understand the term, refers to a person covering news stories. Journalists are perceived as members of the press that cover world issues such as wars, earthquakes, and factious dictatorships. However, it is only recently that journalists have stopped being seen as passive custodians of history, and instead, active combatants on the frontlines of history. This article will attempt to show that the term ‘journalist’ has shifted from being a story-telling profession, to being a profession that is seen as a dangerous enemy of the state.
This past year in 2017, there were 262 journalists imprisoned. A total of 18 journalists were murdered, almost all of the journalists were tortured, and only a luck few returned home. In politically unstable countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, journalists continually risk their lives, sacrificing their own personal security to share a story. Putting themselves in center of political turmoil, many governments perceive journalists as threats to domestic security and therefore have justified imprisoning, torturing and treating journalists as if they were prisoners of war. The question arises as to whether journalists should be seen as prisoners of war, or rather, whether they are more just passive messengers of the truth.
To take a recent example, on 25 October, Japanese reporter Jempei Yasuada returned home after being held captive in Syria for four years. Captured by militant forces in June 2015, the freelance reporter gained worldwide attention because of a video that circulated YouTube. He has not shared with the press exactly what torture he was forced to undergo but has shared that it was ‘Mental and physical hell… at one point I was unable to bathe for eight months.’ Being detained in a prison with other enemies of the government, it seems that journalists like Yasuada are seen as adversaries of the state. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has arguably the worst relationship with the Western Press with most foreign press visas denied. If a member of the Western Press, such as Yasauda, does make it into Syria, the journalist within months is detained, murdered, or taken hostage. Governments seem to fear the press, seeing journalists as lethal killers out for blood. To illustrate, Yasuada was most likely attempting to write an article exposing the corruption of the Syrian government, which in the modern 2018 world of global politics is arguably worse than taking up armed combat. Though some news stories may be negative and serve to expose the weaknesses and perversion of the state, journalists should not be violently attacked for telling the truth. These ongoing attacks on journalists seem to beg for some measure of international legal reform to protect the profession of journalism. If journalists are fearful for their lives, many will be discouraged from taking on crucial assignments. The question of whether the pros of investigative journalism outweigh the danger of the profession will be delineated. However, before this can be done, the level of power and command journalism has over global political opinion must be adequately understood.
By entering political situations as merely a third party spectator, journalists are representative of ‘the common man.’ This means journalists are not influential politicians, or members of the royal family, but simply members of the population charged with writing the truth. Having this ‘common man’ figure of a journalist going into politically unstable countries, reporting the day to day happenings, and sharing them with the rest of the world, often forces the international community to react. Though many political leaders may have a very good idea regarding the horrible poverty, inflation, and civilian abuses taking place within Syria, journalists like Yasuada have the potential to humanize these far off issues. This direct contact with global conflicts gives journalists power. By influencing public opinion, journalists can force governments to take action, sparking real global change, ending wars, fueling human rights movements, and even pushing international legal reforms. Words fuel power, and power sparks action, and action makes leaders such as President Bashar al- Assad nervous.
While journalists arguably hold this global power, possessing the ability to change the course of history, the big question can now be appropriately addressed: Is being an investigative journalist worth the risk? Many journalists have decided to be careful rather than to be groundbreaking, choosing to write less controversial stories out of self-preservation. Some journalists choose to write articles about the risks of journalism itself, hence this article. Despite the content, context, or conditions in which a journalist composes an article, as long as the truth is being shared and the integrity of the professions is being preserved, every article counts. Similarly, many journalists such as Yasuada who have been held captive by foreign governments have turned their backs on the press world, choosing to retire from the frontlines of international combat. Deciding to report on more controversial issues does not make one more or less of a journalist. However, it is important to understand why some who have been held as prisoners of war in various countries choose their career as investigative journalists.
For example, Marie Colvin was also a journalist targeted by the Syrian government, and in 2012 was captured and killed. Leading up to her assignment in Syria, Colvin had been posted in various other politically unstable countries such as Sri Lanka where she experienced daily threats. In Sri Lanka, Colvin had a hand grenade thrown at her face which resulted in her losing sight in her left eye. Despite this injury, Colvin continued to write, viewing this injury as a small consequence for promoting the larger goal of a free, reliable, and truthful press. While both Colvin and Yasuada both were investigative journalists in Syria, the two journalists have very different views on the profession. Yasuada feels betrayed by the profession, being held captive and tortured for four years. The mental and physical abuse he suffered in Syrian militant custody caused him, rightfully so, to resent the profession that put him in that position. In contrast, Colvin before being taken hostage and being killed by the Syrian government, was described by photographer Paul Conroy to be sitting in the back of a moving taxi, escaping gunshots, frantically sending an article back to the Sunday Times. Having been blinded in one eye in Sri Lanka, and shot at many times in various international foreign posts, Colvin’s love for journalism outweighed the danger that was launched at her from every corner.
In sum, being a modern journalist is equivalent to being an international solider. A journalist has the power to save civilians, bring down factious dictators, and change global policy. As Winston Churchill wisely stated, ‘success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.’ Though journalists may be captured, tortured and killed, it is important to continue the fight for truth. The Holocaust, Atomic Bomb, and the Vietnam War were heavily influenced by journalists. The rise of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ have also caused the public to be coaxed into believing falsehoods. Journalists are not merely passive scribes of history, but political actors within current events. Journalists like soldiers, acquire enemies, fire shots, and take down governments. The power, potential and prominence of the modern press is unlike anything the world has ever experienced, and therefore is a force to be reckoned with.