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Democracy cannot be safeguarded by gatekeepers

Journalists must be fair and accurate but never draw a false moral equivalence

Almost a month after his disappearance, there is little doubt left about what happened to Saudi journalist and blogger Jamal Khashoggi. Tortured, drugged and dismembered alive by Saudi operatives. 

Khashoggi was no ordinary journalist. For years he had very close ties to the Saudi royal family only to become one of the new crown prince’s strongest critics. Espousing political Islam in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood he firmly placed himself in the court of Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

He wanted Saudi Arabia to take a different path than the one chosen by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and he actively campaigned for a more secular Saudi Arabia through his writings (and his dealings with Erdogan and other key players in the Middle East).

I will not go into whether Khashoggi was right or wrong, but he certainly was both a journalist and an activist. And that is why he was murdered. 

The same can be said about countless other journalists who oppose authoritarian governments in the region and beyond. Erdogan himself has closed down newspapers and jailed journalists who disagree with his vision for Turkey. In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orban has silenced critical journalists by having his friends take over newspapers. 

In Vladimir Putin’s Russia critical journalists and citizens are constantly attacked, threatened, censored and jailed. Last year, editors at the independent RBC media group were dismissed after its coverage of the Panama Papers revealed possible corruption among Putin’s associates. 

In the US journalists covering civil society’s opposition to oil pipelines were arrested while media organisations critical of President Donald Trump are subject to unusually hostile rhetoric and in some cases journalists have been asked to hand over electronic devices, detained or even denied entry to the US.

The lines between journalism and activism are not being blurred by journalists who suddenly decide to embark on a Quixotic suicide mission but by injustice, the surge of authoritarianism and the increasing hostility towards journalists. 

The likes of Mohammed bin Salman, Erdogan, Orban, Putin and Trump acknowledge the importance of press freedom, however they only allow journalists to work freely if these act as gatekeepers. As long as media outlets favour the ruling party, or the next government, all is fine. But when journalists and media organisations are critical and pose some kind of threat to power they are silenced or attacked. 

While journalists must be fair, accurate and tell the truth, activists fight for a cause they believe is right and true. And when journalists report a story which also carries a cause worth fighting for they have every right to be both a journalist and an activist. 

Should journalists who encounter stories of injustice bite their tongue not to ruffle any feathers? Should journalists covering climate change give the benefit of the doubt to governments and industries who contribute to global warming? Should journalists covering political corruption be strategic in their reporting or should they call a spade a spade?

Objectivity demands giving all sides a fair hearing but false moral equivalence does a great disservice to the truth. Doing government’s dirty work to attack whoever opposes it and give it a semblance of legitimacy is not journalism. 

Speaking at a recent screening in London of the documentary he produced on murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, La Repubblica journalist Carlo Bonini said “What is sad is that what is happening in Malta, is happening everywhere else, including in the US. If journalists cannot hold political figures to account, this is the beginning of the end of democracy.”

Malta is no different to the rest of the world. Media outlets the world over are facing a financial and existential crisis. And governments use this to their advantage. 

Like its predecessors, the Labour government accommodates media organisations that support it while journalists and newspapers that are critical struggle under advertising boycotts. If this does not work, critical journalists are then subject to coordinated attacks, censorship and vexatious libel cases.

Democracy and journalism will not be salvaged by gatekeepers and media houses who put their financial survival before establishing the truth. Telling the truth and strategic jockeying cannot be balanced out or traded off. 

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