What you need to know:
- Today journalists remain a key element of the day to day life of the society.
- Journalists spread the images, words and meanings of stories from one setting onto a larger world.
Not many readers of newspapers or listeners to radio or watchers of TV news knew that November 2 is dedicated to the welfare of journalists and journalism. This day is set aside by the United Nations as the ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.’
This is the one day in a year when the world is expected to pause and remember journalists who have been harassed, jailed, exiled, killed and suffered simply for doing their job: seeking and bringing news to the public. But, going by the evidence available in Kenya, for instance, only a few people, especially those in the media and the human rights community, actually celebrated the day.
Yet, today journalists remain a key element of the day to day life of the society. What would one do without news? Imagine waking up to find the TV screen blank – no broadcast from all stations. Think about switching on the radio only to meet silence. What would one do if they then walked to the kiosk where the newspaper vendor is stationed only to find him absent.
Then to discover that Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp etc aren’t working. What happens when a call to the newsrooms produces no answer? In other words, what would a total media blackout do to the society today? It is not surprising that in the old days of coups, the radio (and or TV) station was the first place the coup organisers would head to.
The media is not called the Fourth Estate for nothing. It is still one of the most powerful institutions in society. The media reports to us what is new. It informs us about what is happening near and far. It is through the eyes of the reporter that the audience imagines and enters another world altogether, sometimes far removed from their own world.
Journalists have witnessed devastating wars and natural disasters and brought them live into homes and public places. Reporters have created expectations from their readers and listeners of a particular kind of world, often creating a sense of intimacy between the journalist, the audience and the subject of the story filed. Consequently, journalists have significantly shaped the way society thinks, acts and imagines its futures.
Violated, jailed, killed
So, why are they often harassed, violated, jailed, exiled, killed? Why are people whose daily work is to inform, educate and entertain the society victimised? Why are journalists’ rights often more violated than those of many members of the society?
Because journalists spread the images, words and meanings of stories from one setting onto a larger world. They sometimes reproduce tales that are very local into stories that find a global audience. When a story leaves one corner of the world and travels to another, it will most likely lead to a conversation about it. But when such a story is about the violation of women, the killing of young men, the destruction of forests, the pillaging of state resources etc, the perpetrators of such acts may not be happy.
In some cases, the reports name powerful individuals. Presidents, criminal gang leaders, shady businessmen, politicians etc, won’t like being associated with malfeasance, even when they know that the story in question is factual. They will sue the journalist, or intimidate them, or send goons to physically attack them, or slander the reporters or jail them on false charges.
In some instances, the journalist in question may not get the support of his or her employer, who may not wish to be dragged into expensive litigation with the complainant. Sadly, such journalists could lose their jobs and income, or they may be forced to leave their countries, or they could end up destitute, or, as it has been reported in some cases, they may suffer mental illness.
Yet, their readers or audiences may never know what happened to such a journalist when their byline disappears from the newspaper or their face goes off the screen. So, someone who probably saw herself as doing public duty, making the world aware of what is happening around it, ends up suffering a very private loss.
Pushed into exile
As the two books published by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Media Programme Sub-Sahara Africa show, countless African journalists have been pushed into exile because of their work and more of them have worked in the media on this continent, often with success but sometimes in difficult conditions.
Hounded: African Journalists in Exile edited by Joseph Odindo and Pioneers, Rebels and a Few Villains: 150 Years of Journalism in Eastern Africa edited by Charles Onyango-Obbo, illustrate the state of affairs of journalism in Africa.
The two books aren’t just an addition to the archive on the press in Africa, but they remind us about the critical role that journalists play in our society. Journalists are not just writers. They are also philosophers – some columns in the daily newspapers are the key reference for some readers. Reporters are probably better analysts (because they are on the ground, in a manner of speaking) of the state of the society than academics.
Today, culture is largely defined by the media – the art/lit/culture critic is a small god in some circles. It is this critic who often highlights the work of artist A or B or C, differentiating between them and influencing the consumption of their work. Indeed, some readers swear and live by what some ‘celebrity’ writer/columnist declares.
Thus, it is important to think about the welfare of the men and women who go out there to find stories, prepare and broadcast them. What dangers do war reporters face? What complications do investigative reporters have to deal with? What critical decisions do editors have to make before the reader meets the story in the newspaper, radio, TV or online?
We probably just see the reporter and expect the story as we imagine it should be. We need to see the reporter as someone with a life beyond her or her daily duty; as someone’s child or parent or spouse or friend or member of the community. We need to see the human in the person reporting, which would enable us to join in the fight against the impunity that often criminalizes journalists’ work or victimizes them.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]