In the era of fake news, press freedom means many things to different people. Can true journalism be reconciled with its current image?

Art courtesy of  Sieny Verellia .

Art courtesy of Sieny Verellia.

It was winter when I visited Washington D.C.; record-breaking cold was sweeping through the East Coast thanks to a ‘bomb cyclone’, painting the streets a dreary grey and coaxing pedestrians to draw their coats a little tighter to their bodies in a vain effort to avoid the bone-chilling wind. Some chose to seek refuge in a Starbucks or one of the Smithsonians, while others, like myself, chose to venture into the Newseum - a museum dedicated to the free press movement and the meaning behind America’s First Amendment.

Alongside regular exhibits, such as the 9/11 gallery and the Berlin Wall gallery, stands the Fake News exhibit, unveiled in late 2017 in response to the 2016 presidential election, and the meme made from Donald Trump’s favourite PG-rated phrase. Visitors, young and old alike, stop and chuckle at the enlarged photo of Donald Trump gesticulating wildly with his orange hands. It’s nice that they can laugh, I mused, while making my way to the third level, the home of the journalist memorial. Although fake news undeniably exists (just look at the Deception Detection Across Australian Populations (2009) report), Trump’s appropriation and weaponisation of the term to reflect news that doesn’t agree with his administration has created a vacuum of media distrust in America, and worldwide.

To understand the potential long-term effects of this phenomenon, one only has to look at the 2,323 names emblazoned on the memorial. As a journalism student, it’s easy to get caught up in the stories where risk and danger mean nothing in the face of breaking the next big thing - stories like Spotlight (2015), The Post (2017), or even His Girl Friday (1940). The severity of these events is masqueraded by Hollywood glamour, where truth never fails to triumph in the face of evil. In reality, journalists such those memorialised at the Newseum don’t have the luxury of basking in the glamour. Pick a name on the memorial, any name; most likely, they would have died for their pursuit of truth.

There can be no press freedom if journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty or fear.
— International Federation of Journalists

Mohamed Abazied, 40, died in an airstrike in Syria while live-streaming his news report about Russian and Syrian airstrikes to Facebook. The most famous investigative journalist in Malta, Daphne Caruana Galizia, 53, was killed by a remote-controlled bomb that was planted in her car. Gauri Lankesh, 55, died instantly when a gunman pulled up next to the front of her house and shot her in the chest and abdomen. Christopher Allen, 26, was wearing a clearly-labelled press jacket, but was deliberately shot in the head while reporting on the civil war in South Sudan. Miroslava Breach Velducea, 54, died after eight shots were fired into her car while she was taking her son to school in Mexico - a note was left at the scene, which read: “For being a loud mouth.” Christopher Iban Lozada, 29, was killed after receiving death threats saying “leave Bislig if you do not want to die” - the mayor of Bislig City has been named as a person of interest in his death. These are only six of the journalists that have been killed in 2017.

While Australian journalists have been punished for their reporting, as seen through James Ricketson’s arrest in Cambodia in June 2018, Australia itself is not a perilous place to be a journalist - at the moment. Paul Murphy, chief executive of the Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance (MEAA), however, highlights in MEAA’s Criminalising Journalism (2018) report that the drafting of National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017 and Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017 by the government is extremely worrying, even more so with the increase in privatised media outlets and decrease in the ABC’s - arguably the largest and most reliable public media outlet - funding. These bills, drafted to combat espionage and foreign interference, would have jailed journalists, editorial production staff, legal advisers and potentially admin workers for handling sensitive information that came across their desk - also known as doing their jobs. Thankfully, a legal defense loophole of “reporting in the public interest” was added to these bills before passing, however the effectiveness of this is yet to be seen.

In this era of the press being labelled as the enemy of the people, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the truth doesn’t matter, and journalism - journalists - are paying the price. The press is meant to be the voice of and for the people, and government legislation against the press is effectively an attack on the people it’s meant to govern. President Trump’s #FAKENEWS and tiny hands might be a funny meme, but his mentality is a dangerous sign of the Capitol-esque society that is to come.

Bronte Gossling is a third-year (oh my god, already?!) Journalism/International Studies (Spain) student, who has a penchant for being super organised but is also perpetually late to any and all engagements. Nice.

This article appeared in The Comma’s 2018 Annual Edition. Read more here.