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World Press Freedom Day 2022: When did technologists become journalists?

By Chitra Subramaniam
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publive-image World press freedom day by Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

On World Press Freedom Day, I write about threats to freedom of information. The day is not far when Russian President Vladimir Putin will tell us what freedom of the press means, and we rush to write and analyse it. After all, how many of us in the media have written about the Chinese capture of global media? How ironic is it when Beijing that bans Twitter complains about Twitter on Twitter?

Then there is the Silicon Valley technology gang. Unelected, non-transparent and unaccountable technology giants that interfere in democratic elections openly backing the highest bidder, killing democracy at its roots and giving it a kind of sheen few dare to question. How free is the media today in the 21st century from the shadows and circles it spins around itself?

It is easy to comprehend why governments want to gag the press or certain journalists. It is not easy to understand self-censorship. It is the latter that worries me. Why do some stories get prominence while others get killed? Are we to blame technology for all that plagues our media, or is the moot question this – when did editors allow news desks to become slaves of technology and everything it brought with it? At what point did we decide that we were not going to do the leg work and tell stories that matter to people because that meant work? The truth is somewhere between all this. Far too quickly, we allowed a complete takeover of our profession by faceless and ruthless machines that only worshipped money.

How and why did we allow technologists to replace journalists? World over, machines are doing the stories that journalists are supposed to do. The number of media companies that claim their machine learning and artificial intelligence-based platforms are capable of churning hundreds of stories every day is increasing. We allowed the machines to take over our profession. We did not put up a fight, afraid of what the consequences may be for us. Vested entities and dictators loved us because most of us had capitulated without a fight. The few who stood up were mocked at, making the rest of us feel that standing up for good journalism is not fashionable or the accepted norm. The numbers were not on the right side. The battle for the soul of journalism was on.

Yes, journalism has a soul, and there is not a single government or institution in the world that does not want to bend and beat this soul to serve its purpose. Methods vary, and journalists have been killed in pursuit of truth, but show me a country that welcomes brave and independent journalism, and we can talk about it. Never has the scene been so dangerous for journalists as it is today for a host of reasons. If it is not dictators, it is democratically elected leaders. Newsrooms today are self-censoring as never before. It is called agenda setting – whose agenda? Technology has turned us into apes who swing from story to story, afraid to stop and look lest we fall off the branch. But there is only as much technology can do. Technology can produce reports in the blink of an eyelid, but technology does not have a heart that beats for a story. Only a journalist does. And the breed of the journalists who chase stories of human interest is soon becoming extinct.

Conferences and seminars spend hours discussing what next for press freedom, and if such a thing is possible at all when all we have to say is yes, it is possible, and all it needs is a few people committed to pursuing good journalism, however long that takes and as soon as possible. The question that bothers me the most is this: Is there one institution that can stand up for press freedom worldwide in the age and times we live in? I don’t believe in press freedom indexes because I know how these may be influenced by those who conduct the study and where such studies are driven from. Money plays an important role in defining freedom. Money plays an important role in disseminating that information, and money plays an important role in deciding who is good and who is bad.

Technology has meant that even the most committed journalists find themselves at the receiving end, making them wonder where they went wrong or simply are they missing the story? There is hope. Yes, there is. Even as we are dealing with forces that want us silenced, there are clear signs of pushback from small media groups that are saying the emperor is naked. These voices are coming from all corners of the world, and for now, governments are ignoring them but are doing so at their own risk.

Let us look at what is called a big media story that is agitating us today. It is about Elon Musk and Twitter. Is he the story, or is it about money? If it is about money, then why are we not writing about climate change, Ukraine and vaccines, stories where vast sums of money matter? Is there some kind of invisible wand that decides that there’s a pecking order in the stories we write and those we ignore? Who is the boss? Money? Obviously, there is something more than money that swings things. What is it? Why do editors and newsrooms self-censor uniformly as if some kind of order has been passed? Take any country, region, medium or for that matter, language – how do you explain what goes for breaking news is fairly uniform across platforms, as are analysis and commentary.

What is that one question we must ask ourselves on a day dedicated to celebrating press freedom? For me, it is this – those of us who value journalism have a commitment to the societies we live in. Those of us who see ourselves as part of the fourth estate in a democracy have to rise above the pettiness and return to a time when what we wrote and said was valued. I believe a beginning has been made. It does not come from technology or money or access or even a bad conscience. It comes from people who are increasingly questioning us and holding us up to our word. What better judge of our work than people for whom we strive?

We live in small communities, and we are spread around the world. One of the nicest things technology has enabled is that it has connected dissent and given it a voice. It is upon us to call out the charlatans. I remain hopeful. Here’s wishing all the very talented and committed journalists in the world a very happy press freedom day. We have work to do. Let us not waste a minute.

Chitra Subramaniam | The Probe

Chitra Subramaniam is an award-winning Journalist and media entrepreneur, best known for her path-breaking investigative stories on Bofors scam. She is the founder of Geneva-based CSD consulting and writes on public health, media, development and geopolitics.