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'Journalists are not the enemy'.


OURNALISTS are not the enemy.

JThat was the message delivered by more than 350 media outlets across the United States, and one or two closer to home in the UK, earlier this month.

You may think this is pretty obvious. But it's a statement the press felt compelled to make following US President Donald Trump's repeated attacks on some media. These attacks have included labelling them the "enemy of r

In an effort to counterbalance, the Boston Globe led a campaign on Thursday, August 16, whereby hundreds of newspapers - including those in states Trump won during the 2016 election - published independent defences of press freedom, explaining the role of journalists and the positive role they play in society.

Trump's response? To label "the fake news media" as "the opposition party" before singling out The Boston Globe's finances in further tweets.

The need for a free, independent press in a democracy is well-documented. In a democratic state, governments are elected by, work for and represent their citizens. The press plays a vital role in holding those in authority to account. Censorship and the stifling of criticism or opposing views is the stuff of dictatorships.

America and Britain have stood as beacons for press freedom globally. But, in 2018, on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a growing fear that truth and democracy are under threat. Nearly 18 months after I wrote a column about the rise of 'fake news' - Collins dictionary's 'Word of the Year' in 2017 - polls measuring public attitudes to press freedom reveal some worrying signs that press freedom may be considered conditional to many in the US.

A recent Ipsos poll aimed at understanding how Americans currently view the press, and public support for efforts to restrict journalism, found most Americans support the concept of the First Amendment, with the majority (85 per cent) polled agreeing the "Freedom of the press is essential for American democracy" and two-thirds (68 per cent) believing "reporters should be protected from pressure from government or big business interests".

However, more grounded questions drew worrying responses.

"The news media is the enemy of the American people" was a sentiment endorsed by 48 per cent of Republicans.

Earlier this month, UN and Inter-American experts on freedom of expression issued a statement expressing concerns that Trump's comments raise the risk of violence against journalists and condemning the president's media attacks. David Kaye, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, urged Trump and his administration "to cease efforts to undermine the media's role of holding government accountable, honest and transparent".

Attacks on press freedom are not a new phenomenon, but media freedom globally has plunged to its lowest level for at least a decade, and that is something we should all be concerned about.

Reporters Without Borders produces an annual World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries according to journalist freedom. In 2018, Britain ranked 40 - one of the worst rankings among Western European nations. The US slipped two places to 45, well behind leaders Norway.

Journalists are not always innocent bystanders, and they don't always get it right. But it's easy to point to investigations that illustrate why their work still matters: from the MPs' expenses scandal and the Panama Papers to the international athletics doping scandal.

Reporters must feel safe to do their job, whether that is revealing wrongdoing or reporting all sides of a debate on contentious subjects. Journalists fulfil a watchdog role in our society. Democracies need informed citizens. The press is a significant source of information for us all and a vital tool for enabling conversation between the government and its voters.

By giving weight to different opinions on an issue, the press expose us to views that are not necessarily our own. Social media algorithms and alternative news sites have made it too easy for us to read views that only reflect our own, safely ensconced in our own 'echo chamber'.

We need journalists, now more than ever, to maintain their commitment to reports that are accurate, fair and balanced. In an era of 'alternative facts', disinformation and 'fake news', we need reporters to challenge, expose, observe and question.

Press freedom is not about making life easier for journalists. It's about securing free expression for us all, and that is something we must continue to guard fiercely.

> President Trump has made repeated attacks on parts of the media
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 27, 2018
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