Celebrating reporters at risk - Keith Roulston editorial
When the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize was given to two journalists who have risked their lives to report the truth, suddenly my career as a community journalist seemed pretty safe and unimportant.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to give the award to Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia.
Ressa co-founded Rappler, a digital media company for investigative journalism in 2012. She is an outspoken critic of the Philippines’ autocratic President Rodrigo Duterte. In 2020, she was found guilty of “cyber-libel”. The International Federation of Journalists has called the Philippines the deadliest peacetime country for journalists in Southeast Asia with some 85 journalists having been killed in the past 20 years.
Muratov was one of the founders of the independent newspaper Novaja Gazeta in 1993 and since 1995 he has been the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. Novaja Gazeta is the most independent newspaper in Russia today, reporting on sensitive topics such as governmental corruption and human rights violations, making enemies among the supporters of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. During Muratov’s time at the paper, six of its journalists have been killed.
Being a journalist in countries like Russia and the Philippines is a totally different world than being a journalist in a western democracy, let alone in small community newspapers. Reporters for national news-gathering organizations in Ottawa or in provincial capitals, for instance, may be disliked for their efforts to dig up dirt on the governments they cover, but they don’t have to fear for their lives. (Although as the U.S. becomes more tribalized with differing “truths”, one must worry about the safety of mainstream journalists who expose right-wing conspiracy theories.)
Community journalists may be the target of angry, insulting messages from time to time and the threat to cancel subscriptions or switch to a different station, but generally our job requires only a thick skin, not a bulletproof vest. We don’t need to be exceptionally brave to do our jobs.
Even in democracies, things can be dangerous for investigative reporters if they take on the wrong targets. Earlier this year, renowned Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries, who fearlessly reported on the violent underworld in the Netherlands, was murdered on an Amsterdam street in a shooting resembling a gangland hit.
Meanwhile in Mexico, 56 journalists have been murdered, often because they are exposing drug lords and other criminals.
Even when investigative reporters aren’t angering dictators or gangsters, they can be unpopular with the public. As much as I detested Richard Nixon, I must say I initially didn’t embrace all the revelations exposed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein when they doggedly tracked the trail of the 1972 Republican break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. I was just too aware of the media’s delight in scandal and its ability to find it even when it’s not there. I wasn’t alone. It took two years of the team’s revelations before the extent of the Nixon campaign’s attempts to manipulate the 1972 election was accepted by the public and Nixon was forced to resign. Eventually, 48 people were convicted, many of them top Nixon administration officials.
Woodward and Bernstein became heroes and near-mythical idols within the journalistic community. Woodward is still at it 50 years later, exposing the crazy, dangerous world of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
As a journalist who was too timid to be a Woodward or Bernstein, let alone a Ressa, Muratov or de Vries, I always worry about reporters being able to misuse the power of their privileged positions. I even guard against the temptation to see only the bad side of Donald Trump – though I must admit I haven’t been able to discover many good sides of the man, except that his government’s financing speeded up the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Meanwhile, a community journalist lives in a simpler world than, say, a Parliament Hill. The politicians we report on at the municipal level are generally our neighbours. Most are trying to serve their community, even if we don’t always agree that they’re choosing the right course to accomplish that. They haven’t got lost in the game of partisan politics and aren’t addicted to the catnip of power the way politicians at higher levels often are.
But the world is a better place for the courage of the muckraking journalists who hold the powerful to account for their actions and expose corruption.
Still, I’m glad to miss the adrenaline rush of big-time journalism. Reporting on municipal councils, farm meetings and awards presentations was exciting enough for me.