Why It’s Time for Journalists to Stand Up

"Journalism is the conscience of society," writes Sandra Basic Hrvatin. Photo: Pixabay

The decline of a major Slovenian newspaper shows why journalists must show courage, express solidarity and stand up for the kind of reporting that serves the public interest. 

by Sandra Basic Hrvatin

The biggest national daily newspaper in Slovenia, Delo, is becoming an example of the slow demise of journalism.

Every Friday, its journalists tremble with fear in anticipation of a phone call from the human resources department letting them know that they have lost their job. So far, 39 journalists have been faced with this situation.

What is alarming, at least for us Slovenian citizens, is that this has not made the news, or even been mentioned in any of the mainstream media.

One could read a laid-off journalist’s blog about who is next in line or come across a reflection about the situation on the blog of a philosopher who dedicates his free time to the critical analysis of the media.

Apart from that, there has been a painful silence.

Journalists who are familiar with trade unionism and class struggle, and who have in the past covered workers’ struggles following the demise of the best Slovenian companies, are incapable of speaking up about their own position.

There is no courage, no solidarity. Probably the most symptomatic thing is the attitude displayed by the laid-off journalists towards the colleagues who were laid off before them: they deserved it, because they didn’t work hard enough, because they were not good enough, because they got their jobs via political connections.

The media landscape of Slovenia is literally devastated. Journalism has been degraded to a supporting activity in the business models of the media owners. Pre-ordered articles and interviews have become a new norm.

The question is: what can be done to save journalism? The kind of journalism that is not a vocation, a craft or a job, but rather the kind of journalism that is a mission. The mission to serve the public interest.

Nowadays it has become very popular to speak of soft censorship. But censorship is what it is – censorship, no matter if it is done with an iron fist or while wearing a smile.

Censorship is not defined by the restriction of public expression (free speech) but the consequences to public knowledge about fundamental issues in society.

Journalists have long ago stopped representing the solution to the problem and have become part of the problem themselves.

They are caught in the web of power-play relations with media-owners, politicians and advertisers – those who have the power and money.

Even though it is true that there are individual journalists who are attempting to do their jobs professionally, it has become increasingly hard to do so.

Such journalists are an anomaly, a foreign body in a system that drives journalism away from working in the public interest and pushes it towards satisfying private interests. Which happens to be the simplest definition of corruption.

My colleague Brankica Petković and I have been working on an analysis of media-systems in the region. For years, together with a group of excellent researchers and journalists, we have been advocating a very simple idea – the crisis of the media industry is mostly a crisis of trust: the media no longer enjoys the trust of the public.

What we are seeing is, in the words of Wendy Brown, the undoing of the demos. The depoliticisation of the people is not the end of politics, rather it is the political defeat of the people; the victory of politics without the people and against them.

In Slovenia, a survey of public opinion in June 2014 suggested that 87 per cent of people are not content with democracy. If they are not content with democracy, what kind of a system do they want?

Attacks on journalists have become continuous. A new normality. I am not referring only to the fact that journalists are exposed to physical violence and murder. No, I am referring also to the fact that there are journalists who are forced to live under 24-hour police protection because they dared to write about issues those in power don’t wish to become known.

Some end up in prison because of their work – the accusations against them are very inventive. Some become the victims of media-lynching, controlled by those with political and economic power. Some leave the journalistic profession and end up working somewhere else – mostly in PR companies. Some try to establish their own media but soon give up, realising that they cannot make ends meet.

Journalism becomes more of a hobby than a profession. Most journalists are working in precarious conditions, being their own employer and employee.

The problem is that the majority of journalists don’t want to talk about it. A common excuse provided, when the lack of courage and solidarity is discussed, is that journalists are individualists and as such incapable of any kind of class struggle – working on stories individually, struggling for wages individually.

The present situation can, of course, be changed. Even more importantly, it needs to be changed if we don’t want to live in the world of alternative facts and fake news.

Journalism cannot be propaganda. But it also cannot be a passive reporter of events.

Journalism, as I see it, contributes to the shaping of the space of public discourse; truthfully and in the name of those whose rights have been violated.

Journalism is the conscience of society. And what we must be saving, for the future is precisely this kind of journalism.

If journalists want to be part of this struggle, they must state their position clearly. Because as they know well, the public is the strongest protector of journalists’ rights.

Sandra Basic Hrvatin is head of the Media Studies Department at Slovenia’s University of Primorska.

The article was republished from Balkan Insight with permission.