Violence against media today

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Violence against media today

Toni Pantone

Toni Pantone

Toni Pantone

By Vishesh Anand, Staff Writer

For his work uncovering local government corruption, Leobardo Vázquez, a 48-year-old Mexican journalist, was threatened and intimidated by undisclosed sources in an attempt to get him to stop writing about the city’s mayor.

Vázquez refused to back down. And on March 21, he was shot to death by unknown assailants on the steps of his own home. He is one of 10 journalists who has been murdered in Mexico just this year, according to the International Press Institute.

On April 30, Shah Marai, 41, chief photographer for Agence France-Presse’s Kabul Bureau, was covering the aftermath of a suicide bombing in the Afghan capital. While on site, the photojournalist was killed in a second blast by a suicide bomber who detonated his explosives in the midst of his targets.

The attacks left 25 dead, nine of which were journalists, AFP reported. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

A few months later in Annapolis, Maryland, the offices of local newspaper The Capital Gazette were targeted by a lone vendetta-driven gunman. Jarrod Ramos, the perpetrator, wanted to take revenge on Capital’s coverage of his criminal harassment case. The shooting on June 28 resulted in five fatalities of company employees.

These events may seem few and far between, but according to databases maintained by the Committee to Protect Journalists, there has been a 44 percent increase in the number of physical attacks on journalists globally when compared to this time last year.

John Nerone, University professor of media and cinema studies, has been studying news organizations and attacks against journalists closely since he started working on his book, “Violence Against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in U.S. History,” which was published in 1994.

In the book, he cataloged attacks on the press, dating back to the 1700s. Nerone found hundreds of incidents of physical attacks, mob assaults and shootings — even duels — that were usually motivated against the partisan reportage from the media.

Nerone predicts if he surveyed news organizations today, he would come across some additional forms of violence as well.

“I would find two things different: reports of harassment online, virtual violence and, the other thing that I overlooked in the book, gender-related violence,” Nerone said.

He accredits the surge in violence to the mischaracterization of the media’s role in the public and to the reemergence of partisan voices all around us. Nerone said it’s not just a news thing either.

“He’s not a very original man,” Nerone said, describing President Trump’s rhetoric.

According to Nerone, the president’s denunciations are aimed at positioning the media as a partisan regent that only claims to have professional expertise and not as an institution, like banking or the law.

And that’s dangerous, Nerone asserts, as there is a portion of the politically interested public that is very responsive to these characterizations of the press as a ‘special interest,’ ‘liberal media’ or ‘fake news.’

“There’s been a continual decline in public opinion polling in regards to respect for the press as an institution,” Nerone said. “It’s something that the news industry has been aware of and concerned about since, at least, 1983 and the US invasion of Grenada.”

Nerone added that while certain organizations, like the Newseum and the First Amendment Center, have been engaged in public relations campaigns to promote understanding of the media’s role in society, the endeavor has been rather ineffective.

There has been a structural change in the media industry, too, he said. The internet has made it easier to enter the journalism field. Monopolistic news organizations, like broadcast networks and dominant daily newspapers, have all encountered competition and seen their business models erode.

“There’s been a rise on the terror journalism frontier, on the internet and elsewhere that looks more like the 19th-century partisan press than it does like 20th-century professional journalism,” Nerone said, evaluating today’s journalistic condition.

Julieta Brambila, assistant professor of communications at the Universidad de las Americas Puebla in Mexico, also recognized the rise in partisanship around the world as a reason for the increase in indecency towards media.

This is especially true in Mexico, where she said there is a common desire amongst journalists to do a more detached type of journalism, employing principles of fairness and objectivity. But, it’s not easy in Mexico, Brambila claimed.

“These aspirations are very limited in terms of what (journalists) can actually do, under influence from politicians and economic factors,” she said. “Over 50 percent (of) revenue for media houses comes from political advertisements, from the government. So, they are not as free as they want to be.”

According to the International Press Institute, Mexico was declared the most dangerous country for journalists in 2017, with at least 14 reporters killed.

“And since Mexican journalists are easier to reach than before, through the internet, threats and harassment have also increased,” Brambila said.

The research scholar with the Center for Media at Risk at the University of Pennsylvania said that the country suffers from a broken political institution, which is riddled by systemic corruption and the fallout from drug wars.

Brambila concedes much needs to change. Accountability for those who commit crimes against the press needs to be ensured, she said.

Additionally, she’s hoping that the new administration, of Mexico’s President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, can open the door for improving the conditions in the profession of journalism.

“I hope they take action and speak out against crimes that happen against the press. And that may actually bring about a change in the atmosphere,” she said.

But for now, Brambila and Nerone both remain skeptical about the future of journalism.

“It doesn’t seem to me that there is a pattern (with the Capital-Gazette shooting). It could have happened at any point in U.S. history, although it didn’t. And I hope that it remains an extremely unusual occurrence and doesn’t happen again,” Nerone said. “But, at the same time, with the material conditions of the press coming to resemble more and more the partisan media of the 19th century, we can expect patterns of violence that we saw then to start reemerging. You don’t wanna be challenged to a duel.”

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