News reporting in democracy is a right, not a luxury
We must talk for a minute about the perception some readers have about the media coverage of news events when they are mixed up with institutions and governments. One example has been the zero original reporting in Spanish in Kabul in recent weeks. Another almost identical example was what happened with the almost total lack of reports and images in the Spanish press during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. A third might be immigrants and their little boats, or big natural disasters.
Governments tend to want to control everything or are terrified of the possible results: they are, however, as a matter of fact, the legitimate authority at a certain administrative level over some part of Spain. The professionals in question, doctors and nurses or soldiers or firefighters, are busy with their tasks, as it should be, and then we must not forget data protection and image laws, which are always complex and potentially problematic. Lots and lots of barriers to proper reporting.
And someone always adds the argument that it is not safe for a journalist to report from such and such a place, generally speaking a bit more dangerous than a TV chat show in Madrid. You might get Covid, or the Taliban might slap you around or shoot at you, or you might get burnt if you try to take photos of forest fires. All true but at same time relative risks, if you try to take the appropriate precautions (PPE, bulletproof vest, helmet in riots, etc.) and are aware of your own situation.
And why can a journalist go in to a hospital if relatives cannot? Or why is the lawyer at a big trial talking to a reporter but not to me?
There are always excuses if the media does not want to report or if a government wants to stop that reporting. We have seen it in Spain in recent years in all of those cases.
The problem with these excuses is that reporting and information about current affairs in a democracy is not a luxury: it is a right. And it is a right that has special constitutional relevance, if we listen to judges and the legal precedent they create. Public opinion must be well informed, first of all to better understand what is going on and then to be able to ask questions of and criticize their public representatives and authorities, who speak and decide and act in some capacity on behalf of all.
And when we are talking about that type of journalism, about illustrating and chronicling some event or another, about portraying a series of actions for the present time and as that first draft of History, we are not talking about displaying anyone's dirty laundry to the world. In general, what you find in those moments is just a lot of people tyring hard to improve or solve or properly deal with whatever difficult situation they are in. Doctors and nurses in Covid areas, soldiers in Kabul or firefighters in forest fires.
Readers must know they have this right to reporting and information, that it is a right and that they must even demand it from their politicians. Governments must know that when they obstruct some news coverage with these excuses, they are really blocking that right that belongs to citizens and suffocating legitimate public debate. And governments in democracies are always obliged to ensure rights are guaranteed, not impeded. The media, for their part, must always strive to inform, and insist if they encounter these excuses and barriers.
Because if a journalist does not go and try to paint that portrait of those relevant moments, the only memory left for History, the only object available for later public reflection on matters that affect us all, is the PR bilge pumped out by government press offices.
I myself have been able to see this past year in hospitals with Covid that it is possible for everyone to work together a bit, though, in this task of reporting on and illlustrating reality, and we all win if it is done seriously. Citizens, journalists, professionals and even governments.
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