There are many reasons why journalists feel the need to risk their lives for their work.
These reasons have to do with how journalists view the work they do but the danger and risk comes about because of the society and systems that we live in.
1. Journalism's role
So back in the day, you had the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. These made up three classes or estates of people. The press were educated, not usually rich or powerful but could wield power through printed word. They became known as the fourth estate. And since then there has been a fifth and sixth estate defined as well.
But most people feel that the role most journalism plays or should play is to “speak truth to power” and to “keep the bastards honest”.
What that means is that journalism has to report on the truth of what is going on in government and other spheres to the public.
And this is inherently risky. Those in power, in government or otherwise, if they abuse that power often do not want the truth being told and will therefore use their power to suppress journalists in a vast number of ways.
Sometimes this is with outright violence and assassination, sometimes this is through intimidation, pressure and threats of jail or loss of income or other things. Sometimes this is done via legislation where it suddenly becomes illegal for a journalist to do their job in some way.
This last bit is what is currently happening in Australia where laws are being passed to force telecommunication companies to pass on metadata and for cops to be able to raid journalists.
The idea is that if a government is as honest and upright as they claim to be they would allow the press the freedom to do their job. Because there is nothing to hide. The freedom to carry out all aspects of journalism work from talking to sources, to receiving tip offs, to using encryption and investigation and to query government agencies and departments for information is termed press freedom.
An attack on a journalist’s life or ability to do their work freely is an attack on press freedom.
It’s often a huge concern for most journalists’ unions and should be a huge concern for the public as well.
2. Duty of care
Journalists are beholden to certain groups of people in their work: their colleagues and their sources but most of all to the public.
The duty of a journalist is to inform the public of what they need to know so that they can make the best and most informed decisions possible.
Sometimes this means going into a dangerous situation on purpose to find out the exact truth of what is going on so that the public can decide and act appropriately.
This may be an undercover investigation that exposes something that helps the public make a decision or helps bring an injustice to light that can be followed up in the courts.
It could also be a revelation of a government department or figure breaking the law in some way and needing to face repercussions for doing so.
It could also mean going into a war zone to report on what is happening so the public can decide to protest or vote accordingly and organisations can react to provide assistance and other countries’ governments and international organisations can make decisions about sanctions or withdrawing assistance or attempting ceasefires and negotiations.
These all come with a level of risk. But if a journalist never went out into such situations to report, you would never know enough to make an accurate judgement of what was going on and how best to react.
3. Sometimes, they don't intend to take a risk at all
The most horrifying thing is when a journalist is simply doing their job but doing exactly what they have been doing for years in a moment becomes something that is risky.
In Sri Lanka, around 26 or more journalists are still unaccounted for – there has been little to no proper investigation into their deaths and disappearances.
They were seen as dangerous by those in power because they did their job and reported on the political news at the time.
There are many other places where this happens across the world. Sudanese journalists were killed for reporting on the protests for example.
Sometimes they are just doing their job because they like being informed and informing others. Sometimes that alone is enough to get them killed.
Not all journalism is risky
There are plenty of journalists who are not in danger of being intimidated or hurt or killed for doing their job. Journalism jobs span a vast range of fields and industries as well. There are a lot of different beats of journalism as well that don’t attract such unwanted attention and risk.
But they all have a duty of care to the public.
And the public, if they are informed and organised, can riot, can vote, can change the balance of power and history.
And those in power know that and that is why, if you want a quiet, uninformed population that you can control with whatever you say, you silence those who can tell them otherwise – the press. If you want to operate any way you like, you make sure the people holding you accountable cannot do so.
Whch is why a press freedom concern is a public concern. Anything preventing a journalist doing their job is something that prevents you from holding someone in power accountable.
So the next time you hear about press freedom attacks, be involved and ask who wants to keep information from you and why?