Journalists are not infallible

ON JUNE 23, three Al Jazeera journalists were convicted in Egypt of aiding terrorist organisations. There was international outcry from human rights groups, foreign government leaders, and near universal outcry from other journalists.
Adam Kyamatare
Adam Kyamatare

ON JUNE 23, three Al Jazeera journalists were convicted in Egypt of aiding terrorist organisations. There was international outcry from human rights groups, foreign government leaders, and near universal outcry from other journalists.

There is vigorous debate about whether these journalists received a fair trial or if the charges were a political chess game between Egypt and Qatar. One question that seemed to be missing in the mainstream media was: is it possible they are actually guilty?

Possibility of culpability

Perhaps only a deity can truly know the motivation of these men and/or if they were guilty. It is very possible, maybe even likely, that these individuals simply incurred the wrath of a political machine that didn’t like their reporting.

Scores of journalists around the world have been punished for ‘crimes’ like this.

But there is also the possibility that they are guilty of the crimes they are accused of. As an objective populous, people must accept that for their innocence to be an option then similarly their guilt must be an option (however slight).

Similarly, even politically motivated trials do not negate the fact that occasionally the individual is actually guilty of the crime.

The American founding fathers were patriots that arguably shaped the world’s most effective experiment in democracy, but that being said, they were guilty of treason against the British Empire.

Gang mentality

There is something unsettling how quickly journalists around the world coined the catchy phrase ‘Journalism isn’t a crime’. From CNN to small college radio stations, journalists crossed their mouths with black tape to protest the trials.

But the trials were ongoing and these journalists were in possession of the same information as everyone else. How did/do they know journalism isn’t a crime?

Journalists play far too important a role to simply be left to their own devices. A Danish cartoonist drew a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed and caused an international crisis. A Danish company that exported to the Middle East lost $1.6 million a day during the ‘Boycott Denmark’ campaign by Middle Eastern countries.

The actions of this one journalist caused people to lose jobs, cost insurance companies millions of dollars from claims by store owners of vandalised shops, and increased tension between the native Danes and the immigrant population.

A journalist can write an article that changes capital markets in a moment.

Accusations of CEO fraud or a company missing its quarterly numbers can cause stocks to plummet. Inaccurate reporting can cause investors to lose millions in savings.

Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times, wrote articles showing the work of a woman from Cambodia who claimed to have been sexually trafficked. She went on to become an activist, raising money with the help of Kristof’s articles, to help trafficked women.

However, in the end it turned out that this woman had lied about her past. Even if the money that was given was used for its intended purpose, there is culpability by Kristof for having promoted a lie.

Perspective is important

It’s important to remember that the media holds a vitally important role in creating an informed public. It holds public officials to account, points out injustices, and brings to light stories that society may have otherwise brushed under the rug.

This huge responsibility doesn’t come without a cost. Many journalists that write about these topics are barely economists, political scientists, research scientists; worse still many do not even grasp the theories in the fields that they sometimes report.

It is probably likely these journalists in Egypt are innocent. It is admirable that the media fraternity had such loyalty and stood by each other (though one wonders why the media insults corporate CEOs that do the same thing).

Additionally, there is no question that some courts are fairer than others and that judicial manipulation happens far more than it should.

But all these facts don’t guarantee that anyone is innocent simply because they happen to subscribe to a certain profession.

Adam Kyamatare is an economist based in Copenhagen

Twitter: @adamkyam

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