[Jakarta, LTTW] Journalism operates within the freedom of speech and freedom of the press principles. In doing so, there are ethics and code of conduct that must be followed. Covering all sides, fact-based, and seeking the truth are parts of the foundation on which journalism stands. Prior to the emergence of internet, information technology and widespread changes in political mores, journalism was the “authority” of what we call today as the conventional media.
During the Cold War, countries of the Eastern bloc and developing countries elsewhere were the enemies of journalism. At the time, many (if not most) regimes were allergic to journalism. Censorship, media ban, revoking publishing permit were familiar policies imposed on media. Several countries like China, Russia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Burma are still practicing such policies. In this matter, nothing really changes.
As in any other sector, the media “industry” also consists of minor and major leagues. In the heyday of conventional media, the big players were considered as the ones who controlled the contents. Newspapers, TV Networks, and Magazines grew as giant media corporations holding strong political influence along with money to spend. So by being the flagship of freedom of the press and journalism and also prosperous, they had the power to choose what issues to expose, thus shaped public opinion. Today, this is not the case anymore.
State vs. Press
The State against the Press is nothing new, but the State banning a foreign state-funded Press was unprecedented prior to the shutting down of Al-Jazeera TV in Amman in August 8, 2002 by the Jordanian authority. The channel is accused of “provoking sedition in the kingdom” and “defaming” the royal family. Almost a decade later, the Egyptian government closed down Al-Jazeera for allegedly encouraging the country’s uprising. In August last year, Saudi Arabian government accused Al-Jazeera of inciting fundamentalism and separatism, supporting terrorism, and destabilizing political situation in the region. Not long after, the Israeli government blocks the Al-Jazeera’s news broadcast. The Israeli claims that the network supports terrorism, and is a tool of ISIS. The Israeli government is seeking a legal way to completely shut down Al-Jazeera operation in Israel.
Being impartial is essential in journalism, but the view is different from the political side, especially in countries or regions that do not practice the Western democracy. In the Arab world, where Monarchy and dictatorship are common practices, freedom of the press is not welcome. The perpetual distrust and conflicts among Arab countries add the difficulty for the press to be impartial; covering one side is most likely to be taken as opposing the other.
Al-Jazeera itself is a news broadcasting company sponsored by Qatar government. While state funded, Al-Jazeera considers itself as an alternative and independent network that not only challenges the mainstream narrative, but also serves as the voice for the unheard. Its claims include being impartial and covering all sides. Such claims are questionable when it comes to criticizing its owner. Qatar itself has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and is today’s one of the wealthiest. Although “more democratic” than its affluent neighbors – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates – Qatar is not a democratic republic; it’s an absolute Monarchy. Given such fact, promoting freedom of the press (through Al-Jazeera) can only take place outside of Qatar. This what makes Al-Jazeera’s credibility in journalism is under constant suspicion.
In recent years, the “battle” between the State and freedom of the press has happened not only in the Middle East and countries governed by dictatorial regimes, but also, alarmingly, in the United States. The narcissist “superstar” personality of President Trump apparently cannot stand criticism. Every single thing (either true or not) that he disapproves is countered by the now famous “fake news” label. This kind of “opposition” by the White House Administration to the media is unprecedented in the United States. The non-partisan press that was once a necessary counterpart is now an enemy of the State, particularly the President. While detesting the unbiased media, Trump is craving for the use of Twitter in his communication. Giving him a title as the King of Tweet seems appropriate to match his addiction to Twitter, or perhaps Twitter Junkie could serve as the alternative. In spite of whichever the title that suits him, the use of Twitter (and other social media) by the public has shaken the existence of conventional and mainstream media.
Social Media and Journalism
The internet has evolved significantly since its early commercial use in early 90s. The first phase of convergence involving computing, communication and information or content has gone far beyond what we could have imagine then. The later convergence involves cellular technology and electronics, while the form of contents expanded from text only to visual, audio and video, not to mention the immediacy in speed and interactivity as the result of streaming technology. E-commerce, Blog, Social networks, Maps & Location and iPhone were platforms born out of this second phase convergence, followed by features and applications as branches.
Such continuous and rapid development changes how people perceive and do things, including the way people view and practice the freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and also freedom of the press. Journalism, as one of the manifestations of such freedoms, is heavily challenged by these changes.
Social media activists and users claim that conventional media can no longer “control” the contents. Through the internet, may it be web-based or social networks, any individual or group can publish or share any information they have, including their views, opinions and knowledge. Their claim also include that journalism no longer solely belongs to the conventional and mainstream press media.
Although different in form, the number of readership, audience or called followers in social media is far beyond the reach of any mainstream media. Based on several surveys, all of the 10 Facebook accounts with most followers belong to individuals who are celebrities. For Twitter, there are only two non-individual accounts (YouTube and CNN) out of twenty with the most followers. The number of followers of these accounts range from 40 to over 100 millions!
The growing use and reach of web-based media and social networks has seized the audience of the conventional media; several old school newspapers and magazines had no choice but to transform themselves into on-line media. Those who endure, extend their services to on-line.
The battle between web-based service and social networks not only in readership, but also the idea of journalism. The new media is said to represent freedom of speech and expression, and for many, practicing these freedoms needs no boundary. Web-based media and social networks bow to one rule, i.e.: there is no rule. Journalism, on the other hand, believes in sets of ethics and rules. Taking no side, legitimate source, keeping off the records to themselves, guaranteeing the rights of the subject to respond, and correcting the mistakes are some of the doctrines practiced and safeguarded in journalism. Not all of mainstream media obey these rules, but such disrespect does not change the idea of journalism at all.
Freedom of speech and expression are not without boundary because freedom itself is bound to certain limitations and rules. Any act that fails to recognize and respect limitation is not a manifestation of freedom at all, it is an anarchy.
The New Billionaires and Mainstream Corporate Media.
Giant media corporation is not a new thing; it’s been with us since the early 20th century when two fierce competitors, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer established their private newspapers in San Francisco and New York. In 1950s, an Australian-born Rupert Murdoch bought a network of newspapers that later grew and known as News Corp and 21st Century Fox, today’s second largest media group in the world. At the time, however, the founders of these media giants came from families with publishing and/or journalism background. They became billionaires by successfully running their media companies.
Today, there is a growing trend indicating that wealthy individuals coming from outside of media business are both investing and attacking the press media. When it comes to investing in media, many wander why these billionaires took such action amid the sizable “migration” of audience from conventional media to digital. People get even more puzzled when billionaires of highest calibre like Warren Buffett (of Berkshire Hathaway) bought Media General Inc., Jeff Bezos (of Amazon) acquired the Washington Post, and John Henry (of Boston Red Sox) purchased the Boston Globe; these billionaires are certainly no dummies. Well, it turned out that there are good reasons why they invested in these conventional media.
First, according to Newspaper Association of America, the revenue of newspapers in the US has grown with an average of over 3% since 2013. Then, they all believe that locality can never be replaced by the “global” web-based and social networks. Another reason is that they also believe that journalism is an institution, and essential in free society thus worth defending. So, there you have it.
On the other side, there are billionaires who are allergic to conventional and mainstream media. They simply hate what the media expose with regards to disapproved contents. Donald Trump filed a libel suit against Tim O’Brien of the New York Times who reported that the President’s developer business is only worth between U$ 15-250 million, not between U$1.5-2.5 billion as Trump repeatedly claimed. Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal) did the same thing to Gawker, by financing the retired professional wrestler Hulk Hogan in suing the media. Prior to Hulk Hogan’s case, Gawker exposed the fact that Peter Thiel was gay, something that Peter Thiel would like to keep it private. Another case involved Idaho’s billionaire, Frank VanderSloot; he filed libel suit against Mother Jones magazine for releasing a story about a pedophile camp counselor in Idaho Falls. Thiel and VanderSloot won the case, Trump did not, but he said that he files the suit just to make O’Brien’s life miserable.
It’s quite interesting to imagine how the court battle would be if Trump, Thiel, and VanderSloot filed suits against the media owned by Buffett, Bezos, and Henry. Billionaires against billionaires; it would be gladiators combat of the 21st century, wouldn’t it?