Why non-journalists should care about free press

Rewon Shimray | Cartoonist Photo credit: Rewon Shimray

Last weekend, CNN reported that two journalists working for Reuters, a news and business website, from Myanmar were arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison for investigating and reporting on the massacre of Rohinga Muslims in the region. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo reportedly broke the Official Secrets Act by taking classified information from police officials, but Reuters is standing by the pair, claiming that they were within their rights to report on the war crimes. Also claiming that there have been claims of a set-up by police officials in order to entrap the journalists.

This happened halfway across the world, in a country ranked 143 out of 180 by the World Press Freedom index — one of the most restrictive countries in terms of rights for the media and press. It may seem inconsequential to the majority of the population who consume the media but don’t produce it. It may seem especially inconsequential to Americans, who live in a society that maintains a relatively free press (although the U.S. barely scrapes by in the top 50 for press freedom, at No. 45). No matter how trivial it seems, ensuring a free press and protecting journalists’ rights are crucial to society.

Now obviously, we at the Lariat have a fairly biased view on this issue. Of course we want journalists kept safe because we identify as journalists ourselves. Of course we want the freedom to write what we think, what we hear and what we investigate without fear of harm or retribution. But you should want this too. Without a free and balanced press or worldwide standards that protect journalists from harm and imprisonment, the public will never be as informed as it should be. More than likely, many of you had never heard of the Myanmar massacres prior to this editorial, and some of you may not even know where Myanmar is. Because their press is not free, journalists who want to report on the issues in this region must jump through dangerous hoops in order to share the atrocities committed against humans with the rest of the world. The general public, especially the American people, become more ignorant when news is not freely shared.

Maybe this doesn’t strike a chord within you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t with many Americans. We are spoiled here with our freedom of speech amendment and our broad spectrum of news sources. You can tailor your news to your liking, or you can explore opposing viewpoints at your own discretion. But none of this freedom and choice was enough to stop a man from walking into a Maryland newsroom and killing five innocent citizens, simply because they were journalists.

You may not like the media, you may not agree with what partisan media outlets are saying, but that does not mean we are any less citizens or any less human than the rest of you. Instead of hating us, work with us to make news better. If you feel news is too biased, subscribe to more non-biased newspapers, such as AP and Reuters. If you agree that journalists should be more free to report the news internationally, look up Reporters Without Borders and learn more about how you can help through petitions, donation and sponsorship.

Whether you are an avid news consumer or someone who only reads Twitter headlines, recognize that journalists are behind the words you read. Someone went out, asked the right questions and produced the content you consume, all with the goal of sharing stories with the world.

White House Press Corps. legend Helen Thomas said, “We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.”

But the pressure we put on leaders is amplified when the public uses our reporting to seek truth for themselves. You are the change-makers. You act on the news; we simply report it. But if nobody tells these important stories, how will anyone know to take action?