On November 2 November we observed the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists
Some international days are very broad in scope: mothers’ day, for example, or world health day. They embrace half the world’s population and they look to foster all aspects of their flourishing. Other days are tightly focused.
The day to end impunity for crimes against journalists, for example, is dedicated to a very small proportion of the world’s population: journalists. It focuses, too, on the small proportion of journalists whose work has put their lives at risk. Nor does the day ask for large benefits, such as freedom of speech or recognition of the place of journalists in society. It demands only that those who have treated them unjustly might not be exempt from prosecution.
The day takes us far from our experience. Few of us would ever have met journalists who have been physically attacked because of their writing or lived in a country where people could bash or kill journalists with impunity.
Nevertheless the day is important. Partly because the life of each human being, near or far away, is precious and to be respected. But also because the safety and freedom of journalists to write are essential in a healthy society. At their best journalists help us to understand the society we live in.
They uncover, for example, the dark reality of finance and insurance that underlies the comfortable illusions we may share, by revealing truths that would otherwise be hidden. If we are responsible to help build a just society we must know where injustice is to be found. Journalists provide us with that information. Of course, they receive little credit for it.
Powerful people who act corruptly or violently and profit from cosy relationships with politicians and regulators do not want their actions to be made public. In some nations they pressure media editors. In others they have journalists killed and ensure that those responsible are not brought to justice
Where there is secrecy and people are afraid to speak about criminal behaviour, societies are themselves corrupted by the culture of silence. We have seen this in the case of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. When people who reported abuse were routinely disbelieved and often ostracised for speaking out, the ensuing silence meant that offending priests could be moved from parish to parish and continued to act criminally.
This has led to a loss of faith by many Catholics and a general loss of trust in Catholic leaders.
The impetus that led to a church being made safer for children and to some justice for people who were abused came not from within the Catholic Church but from mainstream journalists who persisted in their enquiries and revealed the extent of sexual abuse in the Church. This required courage from the journalists in the face of public disbelief. In many nations journalists who show courage have also to take into account the risk of arrest, torture or death.
That is why this day is so important. Although at Jesuit Social Services we are not journalists, we work with people who are disadvantaged and often fail to receive due respect from government policy. We share journalists’ commitment to a just society and the call to speak truth to power. That is always uncomfortable, and always needs to be defended for the good of society.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.