Barrett: Censoring social media is start of erosion of press freedom

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Every year on World Press Freedom Day, I seem to get one email or phone call insinuating I need to employ more censorship in my reporting, or editing of submissions for the newspaper.

Censorship, of course, is not a function of good journalism, so my response is always that I won’t use a tool used by tyrants to stop people from speaking truth to power, from presenting readers with all sides of a story, not just the ones a government, organization or individual want people to hear.

This year, instead of criticizing newspaper content, the lengthy email I got – from someone I don’t work for – essentially implored me to censor my personal social media feed on Twitter because a certain organization/individual felt it was blasting negativity.

Fat chance.

For one, the particular tweet in question was nothing but fact. If it was viewed as negative, then there’s a problem, but not one that I’m responsible for or need to address, as again, it was factual, not defamatory or libelous, about the situation I was reporting on at the time.

Further, asking someone to suppress “negativity” – especially on a personal feed – because one finds what is being written dislikable goes against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which include freedom of conscience and religion, peaceful assembly, association, and most importantly for myself, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.

The fact, in this day and age where misinformation spreads like wildfire and unbiased reporting is needed more than ever, that someone would go out of their way to try and get someone who works for a newspaper to censor their work is concerning. The fact someone believes that only facts that are “positive” should be shared is equally as concerning, as is the idea that a government, organization or individual believing they should have some power over personal social feeds.

I’ve said it many times before, but if you like everything I write, then I’m not doing my job as a journalist right. I’m not presenting both sides of a story.

I’m not a public relations specialist who throws flashy, subjective adjectives in releases to sell an event, or product. I’m not a communications expert whose focus is to put a particular organization’s best face forward. I’m not going to shill for any organization or political party.

If this were the Avengers universe (no spoilers), I wouldn’t tell the world Thanos saved millions and is the hero all of existence needs. I would tell them he murdered millions in what people would believe is a misguided attempt to become that hero and that the Avengers failed to defeat him because that’s what actually happened. It’s not a happy story, but it’s the one people would need to know.

I’m not going to stop telling people what they need to know.

If a local political figure makes an unpopular decision, I’m going to write about it – and bless the majority of them who have encouraged me to hold them to account. If citizens are in an uproar over a group or incident or decision, I’m going to write about it, and if a group, organization, political figure or otherwise starts being unwelcoming towards media, barring access to events or attempting to control how things are reporting on, I’m going to write about it.

Being the lone reporter for the Lacombe Globe, it’s not easy to make it to everything I should, particularly given the newspaper no longer has an office. It’s not easy trying to explain to readers why I haven’t written a story on the many different sports teams, AGMs, fundraisers or otherwise. Every minute spent trying takes time away from coverage of other events, creating a never ending cycle of negativity towards the newspaper and media industry as a whole.

Part of my solution is using my own personal social media feeds to be transparent with readers about what I’m up to, what I’m trying to cover, or why I didn’t cover a certain event. A simple post about not being able to cover an event because there was miscommunication in a release, simultaneously occurring events, or barred access to an event can change a reader’s outlook from being upset and considering never reading the Lacombe Globe again to being understanding and submitting pieces for publish instead. I know this, because people in the community have recently thanked me for such posts saying they appreciate the insight into my job.

It is those people, those hungry for the truth who encourage unbiased reporting, and not those who try and control it to serve their own goals, that I will remain committed to.

It’s OK to not like everything you read. It’s not OK to tell me I shouldn’t write about facts you don’t like. It’s OK for the PR and Communications types to want to combat “negativity” towards those they work for, but it’s not OK to do so by trying to censor others, not even in its subtlest of forms.

Data from organizations like Reporters Without Borders shows that there are a growing number of people who want to kill or silence journalists who are being empowered by their democratically elected political leaders. Actions like trying to censor a journalist’s personal social media could potentially be the start of erosion of press freedom locally.

If individuals, groups or organizations are already trying to engage in censorship of any kind, it’s even more important not to engage in censorship, because that would only allow press freedom to deteriorate further, and then we can expect more extreme censorship-driven attacks to start to happen.

So once again, my response is that I won’t engage in censorship. Not now, not ever.