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January 21, 2022

The gendarmes’ gendarme

“The Cluj Association of Press Professionals is calling on the Gendarmerie and other law enforcement bodies not to allow themselves to be intimidated by those declaring themselves to be journalists and who, in the name of the freedom of expression, are serving purposes other than the public service that the journalistic profession entails.”
This is a fragment from a recent communiqué issued by a local press club. What is surprising is the premise of a timid Gendarmerie. And what is revolting is the almost explicit call for uninhibited interventionism. A call made on behalf of the “press” – the fourth power in the state, meant to counterbalance the others’ excesses – and addressed to troops armed to the teeth and that are generally confronting disarmed protesters. Strange call.

The context is the following. A young local journalist, deeply involved in the campaign hostile to the Rosia Montana mining project, took part almost simultaneously both in a small protest against Premier Victor Ponta and in the impromptu press conference that took place on the hallways of the Theology Faculty’s new headquarters, where the generous state official had went in order to receive an award from the church and to inaugurate the building. Her questions, in that journalistic chaos characteristic of such circumstances, were trying to provoke moral dilemmas to the politician rather than obtain answers. A naïve intention, of course, being almost impossible to embarrass a leader experienced in a mocking and aggressive discourse. But what could have angered some of her journalist colleagues? That she is less of a journalist, that she is not doing deskwork in a stable editorial office and is not grinding her nerves under the bosses’ diktat? That she has more dissonant personal opinions compared to the ideal of “objectivity”? That there are limits to the freedom of expression that the “responsible” journalists themselves do not want to see crossed? Or maybe the occult and subversive interests than some see behind environment protection activism?
A little too much confusion behind the denouncing formulas used by the journalists from Cluj – the example however seems representative for other “press clubs” too. Journalism is of many kinds, and “opinion journalism” has always been, in principle, a pillar of the modern age. But editorials, pamphlets and propaganda articles are not the only ones meant for the journalist’s subjectivity. Even the simple bit of news characteristic of press agencies has its “deforming” filters, no matter how subtle the latter may be. Between “news” and pamphlet however there are plenty of journalistic genres with various doses of subjectivism. It’s not only natural, but also desirable. The press has always been involved in changing mentalities and is using persuasion techniques to the full.
However, where is the problem? First of all when it comes to lying. To say that something that did not happen actually happened or to present it differently than it did. And the nuances of this kind can be extremely varied. To say, like several important dailies do for instance, that the protesters are paid by Soros is a lie. And not because some protester could not be involved in a certain NGO and could not study at the Central European University, the latter benefitting from the billionaire’s financing. But because as things are presented many readers that are less critical can deduce, as a result of the cultivation of suspicion, that it is an “anti-Romanian” conspiracy. Without taking into account the fact that tens of thousands of protesters, who are protesting on behalf of ecology or other values, are defamed without restraint. Where is the journalistic deontology in this case? We could rather say that guilty bias often lies behind “objectivity.” And not because the journalists could not calmly back the Rosia Montana project or shale gas drilling. But most of the time they are not doing it outright like their “opponents” do when openly expressing their opposition. A journalist can just as calmly support Premier Ponta, but since “objectivity” “neuters” him, he is forced to resort to subterfuges, to the subtle deforming/selection of information.
Poor information due to the press often does not derive from occult manipulations. It’s just the lack of journalistic talent. Sometimes the journalist is really phoned by his boss in order to make changes in the article – for instance: leader X was jeered, not leader Y, if both leaders were present. But beyond all that, the honest expression of stances should be fairer. For over two decades press owners have been suspected of backing one side or the other based on secret political agreements. At least Dan Voiculescu does it outright, although the “press clubs” should more clearly distance themselves from the media lynching style. Because the problem is not the “crime of opinion” but the lack of authentic moral criteria when judging the journalistic activity. The press’s vocation for criticism is essential. However, in the name of what values does it brandish its criticism? To criticize someone just in order to do a favour to someone else is not really a good example of an ethical argument. Simply outpouring your hatred in the name of antipathies isn’t one either. A journalist should be admired for the talent to serve causes worthy of the interests of readers/viewers. Talent plus cause, here is the true journalistic equation.
If we transform the journalist into a placid public servant of “objectivity” we risk ending up with calls the likes of the aforementioned one, in which the “timid” gendarmes can be saved only by the firm intervention of another “gendarme” – the press. Which thus becomes the gendarmes’ gendarme. Instead of dealing with the possible abuses committed by law enforcement bodies (let’s not forget the punishments recently received by the former heads of the Italian law enforcement bodies, who coordinated bloody actions against social activists during the G8 meeting in Genoa), with the controversial political decisions that led to street repression against the opponents – whether we like it or not democracy is also based on political pressure kept alive by protests. The citizen is not just an anonymous voter every four years, nor simply a compiler of written petitions. He has the right to react to the abuses of power. The journalist can take sides, but he should do so with arguments and in a responsible manner – we forget far too often the press’s specific cultural responsibility. Or he can be a freelancer defending certain values in spite of anyone. It’s his specific dignity. Emile Zola has remained a moral reference point more through “J’accuse…!” than through many of his novels.

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