When Does Journalism Become a Crime?

Press crime

Journalism in the Firing Line is a three-part event series run by SOAS ICOP to explore the ways in which journalism and democratic values are being threatened by powerful interests.

The first event When Does Journalism Become a Crime? explored the surveillance of journalists, focusing on the normalisation of hostility towards journalists and those within the media. It was hosted by Phil Rees with keynote speakers including Tim Dawson, Ruth Michaelson, John Rees and Dr. Somanth Batabyal.

Speaking Truth to Power

Among the topics discussed, Somanth Batabyal’s advocation for the title ‘journalist’ to be redefined was of particular interest to me. As someone who has been involved with student media for the past few years, I had always equated the title journalist with high-ranking publications such as the BBC or the Guardian.

However, he suggested that journalism has developed beyond publications, and, because of this, a journalist can now be considered anyone who challenges power and openly shares information from valid sources. With this in mind, who can be considered a journalist? Someone posting about a crime they witnessed on Twitter? Someone vlogging about their experiences with COVID? Can social media now be seen as a valid form of journalism?

Social Media, Censorship and Fake News

Personally, I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, social media allows for the open sharing of information. If someone can share accurate information, they should, neither the length of the piece nor the platform should matter. The sources should be all that matters. 

However, with most social media rigidly controlled, how much of this information is actually being shared? Most people do not have a large following, so it is near impossible for the average person to widely spread information. What’s more, how much of this information is fact-checked? Fake news is a huge part of our society and without keen fact-checking, it is very easy for misinformation to spread. 

Furthermore, who is this information being shared to? Over the past decade, Facebook’s algorithm has changed so that users are less likely to see posts from outside of their community. This creates echo chambers as you’re placed into a bubble with other like-minded people, polarising user beliefs. It is believed that this was done to reduce the amount of political debate on the platform. During Facebook’s shift into this algorithm, many influential journalists’ accounts were suspended with no explanation, illustrating how social media can easily censor the public. 

What Happens When Free Speech and Protest Are Taken Away?

So, when does journalism become a crime? After first outlining several of the speakers’ personal experiences with censorship and violence within the media industry, the discussion slowly unravelled the banner question. In brief answer to this question, journalism becomes considered a crime when free speech is taken away. 

With laws such as the UK’s Policing Bill, free speech is currently under threat as the public begins to lose the right to protest. Protest is arguably the most effective way to trigger change and make the public aware of issues within the world. The whole point of protest is to be disruptive and challenge authority; If the government can control how we protest and who is allowed to protest, are we really campaigning? If the act of protest is taken from us, it is not long before journalism is considered a crime.   

The talk is part of the three-part series Journalism in the Firing Line:


Ruby Punt is a SOAS Digital Ambassador, pursuing her MA in Comparative Literature. When she isn’t studying Korean or Mandarin, she’s likely working on her next project for the SPA or on her blog Toward the Horizon. Find her on Instagram at @Ruby.Punt.


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