Commentator and journalist Shaheen Pasha has a rule in her house. Her kids are never allowed to tell each other to shut up. It’s not just a matter of politeness, she says. Shutting people up can be dangerous.
As a child, my Pakistani immigrant mother taught me no one has the right to silence another person. She told me to respect a person’s voice even if you disagree.
That lesson, delivered to me at age 4 , stuck with me as I became a foreign journalist, reporting from the Middle East. There, rulers and government lackeys silenced the masses. Journalists were told to toe the government line. Stories were killed for calling into question the government’s motives or business dealings.
"If the public lost faith in the government, there would be anarchy,’"we were scolded. And we would be to blame for the chaos that ensued. We were warned: shut your mouth or face the consequences.
I expected that in the autocratic regimes in which I reported. I never thought to hear those words — told to reporters here in the U.S. as we have been by the President’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who said the media should, and I quote, "Keep its mouths shut."
Journalism is suddenly under siege here in America. President Trump has announced he is in a running war with the media. We, he said, "are among the most dishonest human beings on earth." Purveyors of fake news.
It’s classic. I’ve heard it all before. It’s exactly what leaders around the world say to manipulate the public into losing faith in the press.
Every semester, I teach my students that journalists’ first obligation is to the truth. When Bannon calls media the opposition party, he’s not completely wrong. To be in opposition of anything that’s not true is precisely our job. Freedom of press is protected by the constitution to serve as society’s watch dog. In other words, to keep powerful people honest.
It can be a thankless job, especially in today’s politically divisive environment. But what’s the alternative? In countries where the state controls the media, journalists learn to self-censor. Government minders shape the narrative. Human rights violations are swept under the rug. Corruption runs rampant with a handful of elites gaining power and wealth because there is no one to expose them.
Rumors abound, stirring up unrest because citizens aren’t sure what to believe.
As a journalist, I’m not willing to shut up. When you silence the media, you control the message. You control the people.
We should all be afraid of that.
Commentator Shaheen Pasha teaches international journalism at UMass Amherst. She lives with her family in Amherst.