There’ve long been debates and opinions on whether journalists should be considered activists, a lot of the time the answer is no. This makes sense because, unlike activists, journalists have the added responsibility of putting in the work to be factually correct and to consider all sides of the story. They are trained to research and explore every possible angle of a story before dishing it out to the public as a meal, and are taught to withhold their subjective opinions from their reporting. 

However, when it comes to human rights and exposing oppression, it doesn’t make any sense to not view journalists as activists. Their work is too crucial to the achievement of social justice for them to be considered any other way. 

“Brave” is a word often attributed to journalists, especially those covering corruption, conflict, oppression, and human rights violations. When you consider the places they’ve gone to, the people they’ve questioned, and the dangers they’ve looked squarely in the eye — it makes sense that the word comes to mind. However, bravery is arguably too simple a word to describe who they are and what they do, and to be fair, as Indian journalist Ranaya Ayyub argues in the Economist, excuses the abhorrent treatment and killing of media workers worldwide. 

It’s not bravery as such, it’s more a dedication to the story that runs so deep that the story itself becomes an extension of their lives. 

Reporters and media workers work similarly to activists in that they use their knowledge, skills, and platforms to protect truth and defend human rights even when faced with danger. And with this in mind, they face the same consequences (imprisonment, threats, death) that activists do. They are human rights defenders and should be seen as one of the largest keys to social justice success. 

Are Journalists Activists?

“Based on the nature of the work we do, we are actually activists,” Africa Director for the International Federation of Journalists, Louis Thomasi, told Global Citizen. “One of the fundamental roles of the activist is to defend against human rights violations, and we do that. We can’t shy away from the fact that we are activists.” 

Consider Sam Nzima who, in 1976, dashed towards a storm of bullets to capture school children being shot at by police officers in apartheid South Africa. He put himself in the direct line of fire to make sure that the story of educational injustice (now known as the Soweto Uprising) was being told. 

“I saw a child falling down… I rushed there with my camera,” he told the BBC in 2010, describing what it took to capture his now-famous image of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson who was killed by apartheid authorities. “It was a very high risk because this picture was taken under a shower of bullets," he said.

Consider Tawakkol Karman, who, before becoming “mother of the revolution” or “the lady of the Arab Spring,” published pieces about human rights abuses and violence in Yemen. Despite facing death threats and being arrested on several occasions, she doubled down and led with activism, co-founding Women Journalists Without Chains, and eventually leading protests during the Arab Spring which resulted in a change in leadership, and a Nobel Prize for the journalist. 

Consider Rafael Marques de Morais, whose work exposing crimes against humanity in Angola, particularly where blood diamonds, corruption, and police brutality are involved, led the government to threaten and target him on several occasions to the point where newsrooms feared publishing his work — this according to the book, “African Muckraking: 75 years of Investigative Journalism From Africa.”

There are many examples to list, but the point is reporters risk their lives and livelihoods to ensure that abuse, oppression, and inequality are brought to light so that hopefully, one day, nobody will have to suffer under those same violations. 

In the ink-stained, calloused hands of a journalist lies history, but more importantly, there lies opportunity for justice. Nzima, Karman, de Marques, and several other journalists around the world understood that stories need to be told in order for positive change to occur, so they put themselves on the frontlines in order to voice the realities. 

Journalists Are Frontline Defenders

Killing the journalist won’t kill the story. The entire point behind this well-known phrase (the origins of which are unclear) is that journalists are covering stories that are worth dying for. This is the same way that activists are willing to put their lives on the line for a cause. One of the world’s most famous activists, Nelson Mandela, comes to mind, as he proved the extremes to which activists are willing to go for what they believe in. 

At the trial that would lead to his 27-year imprisonment, Mandela said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

It’s not fair in the slightest, and it must be said that no journalist should ever die for doing their job of defending human rights through storytelling, but journalists have died for their stories. 

So many have been killed as a result of trying to bring justice to the world. Each year the IFJ releases what they call, “The Killed List,” which reveals the number of journalists who risked their lives and were killed for the sake of bringing injustice to light. In 2022 there were 68 journalists on that list. In 2023, there were 128

The numbers should not be increasing. Journalists and their stories deserve to be protected and to see the light of day. This horrific increase is proof that journalists are on the front lines of defending what is right. 

Some journalists have even had their stories told posthumously because the articles are important for shedding light on unjust realities. For instance, Sri Lankan journalist and editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was murdered in 2019, had his editorial about the conflict-related violations of press freedom and human rights in the country published three days after his death

In recognizing the risks they brave daily while steadfastly pursuing their mission, it's imperative we regard journalists not merely as observers, but as frontline defenders. While they may not wield scalpels or hoses, their pens and cameras illuminate the wounds and fires that demand attention. They stand as guardians of human rights, as do activists, and all guardians of human rights deserve recognition — or at the very least protection. In a world where truth is often the casualty of power, journalists remain the unwavering sentinels of justice, tirelessly striving to hold the powerful to account and safeguard the dignity of all.


Demand Equity

The Risks of Being a Journalist Today Are Too High, And We Need to Talk About It

By Khanyi Mlaba