Through Wikileaks, phone-hacking, and the obstacles facing journalists across the Middle East, the traditional practices of the media industry have come up against many challenges over the past year. According to Reporters Without Borders, around 57 journalists were killed last year in connection with their work. This month a new play On the Record arrives at London’s Arcola Theatre, dramatizing the dangers faced by the world’s independent journalists.
Stories about journalists are usually reported either in print or in documentaries, so it is rather novel that Christine Bacon and Noah Birksted-Breen have decided to bring the stories of six real-life journalists to the stage. As Birksted-Breen notes, “it has been a challenge, as obviously the relationship between the actors and the audience is quite different in documentary theatre compared with film documentaries. There isn’t a lot of theatre about journalism and when there is, it’s usually satirising journalism. We really wanted to show how big a difference there is between independent journalism and mainstream media.”
The play features stories from journalists in countries where media oppression is known to be rife, through characters such as Lal and Lasantha Wickrematunge from Sri Lanka, and the Israeli Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass. But with testimony from Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho and the Russian Elena Kostyuchenko, a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, the play also focuses on countries where, to western eyes, such oppression is less obvious. The playwrights, explains Briksted-Breen, “wanted to show examples of countries where, in spite of being modern and developed, the attitude towards journalism is quite backward.”
Mexico has one of the highest death rates for journalists in the world, with some 66 journalists killed there over the past five years. Nathalie Armin, who plays Lydia Cacho, points out that “after Iraq, Mexico is the worst place to be a journalist.” The play documents Cacho’s efforts to expose a child pornography ring and shows the true extent of the death threats and kidnapping attempts that she faces in her search to uncover the truth.
Elena Kostyuchenko is a topical character. Her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, has become famous around the world for its investigative journalism. In the play, Kostyuchenko, played by Michelle Bonnard, speaks very candidly about the constant threat posed to her life and the lives of her colleagues. She points to ‘attitude’ as the main problem for journalists in Russia. “The trouble is that these people [who try to kill us] know that they are never going to go to jail for killing a journalist.” Anna Politkovskaya, a correspondent for the newspaper, was shot dead in 2006, and in three years later Anastasia Baburova, a freelancer for the paper, was killed alongside the paper’s lawyer, Stanislav Markelov. To date, no one has been held accountable for their deaths. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) estimates that around 52 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992 as a direct result of their work.
Elsewhere, American photojournalist Zoriah Miller (played by Trevor White) realises that his desire to expose the true story of the war in Iraq is foiled by the US military itself. Despite being from a western country which upholds freedom and democracy, he quickly discovers that “official language forces you to ‘disportray’ reality.” Using real examples of Miller’s work, the play reveals that even today censorship is not just characteristic of dictatorial regimes, but is sometimes a lot closer to home than we might think. “The play shows that often mainstream media is too structured, and this structure can compromise the quality of the news,” notes Birksted-Breen.
So why do they do it, if there are such great risks at stake? On the Record offers a few suggestions. Some just do it for the kicks: “Good journalism is investigation. Writing is like a high for me,” says Kostyuchenko. Others have more principled motivations. “People say I’m sacrificing myself, but I just think it’s my right to talk,” comments Cacho. In a similar vein, Hass stresses that being a foreign correspondent is about “monitoring power, putting questions to power and even annoying power.” This may seem daunting, and as Lal Wickrematunge concedes, “Fear always lurks in the back of your mind, but you don’t let it come to the front.”
Each journalist has their own reasons, but perhaps the words of the late Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was tragically shot dead in January 2009, are the most thought-provoking: “Free media serves as a mirror in which the public may see itself. There is no other profession that calls on them to lay down their lives for their art.”
Without a doubt, this is a play that challenges preconceptions about the role of the media and will have you thinking long after the final curtain falls.
On the Record is now showing at the Arcola Theatre, 20 July-13 August. To purchase tickets for the reduced price of £10 from Wednesday 3rd August to Saturday 7th August, email Christine Bacon (firstname.lastname@example.org) by 5pm each day and quote the £10 Prospect offer.