Censorious Attacks on Student Press Freedom: SPLC Co-Sponsors Panel at World Press Freedom Day Global Conference in Uruguay

Three young women of color sit on a panel behind a black table, behind them another young woman of color is projected on a screen

For World Press Freedom Day, the Student Press Law Center and PEN America co-sponsored a panel discussion at the UNESCO Global Conference in Ponte del Este, Uruguay and broadcast on Zoom around the world. SPLC Board member Pratika Katiyar joined a panel of student journalists and educators from around the world to discuss the role of the student journalists, which can be fragile, unique and powerful.

The panel was moderated by Myriah Martin, PEN America’s United States Free Expression Programs Fellow. The panelists were:

  • Sisanda Nkoala — Senior Lecturer in the Media Department, Faculty of Informatics and Design, Cape Peninsula University of Technology
  • Meghana Guntur — Participant, UNESCO World Press Freedom Day Youth Newsroom, Student, St. Ann’s College
  • Pratika Katiyar — Former Editor-in-Chief and Student Co-Chair, tjTODAY and Student Press Law Center Board of Directors

The role of student journalists in professional journalism

The session kicked off with a discussion about the role that student journalists play within the media ecosystem.

“Student journalists in the United States have a unique role — they fill gaps in news desert communities,” said Katiyar. 

Student journalists in other parts of the world, like South Africa “are not a recognized group. They don’t have press cards and don’t have access to certain spaces,” said Nkoala. 

In some instances, student journalists have to work for a professional outlet to be recognized or gain professional experience, and those opportunities are not typically available until graduation. 

Whether the student media is recognized by outside groups or not, the panelists agreed that student journalists are important. Nkoala pointed to the student media coverage of the nationwide “Fees Must Fall” protests to decolonize higher education in South Africa, as an example of the importance of student journalists. 

“[They were] at the forefront, articulating the requirements and demands of students. This was a defining moment,” said Nkoala.

Restrictions that prohibit or infringe on students’ ability to report stories 

Each panelist talked about the legal and societal restrictions on student journalists, and how they lead to self-censorship.

Guntur pointed out that “[In India, we] are told to have a certain amount of discretion when addressing something related to a specific person or community.” “When a group of people come forward and say this [article] hurts us, the first step is to ban the text in question, [regardless] of an investigation.” 

Nkoala stated that in South Africa, there are no laws allowing schools to censor student journalists, but students are subject to prior review of their work, or face possible expulsion for work that criticizes the institution. 

“[My] students hand in their work through a YouTube channel, and because I have certain obligations to the institution — I encourage students to give me an unlisted link, and not publish it until I have vetted it.” 

Nkoala acknowledges that this may cause her students to self-censor by “holding back, and not tackling [certain] stories.” but stories like criticizing the institution can get students expelled. 

Katiyar pointed out that while the United States is protected by the First Amendment, the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier  limits student press freedoms and gives school administrators broad authority to censor student media. 

To counteract this decision “state legislatures have the ability to instill protections for student journalists [through] New Voices legislation” stated Katiyar. Katiyar acknowledges that, because only 15 states have New Voices laws, many students are not protected, and “opt not to cover important issues in [their] communities.” Even in instances where students do have legal protections, they “grapple with what they can and cannot cover due to societal norms.”

Recommendations for student journalists facing threats 

Guntur says the first step to ensuring the safety of student journalists in India is to “educate the general public on what it is to be a student journalist.” It is important for the “public to understand that a journalist’s purpose is to bring visibility to issues and spread the truth.” 

“Journalists should not be penalized for reporting the truth…it is their job,”she said. 

Katiyar added that students should “know [their] rights, especially when it comes to covering protests.” She encouraged students to use their voice to uncover stories and to “make sure their reporting is bulletproof.” And recommends that students are given media literacy training. “Journalism is everywhere now, it’s on Twitter, it’s on Instagram, and having media literacy will help students.” She also talked about nationwide support “which means continuing with New Voices legislation so students in each state are protected, and having support in place like the Student Press Law Center which has free legal aid for student journalists.” 

Nkoala pointed out some threats that students face based on race and gender, such as the “prevailing sexist views and how female journalists are treated when they go for their internships.” She said “it is not uncommon for a student to report that they have been sexually harrassed and often they do it in restrospect—after they have graduated.” Nkoala also recognized the lack of professional training that students receive, because they aren’t exposed to senior level reporting until their last year of school. Despite their lack of training, students are often expected to work on senior-level stories.

“Newsrooms in South Africa are experiencing financial trouble, due to lack of investment. As a result, interns are brought in to do the work of senior reports, and they are covering stories that are completely out of their depth, but they must deliver at the end of the day,” said Nkoala. To help protect students, she recommends establishing a national agency to represent the voice of the students. “Such a body would be able to articulate the issues both within the university and within the journalism sector,” said Nkoala.

Final words: Student journalism is vitally important

Nkoala wrapped up the session by encouraging students to “embody your role as a student journalist—you have a niche in a sector that working journalists don’t. You have a perspective that is fresh—step into that.” Nkoala ended by telling students to “be courageous enough to make mistakes.”