As ‘main vaccine’ vs COVID fake news, journalism stymied in 170 countries
MANILA, Philippines — Journalism, the “main vaccine” against pandemic disinformation, is completely or partially blocked in over 170 countries, according to a new report by a global media watchdog published on Tuesday, reflecting a “dramatic deterioration” in people’s access to information during a global health crisis.
In its 2021 World Press Freedom index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said journalism is “totally blocked or seriously impeded” in 73 countries and “constrained” in 59 others, as governments worldwide use the Covid-19 pandemic as grounds to block journalists’ access to information.
As such, reporters were finding it increasingly hard to report and cover sensitive and hard-hitting stories, particularly in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, RSF said.
“Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation,” RSF secretary general Christophe Deloire said. “Unfortunately, its production and distribution are too often blocked by political, economic, technological and, sometimes, even cultural factors.’’
Out of 180 countries, the Philippines ranked 138th in the annual index, sliding down two places from its 2020 ranking.
Among others, RSF flagged the continued persecution of the media through judicial harassment — as in the case of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, who is facing multiple libel counts—and the red-tagging of journalists.
Specifically, RSF flagged President Duterte’s verbal harassment against the Inquirer, Rappler and ABS-CBN, as well as the arrest and subsequent delayed release of Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem.
Salem was falsely charged by police of illegal possession of firearms and explosives on International Human Rights Day last year.
“The persecution of the media has been accompanied by online harassment campaigns orchestrated by pro-Duterte troll armies, which also launched cyberattacks on alternative news websites and the site of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, in order to block them,’’ RSF said in its report on the Philippines.
RSF classified the Philippines as having a “bad” environment for press freedom alongside fellow Association of Southeast Asian (Asean) neighbors Thailand (137) and Myanmar (140), whose governments are also trying to quell social unrest through widespread military crackdowns.
The three countries were identified as “countries that block journalism’’ which “adopted extremely draconian laws or decrees… criminalizing any criticism of the government’s actions, and in some cases, making the publication or broadcasting of ‘false information’ punishable by several years in prison.’’
The local situation reflected the global decline of press freedom, RSF noted. Several countries in the Asia-Pacific region, for example, have “contented themselves with strictly applying existing legislation that was already very draconian—laws on ‘sedition,’ ‘state secrets’ and ‘national security’” to suppress information.
“With 34 countries and more than half the world’s population, the Asia-Pacific region holds all the records, with the world’s biggest prisons for journalists and bloggers, especially China and Vietnam, and the world’s deadliest countries for journalists and bloggers, above all Afghanistan, Pakistan, Philippines and Bangladesh,’’ RSF said.
Predators, black holes
It added: “The Asia-Pacific region also has the biggest number of “Predators of Press Freedom.’’ Who run some of the worst dictatorships and information “black holes,’’ such as North Korea and Laos.’’
Malaysia (down 18 at 119th) suffered the biggest fall in the index because of its adoption of an antifake news decree that enabled authorities to impose their own version of the truth.
On the other hand, the RSF said the Asia-Pacific region’s few real democracies have shown that “journalistic freedom is the best antidote to disinformation.’’
“Although imperfect, the regional press freedom models—New Zealand (up 1 at 8th), Australia, South Korea (42nd) and Taiwan (43rd)—have on the whole allowed journalists to do their job and to inform the public without any attempt by the authorities to impose their own narrative. Their good behavior has shown that censorship is not inevitable in times of crisis and that journalism can be the best antidote to disinformation,’’ it said.
Nordic success stories
On the whole, Norway, Finland and Sweden continued to top the index. This reflected the success of these Nordic nations’ approach toward upholding press freedom, the RSF said.
Aside from autocratic governments wielding its laws to crack down on the press, citizens, too, are slowly losing trust in the media.
According to the 2021 Edelman Trust barometer, 59 percent of respondents in 28 countries believe that journalists “deliberately try to mislead the public by reporting information they know to be false.”
“In reality, journalistic pluralism and rigorous reporting serve to combat disinformation and ‘infodemics,’ including false and misleading information,’’ the report said.
“In response to the virality of disinformation across borders, on digital platforms and via social media, journalism provides the most effective means of ensuring that public debate is based on a diverse range of established facts,” Deloire said.
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