Media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières on Tuesday said the coming decade will be decisive for the future of journalism, with the coronavirus pandemic “highlighting and amplifying the many crises that threaten the right to freely reported, independent, diverse and reliable information”.
In the latest World Press Freedom Index the watchdog said the looming health crisis could serve as an excuse for governments to take advantage of the fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question, in order to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times. “For this decisive decade to not be a disastrous one, people of goodwill, whoever they are, must campaign for journalists to be able to fulfill their role as society’s trusted third parties,” it said.
Citing examples of China and Iran, who “censored their major coronavirus outbreaks extensively”, the media watchdog said there is a clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and a country’s ranking in the index.
Meanwhile, India found itself two positions lower in the latest press freedom index. India is ranked at the 142nd position. North Korea ranked bottom of the group’s press freedom index. Like 2019, Norway again topped its ranking of 180 countries and territories.
The report also cited the longest “electronic curfew” in the history in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5, when the Indian authorities stripped the region of its special status and bifurcated it into Union Territories. “One of the most salient crises is geopolitical, caused by leaders of dictatorial, authoritarian or populist regimes making every effort to suppress information and impose their visions of a world without pluralism and independent journalism,” it said.
The pandemic has amplified the spread of rumours and fake news as quickly as the virus itself, the report noted. In countries such as India, Russia, Philippines and Vietnam, state troll armies use “the weapon of disinformation on social media”, the media watchdog observed.
Overall, the report judged press freedom to be “satisfactory” in the United States, but also said public denigration, threats, and harassment of journalists continued to be a serious problem last year. The US ranked 45th on the group’s list, behind countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean.
However, hostility toward journalists and news outlets in the United States deepened and intensified, and “few attacks were as vitriolic as those that came from the [US] president [Donald Trump]”. The report highlighted Trump’s hostility toward some journalists and media outlets and said his “oft-deployed fake news phrase has now been deployed by leaders around the world as a tool to crack down on the media”.
“The abuse is only getting worse amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, as journalists covering the Trump administration’s response to the crisis are subjected to the president’s attacks during his press briefings,” it said.
The report also mentioned the economic threats to the future of journalism such as job cuts gutting newsrooms. It said that a weak regulation of digital technologies has created “information chaos, blurring lines between fact, fiction, propaganda and advertising”.