This year on 3 May, the world marks World Press Freedom Day against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic which has seen governments impose restrictions and lockdowns in a bid to curb the spread.
Accurate information through independent journalism is more important than ever given that wild speculation can cause so much harm. But journalism itself is not exempt from harm during the crisis. This bodes ill for a profession that’s taken some beating over the past two decades with falling revenues and shrinking newsrooms. The pandemic has added to this with signs that even more jobs are on the line.
Two reports – by Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists – paint a gloomy picture about the state of journalism on the continent. In particular, the trends over the past 12 months in a number of African countries leave a lot to be desired.
State of press freedom
Reporters Without Borders is an NGO that supports independent media, and monitors press freedom around the world. It released an annual index that’s built on a number of criteria, including the environment in which journalists do their work and levels of censorship, among others.
Its rating scores democracy, transparency, free flow of information, the media environment, and censorship levels. A high score means a high level of abuse for example, the highest score was 85,2 North Korea, which comes last, and the lowest score was 7.8 Norway which is first.
In its latest 2020 report, a number of trends stand out across the continent. On the African continent, Namibia is first, and 23 in the world, followed by Ghana second and number 30 and then South Africa third, at number 31. The worst culprits for press freedom in Africa are Eritrea at number 178, Dijibouti at 176, Yemen at 167 and Egypt at 166.
Transparency and the free flow of information are key factors for press freedom
The countries whose scores dropped on this Reporters without Borders 2020 index rating include Hungary (from 87 to 89), Benin dropped 17 places down from 96 to 113. And Haiti dropped 21 places from 2019 when it was 62, down to now 83. The UK slipped two places and is now place 35.
The worst scores of all 180 countries surveyed was North Korea (180), second last was Turkmenistan (179), and third last, Eritrea (178). Some of the other African countries with the lowest ratings besides Eritrea include: Dijibouti (176), Yemen (167), and Egypt (166).
They have earned bad reputations through jailing journalists, censoring information, as well as passing laws to stop the free flow of information.
The Scandinavian countries, again, scored tops in this order, the first four places were: Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden – followed by the Netherlands.
Locking up journalists
The Committee to Protect Journalists also collated information ahead of World Press Freedom Day. Its Prison Index shows that 250 journalists are in jail in the world, 73 of these are in Africa.
The worst countries for the number of jailed journalists are: Egypt, Eritrea, Cameroon, Rwanda, Burundi, Morocco, Algeria, Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. In recent months news reports note that there have been a number of arrests of journalists writing about COVID-19.
New and more urgent calls have been put out for the release of those being held given the additional danger they face from COVID-19 in prisons. Angela Quintal, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Africa’s programme co-ordinator, has organised a petition sent to heads of states to release journalists in Africa.
Both reports show that journalists are getting caught in the crossfires of populist regimes as well as the disinformation atmosphere in the age of digitisation.
Disinformation and journalism
Reliable and accurate information is needed now more than ever.
Disinformation can kill. According to the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco): “COVID-19 has led to a parallel pandemic of disinformation that directly impacts lives and livelihoods around the world. Falsehoods and misinformation have proven deadly and sowed confusion about life-saving personal and policy choices.
The UN body published two policy briefs into the fast-growing COVID-19-related disinformation that is impeding access to trustworthy sources and reliable information. It said (//en.unesco.org/covid19/disinfodemic ):
“The impacts of COVID-19 disinformation are more deadly than disinformation about other subjects, such as politics and democracy.”
Journalists have to be wary of politicians trying to influence them and they have to check and double check their facts before publishing. Meanwhile journalists’ jobs are precarious as circulation and advertising revenues plummet, and people increasingly get new for free online.
Journalists also have to contend with threats of arrests, and working round the clock. What about the physical and mental health risks of reporting in this era of trauma and uncertainty?
And as the Reporters without Borders, World Press Freedom report says – propaganda, rumour and advertising are all in competition with journalism today.
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