Pandemic of misinformation
World Press Freedom Day was marked on May 3 amid the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. Various sectors have warned that the COVID-19 crisis has also given rise to what United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described as “a second pandemic of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories.”
The press, Guterres notes, “provides the antidote: verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis.” A more accurate statement is that the press strives to provide that antidote, while pursuing the theme of World Press Freedom Day 2020: “Journalism without fear or favor.”
This mission is not as simple as it sounds. The Philippines should know: it has consistently ranked among the most dangerous and stressful places in the world for media workers. The restoration of democracy in 1986 did not put an end to the murder and harassment of journalists in this country, with the weakness of the criminal justice system allowing perpetrators to get away with permanently silencing the press. Since the UN General Assembly proclaimed World Press Freedom Day in 1993, Philippine journalists continued to be subjected to threats, harassment and outright murder.
The sub-themes of the special day resonate with members of the Philippine press: the safety of both male and female media workers as well as gender equality in all aspects of mass media, and the pursuit of independent and professional journalism free from political and commercial influence.
These days, Filipino journalists must also contend with laws against cyber libel and trolls unleashed by public officials who have no tolerance for criticism. These are on top of traditional libel laws, wherein litigation costs can lead to the bankruptcy of smaller media outfits, and official resistance to the passage of a Freedom of Information Act.
While governments are reminded about their commitments to press freedom, journalists are also reminded about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. Media licentiousness weakens the credibility of the press.
Unlike anonymous commentators on social media, members of so-called legacy media are properly identified and can be held accountable for their journalism, putting greater pressure on the need for accurate, fair and fearless reporting and analysis. This is of utmost importance especially in this confusing period of a deadly pandemic.