Press freedom in the pandemic
In this pandemic, a critical component of the response is the dissemination of timely, accurate and reliable information to the public. Where the response is deficient or failing, it is the duty of citizens to report this to authorities or call out the government, in hopes that the problems will be addressed.
Journalists play a key role in the delivery of timely and accurate information, whether in the form of news reports or commentary. A free press promotes transparency and accountability, which are indispensable components in good governance and proper response to an unprecedented public health emergency.
The COVID pandemic, unfortunately, has been used by several governments to stifle dissent and crack down on legitimate criticism, whether in publications or social media. Trolls stalk and threaten government critics. World Press Freedom Day is marked today, weeks after watchdog Reporters Without Borders declared that in the pandemic year of 2020, journalism was “completely or partially blocked” in 132 of 180 countries.
The Philippines slipped two notches in the RSF’s latest World Press Freedom Index, to 138th place. RSF attributed the decline to the shutdown last year of ABS-CBN by the administration super majority in Congress, the legal woes of Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa, online harassment by “troll armies” believed deployed by the Duterte administration, cyber-attacks on alternative news websites as well as red-tagging of journalists.
Malacañang has challenged the reasons for the country’s slip in ranking, and has insisted that press freedom remains robust in the country. And the Philippines is not the only country particularly in Asia where the pandemic has been used to clamp down on critical reporting. RSF counts at least 10 countries in the Asia-Pacific where the pandemic has led to the suppression of dissent and spread of disinformation by the government, with China, ranked 177th in the index, described as “the undisputed specialist” in censorship.
“Now, more than ever, people need to be able to trust in journalism and have access to accurate information, which acts like a vaccine,” said Anna Nelson, executive director of RSF USA. “It inoculates citizens against the viral disinformation of falsehoods and conspiracy theories, and, in doing so, it strengthens the immune systems of democratic societies, making them more stable and resilient.”
As the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day emphasizes, information is a public good. It’s no coincidence that the regional press freedom models are doing better than most in dealing with the COVID pandemic: New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan. Press freedom is an intrinsic part of democracy and good governance. And good governance is critical in efficient pandemic response.