“Journalism is a public good and it deserves public support.” (Photo: Philippine Star)

Trolls are a threat to free press, journalists are ‘antidote’ to health crisis

By Ysh Cabana

The working conditions for journalists around the world are already hit during the coronavirus pandemic, dictatorial regimes including the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte make it harder by using troll armies to amplify and weaponize disinformation on social media, says groups.

The report comes from the 2020 World Press Freedom Index published by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based press freedom watchdog.

RSF cites “call center hubs” disseminating fake or maliciously edited content, and fake memes, conducting targeted harassment campaign in the Philippines as among the 20 “Worst Digital Predators of Press Freedom” this year.

“They have even gone so far as to denounce an imaginary conspiracy by various media outlets to overthrow the President,” it reported.

It ranked the Philippines two places lower at 136th this year from last year’s 134th place in the press freedom index, which ranks 180 countries and regions according to the level of freedom available to journalists.

Published annually by RSF since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index assesses factors such as media independence, self-censorship, the legal framework and transparency based on a questionnaire filled out by experts.

RSF said that the novel coronavirus is being used by authoritarian governments to implement “shock doctrine” measures that would be impossible in normal times.

Canadian author Naomi Klein discusses this in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: “the political strategy of using large-scale crises to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites, and undercut everyone else”.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for greater protection of journalists who are providing the “antidote” amid harmful health advice and conspiracy theories that have accompanied the spread of COVID-19.

“As the pandemic spreads, it has also given rise to a second pandemic of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories,” he said.

He made the appeal in a video message for World Press Freedom Day on May 3. He underscored the crucial role media has in helping people make informed decisions.

Under the current circumstances, those decisions can make the difference between life and death, Guterres added.

“The press provides the antidote: verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis,” the UN secretary-general said.

While “fake news” spread like a pandemic, media profession comes with risks. Recent survey from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) says three in four journalists have faced official restrictions, obstruction or intimidation in reporting on COVID-19.

More than 1300 frontline reporters or journalists in 77 countries answered questions from the IFJ. Two-thirds of those questioned said they have experienced worsening working conditions, including decreased pay and job losses.

The IFJ report also noted that reporters have been arrested or faced legal action since the virus began to spread. Many criticized restrictions on free movement or on asking questions during press conferences.

In the Philippines, four community journalists and three other media volunteers were among the more than 40 persons arrested by the local police on May 1. Members of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines were continued to be “red-tagged” by government agencies and officials, accused, without any proof, of supposedly being a “legal front” of the communist rebel movement.

Anthony Bellanger, IFJ general secretary said it is a worrisome problem, “These results show a worrying trend of declining media freedom and cuts to journalism at the very time when access to information and quality journalism is so crucial.”

“Journalism is a public good and it deserves public support.”