By Maxwell Awumah
A Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report compiled as part of the 2021 World Press Freedom Day, shows that journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partly blocked in 73 percent of the 180 countries ranked by the organisation.
This year’s Index, which evaluates the press freedom situation in 180 countries and territories annually, shows that journalism is totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others, which together represent 73 percent of the countries evaluated.
These180 countries are classified as having “very bad,” “bad” or “problematic” environments for press freedom, and are identified accordingly in black, red or orange on the World Press Freedom map, copied to the Ghana News Agency.
The Index data reflect a dramatic deterioration in people’s access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting in the field.
The data shows that journalists are finding it increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories, especially in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
The 2021 Edelman Trust barometer reveals a disturbing level of public mistrust of journalists, with 59 percent of respondents in 28 countries saying that journalists deliberately try to mislead the public by reporting information they know to be false.
In reality, journalistic pluralism and rigorous reporting serve to combat disinformation and “infodemics,” including false and misleading information.
Mr Christophe Deloire Secretary General of RSF said “Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation.”
“Unfortunately, its production and distribution are too often blocked by political, economic, technological and, sometimes, even cultural factors. In response to the virality of disinformation across borders, on digital platforms and via social media, journalism provides the most effective means of ensuring that public debate is based on a diverse range of established facts.”
For example, in Egypt (166th), President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s government simply banned the publication of any pandemic statistics that didn’t come from the Ministry of Health. In Zimbabwe (down 4 at 130th), the investigative reporter Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested shortly after helping to expose the overbilling practices of a medical equipment supply company.
Biggest movements in the Index
Norway is ranked first in the Index for the fifth year running even though its media have complained of a lack of access to state-held information about the pandemic. Finland maintained its position in second place while Sweden (up 1 at 3rd) recovered its third place ranking, which it had yielded to Denmark (down 1 at 4th) last year. The 2021 Index demonstrates the success of these Nordic nations’ approach towards upholding press freedom.
The World Press Freedom map has not had so few countries coloured white – indicating a country situation that is at least good if not optimal – since 2013, when the current evaluation method was adopted.
This year, only 12 of the Index’s 180 countries (7%) can claim to offer a favourable environment for journalism, as opposed to 13 countries (8%) last year. The country to have been stripped of its “good” classification is Germany (down 2 at 13th). Dozens of its journalists were attacked by supporters of extremist and conspiracy theory believers during protests against pandemic restrictions.
The press freedom situation in Germany is nonetheless still classified as “fairly good,” as is the case in the United States (down 1 at 44th), despite the fact that Donald Trump’s final year in the White House was marked by a record number of assaults against journalists (around 400) and arrests of members of the media (130), according to the US Press Freedom Tracker, of which RSF is a partner. As a result of falling four places, Brazil joined the countries coloured red, indicating that the press freedom situation there is classified as “bad”.
Most of the 2021 Index’s biggest gains are in Africa. Burundi (up 13 at 147th), Sierra Leone (up 10 at 75th) and Mali (up 9 at 99th) have all seen significant improvements, including the release of four journalists with the independent Burundian media Iwacu, the repeal of a law criminalising press offences in Sierra Leone and a fall in the number of abuses in Mali.
Europe and the Americas (North, Central and South) continue to be the most favourable continents for press freedom, even though the Americas registered the biggest deterioration in its regional violations score (up 2.5%).
Europe registered a sizeable deterioration in its “Abuses” indicator, with acts of violence more than doubling in the European Union and Balkans, compared with a 17% deterioration worldwide.
Attacks against journalists and arbitrary arrests increased in Germany (13th), France (34th), Italy (41st), Poland (down 2 at 64th), Greece (down 5 at 70th), Serbia (93rd) and Bulgaria (down 1 at 112th).
Although there was less deterioration in Africa’s “Abuses” score, it continues to be the most violent continent for journalists, and the Covid-19 pandemic fueled the use of force to prevent journalists from working.
In Tanzania (124th), President John Magufuli called the virus a “western conspiracy,” suggesting that Tanzania had kept it at bay “by force of prayer” and imposed an information blackout on the pandemic before his death in March 2021.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the “censorship virus” spread beyond China, in particular to Hong Kong (80th), where the National security law imposed by Beijing seriously threatens journalists. Australia (up 1 at 25th), experienced a disturbing variant: in response to proposed Australian legislation requiring tech companies to reimburse the media for content posted on their social media platforms, Facebook decided to ban Australian media from publishing or sharing journalistic content on their Facebook pages.
There has been no significant change in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region, which maintained last place in the regional rankings.
RSF’s global indicator – its measure of the level of media freedom worldwide – is only 0.3 percent lower in the 2021 Index than it was in 2020.
However, the past year’s relative stability should not divert attention from the fact that it has deteriorated by 12 percent since this indicator was created in 2013. – GNA