Among the worrisome findings of this UNESCO global study that had recently come out, were that press freedom continues its downward trend with 85 percent of the world’s population experiencing a decline over the past five years. In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic which was used to justify violations, the new policies restricting freedom of expression online and continuing requests by government removal of content on major internet platforms, the move by audiences and revenue to online platforms, explain the decline and puts traditional news media’s business in danger. The number of social media users leapt from 2.3 billion in 2016 to 4.2 billion in 2021.
The study also showed that progress in closing the gender gap has stagnated. Similar to studies shown last Tuesday when we celebrated International Women’s Day, women are underrepresented in leadership levels. Online violence targeting women journalists continues to grow. Of 625 women journalists, 73 percent had experienced some form of online violence.
A deluge of disinformation has contributed to declining trust in the media with calls for greater transparency and accountability .
UNESCO’s director-general Azoulay underscores growing threats to the safety of journalists as well and the need for media to find new economic models. On safety, while journalist killings had declined, imprisonment has reached a record high with 87 percent of cases of killed journalists remaining unsolved.
UN Secretary General Guterres noted that journalism had done a life-saving frontline service during the pandemic with the network of 100 fact-checking organizations and news outlets debunking as many as 1700 false claims related to Covid-19.
There is no doubt that a free and pluralistic media remains relevant as ever.
But the pandemic did not only affect the shaky economic foundations of the industry; it also provided cover for press freedom violations.
The theme “Information as a Public Good” underlines the indisputable importance of verified information and a data-driven ecosystem.
UNESCO recognizes that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and an enabler of other rights.
What is the state of media freedom in the country?
Like other countries, the lockdown during the pandemic had led to the demise of several community newspapers. Community radio today is primarily dependent on government or political advertisements. The Anti-Terror Law passed in July, 2020 curtails comments on legitimate criticism and further strengthens government control of freedom of expression. It allows for suspects to be arrested without a warrant and imprisoned for weeks at a time. Maria Ressa, Nobel peace prize laureate and co-founder of Rappler, is facing several charges, among them cyber-libel and tax evasion. The closure of ABS-CBN is likewise perceived to be an attack on access to information and independent media.
A public service media that would complement government and big business media, identified by the global study could respond to many of the challenges presented in the study.
Melinda Q. de Jesus, director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), has this comment on media freedom: “The press, like the rest of the population is divided, working as it were in separate cells in the same organizations form opposing camps in some news rooms; efforts are made to discourage stories that would put the administration in a bad light. Only recently, CMFR noted modifications of original reports, self-censorship of the most open kind.”
In summary, what is needed are new regulations for social media transparency, independent state subsidies to trustworthy news outlets, support for genuine public service media, and protection of editorial independence and freedom of expression.
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