Celebrating media freedom | Sunday Observer

Celebrating media freedom

2 May, 2021

How do people get the news? It is through the media that we get to know the latest happenings around the world. The word ‘media’ encompasses a gamut of sources of news – newspapers, magazines, radio, television and now the Internet and its offshoot social media.

They are a window into the world. Today, we can instantly tune into live news from anywhere in the world, a far cry from the days when only newspapers held sway.

In fact, newspapers are not much younger than printing itself, having survived from the 1650s. Some of the oldest newspapers are still in print.

But who brings the news to the masses? Without journalists to tell the story, there would be no news. It is not easy being a journalist anywhere in the world, though press freedom is more vibrant in some countries than in others.

Freedom of expression and press freedom have slightly different connotations, but the ultimate aim should be telling the truth without fear and favour.

That is the job of a journalist. But this is easier said than done, as not everyone will like what is being written or shown about them. Hence the attacks on press freedom around the world.

This will be very much in focus tomorrow (May 3), World Press Freedom Day. Each year, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) publishes the World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries according to their media independence, transparency, acts of violence against journalists, and several other criteria.

According to the latest survey, published in April 2021, journalism is seriously under threat in almost three-quarters of all countries -- the report describes the situation in those places as “problematic,” “bad,” or “very bad.”

Only 12 countries have respectable press-freedom environments, the lowest number since 2013 when the current evaluation methodology was adopted.

Journalists in many countries face violence and various forms of intimidation, especially when reporting about Governments or organised crime.

Between 1992 and 2021, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has registered more than 1,400 journalists who were killed in retaliation for their work -- and another 560 killings where the exact motive was not clear.

The year 2012 saw the largest number of journalists killed -- more than 100 -- due to the conflict in Syria and a record number of shootings in Somalia. In addition, there were 274 imprisoned and 65 missing journalists as of the end of 2020, the highest number ever recorded. Several high-profile assignations of journalists were reported from various countries last year.

However, press freedom is not something that governments can “give” per se. It is up to the news media organisations and journalists to explore the very limits of reporting without bias.

In addition, the pandemic has thrown a unique set of challenges in journalism’s way – how do you cover a disaster of this magnitude whilst ensuring your own protection? Already, a number of journalists in India have succumbed to the disease. Many journalists in Sri Lanka too have contracted the disease.

It is vital that the media becomes a force for good and education at times like these. For example, there are many myths out there on vaccines, that have led hundreds of people to turn away from the vaccines.

The media should run campaigns to debunk these myths and attract more people towards vaccination centres. In fact, in addition to the posts of editor, reporter and sub-editor, most media houses now have a dedicated “fact checker” whose sole purpose is to check news stories for their veracity.

This is because there is a lot of “fake news” around, which seem to be accurate but are in reality falsehoods.

This is one more challenge faced by the mainstream media. Anyone with a smart phone can instantly become a ‘journalist’ with nary a concern for the truth and journalistic ethics.

Alarmingly, more people now get their “news fix” from their Facebook feed than from print, radio or television. As is well-known, Facebook is a hotbed of misinformation and fake news on everything from Covid-19 to global politics.

These posts have often led to internecine clashes and other calamities.

Governments around the world have realised the harm that social media such as Facebook could cause if unchecked. Thus many countries have introduced or are introducing regulatory frameworks for social media. Sri Lanka too is contemplating such moves.

This does not mean a blanket ban on such social media – only that action will be taken to ensure that any posts will not lead to ethnic disharmony, panic or other untoward incidents. Likewise, even some conventional media outlets believe that they should have “the freedom of the wild ass” to misinform and slander. This could have a calamitous effect on society.

For example, some outlets recently gave wide publicity to an alleged abduction of a journalist, which turned out to be a hoax. But by the time that was revealed, the damage had been done. It is thus vital for all journalists and media houses to have some kind of introspection, to stay within the limits of decency, truth and ethics.

But there is no doubt that the media landscape is changing, especially with the advent of the Internet. Today, more people access news on their smart phones and tablets than via conventional printed newspapers and television.

This is a paradigm shift in the media world. Some people speculate that printed newspapers could have a limited lifespan and could go the way of the Dodo within our lifetimes. Even if that happens, journalists and media houses must ensure that good journalism thrives through whatever medium and never really dies.