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Freedom of the Press: A Vaccine for Disinformation

by Michele Lipori

by Michele Lipori. Confronti Editorial Staff

In the latest report drawn up by the NGO Reporters Sans Frontières, with the status of consultant to the United Nations, it emerges that in 73 of the 180 countries examined, press freedom is wholly or severely hindered, while in another 59 it still suffers considerable limitations. Despite the great potential offered by the internet, the Index data reflects a dramatic deterioration in the possibility of access to information by ordinary citizens and an increase in obstacles for journalists who want to cover certain news items.

Compounding this situation is also the growing sense of public distrust of journalists: according to data from the 21°Edelman Trust Barometer, 59% of respondents in 28 countries say that journalists “deliberately try to mislead the public by reporting information they know be false.” And in fact, also due to certain politics, workers in the information sector are often perceived as a “caste,” seen as conniving with “power,” and subject to cases of harsh attacks by supporters of “conspiracy theories.” Yet, to give just one example linked to the pandemic in progress, in different parts of the world, COVID-19 has been used as an excuse to block the access of journalists and information sources and reports in the field, making the work to combat disinformation and the spread of fake news increasingly difficult.

Europe and the Americas continue to be the continents most in favor of press freedom; even in the latter there was the greatest deterioration in the amount of regional violations (+2.5%). Europe has recorded a significant deterioration in the abuses committed against journalists, considering the acts of violence more than doubled in the European Union and in the Balkans, compared to a deterioration of 17% worldwide. Attacks on journalists and arbitrary arrests increased in Germany (ranked 13th in the global index), France (34th), Italy (41st), Poland (64th), Greece (70th), Serbia (93rd) and Bulgaria (112th).

Africa continues to be the most violent continent for journalists, and the pandemic has fueled the use of force to prevent journalists from working. In Tanzania (124th place in the Index), President John Magufuli called the SARS-COV-2 virus a “Western conspiracy,” suggesting that the country had managed to keep it contained solely thanks to “the power of prayer,” by imposing – before his death, which occurred in March 2021 due to COVID-19 (a causa del Covid-19) – not to communicate data on the pandemic.

As for Asia, China (177th place in the Index), defined in the report as “the largest prison in the world for press freedom defenders,” is still among the worst countries for press freedom, with over 115 inmates currently, often in life-threatening conditions. Kunchok Jinpa, a leading media source of information on Tibet, died in February 2021 of ill-treatment in prison, as did Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize winner and winner of the Reporters Sans Frontières Prize for Freedom of the Press, and Yang Tongyan, dissident blogger, died in 2017. Relying on the massive use of new technologies, President Xi Jinping’s regime has imposed a model based on news and information control and online surveillance of its citizens.

Turkmenistan (178th), North Korea (179th) and Eritrea (180th place, the last, in the Index) compete for the lowest “podium.” These are all countries that maintain absolute control over all news and information. But in the Asia-Pacific region, the “censorship virus” has spread beyond China, particularly to Hong Kong (80th), where the so-called National Security Law imposed by Beijing seriously threatens journalists. In Australia (25th) there is a figure that negatively affects positioning in the General Index: in response to the bill requiring technology companies to reimburse the media for content posted on their social platforms, Facebook has banned Australian media from publishing or sharing news content on their Facebook pages.

The region of Eastern Europe and Central Asia maintained the penultimate position in the regional ranking, partly due to events in Belarus (158th place on the Index), where journalists were subjected to severe crackdowns in the attempt to cover up massive street protests in response to the controversial presidential election result.

There were no significant changes in the Middle East and North Africa region, which held the last place in the regional ranking. In Algeria (146th) and Morocco (136th), the judicial system is used to help silence journalists, while the most authoritarian countries in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia (170th), Egypt (166th) and Syria (173) – took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to strengthen their media gagging methods and to reassert their monopoly on news and information.

Speaking of “pandemic gagging,” in Russia (150th place in the Index), independent media have been fighting for months to report real data on the COVID-19 pandemic in the country and unmask official figures touted by the government. Only in December 2020, Moscow finally recognized a death toll from COVID-19 which was three times the official figure. Regarding the online article suppression policy through the so-called Anti-Fake News Law in effect since 2019, the authorities have strengthened it with a series of amendments.

The Chinese authorities have carried out a further “crackdown” on the news concerning COVID-19: seven journalists are still in prison, guilty of having covered news on the pandemic.

Even in Iran, which has always been positioned in the lower part of the Index, a deterioration was recorded with the COVID-19 pandemic, given that the government immediately tried to minimize the victim count. To this end, the authorities stepped up their scrutiny of information in both traditional and online media, interrogating, arresting and convicting professional journalists and ordinary citizens. The country also holds another record: that of the largest number of journalists killed in the last fifty years. A tradition that continued into 2020: Rouhollah Zam, the director of the Amadnews channel on Telegram, was executed on November 12, 2020 after being sentenced for encouraging protests against corruption and the economic situation in the winter of 2017-2018.

In Europe, too, there is no exemption from such scenarios. The emergency legislation introduced in Hungary starting from March 2020 continues to criminalize “fake news” on COVID-19 and to block access to information, especially regarding the ban on reporting in hospitals. When some 30 media outlets called for this restriction to be lifted in an open letter in March 2021, the government refused and accused independent media of spreading disinformation, which is subject to criminal penalties. Not only local news outlets, but also foreign media were the subject of an intimidation campaign. Independent media censored by Viktor Orbán’s government include Index, a news site from which nearly all reporters quit  after being taken over by the prime minister’s allies, and Klubrádio, a radio station that has had its broadcast frequency removed under a bureaucratic pretext. The European Union, for its part, is unable to intervene in this sense, given that even the instrument of economic sanctions and the limitation to EU European funding that is implemented in cases of violations of the rule of law does not take into account freedom of printing.

Michele Lipori

Michele Lipori

Confronti Editorial Staff

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