Press freedom is facing a dual threat from “fake news” and massive cuts caused by the coronavirus pandemic. George Jarrett looks at how press freedom - cornerstone of broadcasters’ output - can overcome these challenges.
Press freedom, seen as a boil to lance in despotic and totalitarian nations, is now troubled by the double whammy of the insidious threat of fake news, and massive job and commission losses triggered by the pandemic.
The latest free media crisis sees the Philippines focussed on eradicating ABS-CBN and its 44% audience share, at the cost of 11,000 jobs, 32 TV services, and 23 radio stations. The European Federation of Journalists confirms that 10,000 professionals have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Clothilde Redfern, director of The Rory Peck Trust, confirms: “It is becoming increasingly challenging to make a living out of freelance journalism.”
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Must be relentless
NABA (the North American Broadcasters Association) is currently the secretariat for the World Broadcasting Union (WBU), which includes another seven unions spanning the globe. It released statements about The Philippines situation, quickly followed by one urgently calling for guaranteed commitments on protecting media independence and safeguarding freedom of expression.
But given the current environment, are there more people trying to stifle press freedom than those trying to save it?
NABA DG Michael McEwen says that is true. “There is the specific case of ABS-CBN and we were all worried because it is an internal matter, and one could say it is a licensing matter. But, in fact, the issues are much broader.
“People are trying to find other tools and platforms to tell their stories.” - Michael McEwen
“With the WBU call for media independence there was no hesitation on behalf of the unions. They just felt the time was right,” he adds. “It was really sparked by both the coverage of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, where journalists were being barred from doing their job. This campaign is something that must be relentless, and it will be relentless.”
McEwen is one of many people who worry for Maria Ressa, who has seen her news site shut down by the Filipino government, and herself branded as a terrorist.
“She is at some considerable peril, so journalists being targeted and undermined is a much bigger issue,” he says. But the industry doesn’t have a choice when it comes to fighting duel battlegrounds – fake news and the threat to journalism.
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Can fake news and the danger to journalistic lives be fought together as problems?
Heads of news are very conservative in terms of how they source everything” adds McEwen, but the problem emerges when you go beyond conventional broadcasters. Online services are very hard to control, but you can protect mainstream journalism from fake news and that goes a long way to solidifying ongoing credibility,” he explains.
Investigative journalism is also costly, and major outlets do not have the same resource base as a decade back. This has led to the changing nature of investigations, with some mainstream broadcasters moving to podcasts for investigative work.
“If you are a freelancer, sent into a dangerous environment, you need the full support of a major news organisation. We have learnt that from regional wars, and the human rights issues in various parts of the world,” he says.
The WBU spends much of its time handling issues around technology, operations, workflow, regulations, and the ITU.
“We could marshal resources for a major issue, and the key journalistic questions is one of them,” said McEwen. “But can we get down and do the work that needs to be done? It must be done collectively.”
This journalism has to happen
Liz Corbin ended her 18-year stint at the BBC as head of news for BBC World News earlier this year. She is now EBU deputy media director and head of news. She was involved in the pilot EBU Investigative Journalist Network.
“It has been going for nearly two years, and we just agreed to continue it. Journalists are not always the best at sharing their stories, particularly exclusive investigations, but within the safety of that group, which is confidential, they share what they are working on and see if they can make their investigations even bigger,” says Corbin.
Everybody (participating EBU) members gets to broadcast or publish each story. Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, it “delivered a number of very high impact stories” she adds, with the network sharing a high volume of stories during the Covid-19 crisis.
“Access to be able to publish or distribute information has never been greater. That brings enormous challenges.” - Liz Corbin
That “enabled the investigation into what happened in care homes. What happened in one country was hugely relevant across all nations.”
Some media companies see costs and legal traps as reasons to cut investigative work, but Corbin had a different take.
“Most journalists see legal minefields as a challenge rather than as a restrictor, and obviously everybody wants to get their story right. It makes your journalism better, and potential legal action is hugely different to how many successful legal actions there are,” she says.
“Budgets are under pressure, and investigative journalism costs money. What we say at the EBU is that public service journalism needs funding,” she adds. “It needs to be reliable and committed. Day-to-day news is great but holding authority to account often takes time and money. We absolutely see this as part of our remit.”
On the issue of fighting safety threats and fake news, Corbin says: “Linking this is quite a realistic way of looking at it. Fake news is spread by state actors or people with a lot of reason to spread it. Then you are looking at people with a lot of influence, who love power.
“If you then look to challenge that and find the truth, you are going up against people who potentially have the possibility of doing you harm. The safety of journalists is something all broadcasters and news agencies take incredibly seriously.”
There are ways to do stories which put journalists at extreme risk, which is part of the way stories are approached and planned. But the role of journalism continues to be vital in society.
Corbin says: “This journalism has to happen if we are going to hold power to account. The effort of bad actors in trying to confuse the public about facts has grown, and made fact checking in journalism more complex. That is why the world broadcasting unions came together to call for the guarantee of media independence.”
In what has been an “incredibly busy year for crises” it is possible for governments to take advantage of those situations and limit freedoms and access to information. “That is unacceptable,” she adds.
The quantity and quality of the news available on the EBU news exchange is a clear answer to the widespread disruption in the news industry. “There was the assumption that PSBs were slow to change or respond. But that has been blown out of the water,” said Corbin.
Those who curtail media freedom
As journalists face attacks on two fronts, the challenge for freelancers is in what to prioritise. Do they take on the challenge of fake news, or the threat to a journalist’s safety.
Rory Peck’s Redfern says it is difficult to fight both at once, and the challenges differ. Fake News – the label that stemmed from US President Donald Trump’s use of the term – is centred around new technology and social media.
“Those who have interests in spreading propaganda have invested lots of money. It is a very complicated fight because for many years these platforms have pretended that they don’t have any editorial responsibility, but they are the most widely read publishers,” explains Redfern. “This whole post-truth world means there has been a huge loss of trust in news in general, which is terrible for journalists.”
The answer is thoroughly triple checking everything. The Trust has always focussed on practical direct assistance to freelance news journalists, but it is a member of the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism, and sits on the board of the ACOS Alliance.
“We do add our support to sector-wide campaigns, such as the recent #HoldTheLineCoalition to defend Maria Ressa and independent media in the Philippines, or last month’s letter to the Trump administration,” says Redfern. “We don’t do direct advocacy, or track the impact of these campaigns.
“We were very pleased to see the creation of the Media Freedom Campaign by the UK and Canadian governments, but the verdict is still out on the actual impact. The problem is always that governments who share our values join the campaign but those who curtail media freedom the most just ignore it,” she added.
The Trust is seeing more requests to help with legal teams, and it has in mind new courses.
“Many freelancers heard from outlets that regularly gave them work, that they were cutting all commissions.” - Clothilde Redfern
“We are looking at developing more training to emphasise digital security skills for freelance journalists, not only information security around keeping their research and reporting information secret, but also about their own physical security,” adds Redfern. “This is knowing how not to reveal where you are in the world through your activity on-line.”
The huge number of despotic nations and regional wars suggest an increasing number of ‘no go’ areas for the freelance community.
Redfern suspects that these ‘no go’ areas will multiply, meaning journalists need to be even more resourceful. But local desires to get news out into the wider world will facilitate this, meaning groups of local journalists working in collaboration with foreign news desks.
One example is the Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently group of Syrian video journalists. “There are many groups like this helping to sustain the flow of information at great personal risk when totalitarian and despotic governments attempt to silence the media,” says Redfern.
Credit avoidance and staying anonymous is crucial to the local sources. How has the Trust been able to help the freelance community during the pandemic?
“We created a hardship fund. We disbursed over £60,000 in financial assistance grants in the first half of this year, and we expect to disburse at least the same sum again in the rest of the year,” said Redfern. “Though we thought our hardship fund would be temporary, we now realise the impact of Covid-19 on freelancers is far from over. I suspect the recovery will be long and slow.
“I am really worried about the earnings of freelance journalists. It is increasingly challenging, and couple this to the fact that there are fewer staff jobs for journalists. It is a really tough outlook, and even very experienced people find it hard to gather enough commissions.”