When journalism is threatened – then democracy itself is at stake

The erosion of media freedom around the world is among the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic

<p>The Covid-19 pandemic has created many challenges for journalists</p>

The Covid-19 pandemic has created many challenges for journalists

It’s more than a year since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, which has since claimed millions of victims around the world and changed the way in which we live our lives forever.

While some of the immediate consequences of the pandemic have been starkly evident, others have remained less apparent – despite the severity of their consequences. The erosion of media freedom and the decline of independent journalism around the world are among them.

In a defining paradox of our time, Covid-19 has simultaneously driven an acute need for accurate information and a thirst for trusted news while dismantling the very ecosystem that supplies it. This year’s World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders demonstrates that efforts to control the narrative around the pandemic has led to journalism being blocked in 73 per cent of the 180 countries evaluated – with journalists’ safety threatened and their reporting censored.

The pandemic has also forced news organisations to adapt to additional changes to news consumption, while facing the economic repercussions created by a drop in revenues. This has put some news media outlets’ economic sustainability in jeopardy, and their editorial independence at risk.

Meanwhile, social media platforms are used on average by 31 per cent of news consumers around the world, with 72 per cent of those surveyed for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report consuming news via means other than a specific news website or app. The proliferation of digital platforms has also super-charged the spread of misinformation and disinformation, from rumour and conspiracy theories about the vaccine rollout, to misinformation for political gain.

Free and independent media are fighting the battle of their lives, but for some, their defences are weak. So, how can we all play our part, and prevent what Philanthropic organisation Luminate has bleakly defined a media "extinction event"?

There has been an encouraging new wave of government support for journalism during this crisis, from Canada’s emergency financial relief for publications to Singapore’s new fund for the media sector. Norway too introduced an aid package for media to help recoup some of the losses incurred by Covid. Increased scrutiny on an ailing industry is fuelling a greater appetite for public policy solutions and government intervention without state control.

Elsewhere, efforts are being stepped up to defend public service media. The newly-established International Fund for Public Interest Media is an ambitious project that aims to bolster financial support for media in low and middle-income countries through an independent, multilateral body. Decisions on which media outlets secure funding will be made at a regional level. The fund aims to secure $100 million by 2022.

Philanthropic support for journalism has also increased, with emergency funds and grants established during the Covid-19 crisis. In the midst of the pandemic last year, intervention by a consortium of philanthropists and impact investors saved Australia’s AAP newswire from closing. Philanthropists such as Pierre Omidyar, Craig Newmark and George Soros are some of the leading names who have continued to channel vital support to independent journalism. This trend is also growing with benefactors increasingly seeing the need to protect unbiased, high-quality journalism for the benefit of civil society.

Perhaps, though, the most effective methods of securing the future of independent journalism might come from the transformation of news outlets themselves and their relationship with "big tech".

Changing the dynamic with "big tech" is no easy feat, but Australia’s new legislation is paving the way for somewhat redressing the imbalance between powerful platforms and public interest news organisations. The News Media Bargaining Code will see tech giants paying Australian media companies for the content they generate, with an independent arbiter stepping in if they cannot agree on payment amongst themselves.

This follows the launch of the Facebook News service in the UK earlier this year, and US last year. The service is set to scale to Germany, France, India, and Brazil. Meanwhile, Google has promised $1bn in licensing fees to its partner news publishers around the world as part of its Google News Showcase initiative. Staving off regulation might well be a motivating factor here, but if successful and scaled to include smaller news outlets - while also driving traffic to publishers’ news sites and apps - this could be transformative for the industry.

Finally, the Covid crisis has accelerated innovation in the drive to transform business models, including diversifying revenue streams through - for example - online events. Meanwhile, in countries where independent journalism is most under threat, support from organisations committed to preserving and protecting media freedom is critical.

Independent journalism is a public good and protecting its future should be a shared goal. The time to act is now, because when the future of independent, pluralistic, and accessible journalism is threatened, democracy itself is at stake.

Antonio Zappulla is CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

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