May 3 marks World Press Freedom Day, a day to commemorate the importance of freedom of the press.
This year’s theme, “journalism without fear or favour“, is particularly apt considering the world today, when reporting on the coronavirus has become “the new scapegoat for media censorship“. Around the world, journalists have gone missing or have been arrested for reporting on COVID-19 and government responses to the pandemic. On top of these events, journalists are also combatting the equally contagious infodemic and governments’ strategy of media capture to stifle editorial independence.
Despite new challenges in covering issues of public interest during the pandemic, journalists continue to persevere in reporting news that matters, without fear or favour, by adapting to the “new normal” through using more digital means to pursue leads and stories. They press on despite attacks on press freedom, harassment, scarce access to government information, and other challenges. With this, support and advocacy related to journalists and media freedom should be sustained during and after the pandemic.
In celebration of World Press Freedom Day, we shine the spotlight on the Coconet community’s journalists and media workers who are working in the Asia-Pacific. We asked them to respond to one question, so that we in civil society can help them continue their work without fear or favour.
How can civil society support journalists to continue reporting without fear or favour, especially in the time of COVID-19?
Vicheika Kann, a journalist with Voice of America Cambodia and vice president of Cambodian Journalists Alliance, stresses the importance of advocating for journalists. “Civil society is a group of people who always stay behind journalists to report the sensitive stories without fear or favour. They have advocated for journalists rights and the truth for society. Especially the truth about COVID-19 epidemic.”
Zevonia Vieira, a journalist with Tafara.tl and president of the Timor-Leste Journalist Association, echoes Vicheika’s sentiments. Civil society, she says, should be “fighting against false or fake information about COVID-19 and defending human rights, especially the people affected by the coronavirus and during the lockdown.” In a separate interview, Zevonia also talks about her experience on the frontlines as a journalist and working parent.
Sanjib Chaudhary, editor of Global Voices Nepali Lingua: “Moral support from civil society, both offline and online, matters a lot to journalists to continue reporting without fear or favour. And especially support through social media channels like Twitter makes a difference.”
To illustrate his point, Sanjib points to the public outcry against the arrest of a Nepali official who was critical of the country’s prime minister. “Recently, during the lockdown imposed by the government due to COVID-19, I’ve noticed people supporting journalists, writers and opinion. Former secretary Bhim Upadhyay got a lot of support in social media users from all walks of life. His arrest caused an uproar throughout the country and he is now more vocal than ever.”
Thu Bui, a journalist with BBC News Vietnam : “In the time of critical crisis, like this pandemic, autocratic governments tend to issue more laws and regulations to control information, to restrict journalists’ activities in the name of national interest and saving lives. When a state of emergency is declared anywhere, it’s even harder for journalists to continue their cause of telling the truth.”
With COVID-19, such use of emergency powers to silence media is not uncommon. One such state of emergency is in Thailand, which critics say has resulted in a clamping down of free speech. Similar decrees have been used to arrest critics in Vietnam and Laos.
“One of the most important things that civil society can do to help journalists to fulfil their mission is to monitor the governments’ decisions, to question and challenge any ill intent from governments in keeping journalist from information, from the truth,” she adds.
Aie Balagtas See, an investigative journalist from the Philippines, echoes Bui’s call for civil society to “oppose moves that muzzle free press and free speech”. She adds: “Defend the press, stand with them. Especially each time fake news peddlers or autocrats attack them. A society is not free unless the press is truly free.”
Aie also says civil society can “donate or subscribe to newspapers or media outlets. Don’t let lack of advertisers kill legitimate media firms, and if you can, pay for the news you consume”. Because the internet allows us to access information without payment, particularly on social media, newsrooms around the world have been struggling with getting audiences to pay for their content.
Kathryn Raymundo, media specialist with Internews Philippines, also stresses the need to validate journalists, whether through protecting them or paying for the news. She writes: “The best way to support journalism is to validate their good work — share the stories that made an impact, news that mattered to me and my community. I value independent, quality reporting. I subscribe to news organizations and promote their innovation, especially those of the local news’.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen journalists around the globe collaborate on collective resources to better their coverage of the pandemic.
She adds: “Finally, I advocate for free expression and press freedom. Our journalists are the most curious, hardworking, and passionate people I know. I hope people realize how important journalism is in our society. Media help make sense of what is happening around us.
“For keeping us informed, thank you.”
About the Coconet Community
Coconet is a community of changemakers in the Asia-Pacific dedicated to digital rights movement building in the region. Among the members of the network are journalists from the region who continue reporting with fear or favour.