Watchdog Says Journalism, the 'Vaccine Against Disinformation,' Took Global Hit During Pandemic

In its annual report ranking press freedom in 180 countries, Reporters Without Borders said Tuesday that access to information for journalists has been blocked in nearly three-quarters of the nations over the past year, impeding their ability to share vital public health data with the general population.

Calling journalism “the vaccine against misinformation,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said access was either blocked or “seriously impeded” in 73 of the countries and “constrained” in 59 of them, meaning that journalists in 73% of the countries were attacked or otherwise stopped from reporting on the pandemic and other issues. 

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“The coronavirus pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting in the field,” RSF’s report read, adding that access may remain closed once the pandemic is over. 

“The data shows that journalists are finding it increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories, especially in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe,” RSF reported.

On social media, the group posted a video highlighting several of its findings regarding the “dramatic deterioration” in information access over the past year.

In China, at least seven journalists went missing or were detained after covering the pandemic, while Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi banned the publication of any pandemic statistics that didn’t come directly from his Ministry of Health. In Brazil, RSF said, President Jair Bolsonaro “blamed and scapegoated” journalists for the country’s public health crisis, which has been called a “humanitarian catastrophe” by Doctors Without Borders, while promoting medically unproven methods of treating Covid-19.

The video also highlighted attacks on American journalists at the racial justice protests which erupted in the United States last spring following the police killing of George Floyd, and a proposed “global security” law in France which would restrict people’s ability to share images of police violence. 

“The coronavirus pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting in the field.”
—Reporters Without Borders

Only 12 countries, or 7% of those ranked, were found to have favorable environments for journalism. RSF, which has released the index annually since 2002, has not evaluated so few countries favorably since 2013.

The Nordic countries of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark were the highest-ranked, with Costa Rica rounding out the top five. 

The United States was ranked at number 44, with the organization noting that the reinstatement of regular White House press briefings and the ability of public health authorities to relay information about Covid-19 since President Joe Biden took office in January has led to more “accountability and transparency” than in recent years.

“As with any patient, however, while the most obvious symptoms of an ailing democracy may have cleared up, many chronic, underlying conditions—from the disappearance of local news to the ongoing and widespread distrust of mainstream media—remain,” the report read. “In fact, the situation worsened considerably during President Donald J. Trump’s final year in office, which saw nearly 400 journalists assaulted and more than 130 detained—unprecedented numbers according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker (an RSF partner organization).”

The report noted that plummeting press freedom has led to distrust of journalists, with the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer showing that 59% of respondents in 28 countries believed “journalists deliberately try to mislead the public by reporting information they know to be false.”

“In reality, journalistic pluralism and rigorous reporting serve to combat disinformation and ‘infodemics,’ including false and misleading information,” RSF said.

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