Pandemic threats to press freedom | Editorial

Today, as we mark World Press Freedom Day 2020, journalists in every country are on the job among the frontline workers.

Information—accurate, reliable and unbiased—has never been more important to the public and, in some cases, more dangerous to pursue. We in Trinidad and Tobago are lucky to have not had a case of COVID-19 among the media community, but it remains a risk for our journalists as it is for all essential workers who have to be out there every day serving the public’s right to know.

It is no accident that in his World Press Freedom Day message, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for greater protection of journalists who are providing “the antidote” to a pandemic of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 crisis.

Trinidad and Tobago has not escaped the “infodemic”. Every conspiracy theory, from deliberate manufacture of the virus to its viral spread via 5G mobile networks, has made the rounds here via social media. For the T&T media, this danger is exacerbated by the combination of intimidation and information suppression related to COVID-19 coverage, notably in an election year.

Under the guise of transparency, the Government’s daily media briefings have become the single point through which Government information is channelled to the public with the media being allowed only superficial access and opportunity for holding the Government to account. Journalists who have attempted to get behind the façade have been subjected to vile hounding, orchestrated in part by politically partisan trolls on social media. The objective, of course, is to intimidate journalists in the hope of silencing them into compliance.

On the other side are Opposition elements, eager to plant and disseminate disinformation. None of this is new to the media. Every administration has its surrogates whose job, paid or unpaid, is to sow doubt and undermine public trust in the media in order to create permissive conditions for promoting their agenda unchallenged. Equally, every opposition seeks to co-opt the media to further their political ends. With unerring predictability, the media falls in and out of favour with political parties, depending on whether they are in opposition or government. All lack an objective understanding and appreciation of the value of a free, independent and vibrant media as vital to democracy.

In this, T&T is not alone. Even in the world’s most vaunted democracy, political power is daily threatened by independent media in its quest for complete compliance. In this election year, as in every election year, the independent media can expect to be excoriated, used and abused. To this must be added the operational challenges of election coverage under pandemic conditions and the economic impact of COVID-19 on media houses at a time when greater investment must be made in health and safety.

This is therefore a perilous time for the media which must be carefully navigated if T&T is to avoid an erosion of press freedom.

On this World Press Freedom Day 2020, this newspaper recommits itself to the cause of press freedom as an absolute condition for upholding its responsibility to speak truth to power and to serve the public’s right to know.

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