Journalism, the vaccine against disinformation, blocked in more than 130 countries

THE 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows that journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partly blocked in 73 per cent of the 180 countries ranked by the organisation.

This year’s Index, which evaluates the press freedom situation in 180 countries and territories annually, shows that journalism, which is arguably the best vaccine against the virus of disinformation, is totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others, which together represent 73 per cent of the countries evaluated.

These countries are classified as having “very bad”, “bad” or “problematic” environments for press freedom, and are identified accordingly in black, red or orange on the World Press Freedom map.

The index data reflect a dramatic deterioration in people’s access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage. The coronavirus pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting in the field.

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

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals a disturbing level of public mistrust of journalists, with 59 per cent of respondents in 28 countries saying that 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.

“Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation,” RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire said.

“Unfortunately, its production and distribution are too often blocked by political, economic, technological and, sometimes, even cultural factors. In response to the virality of disinformation across borders, on digital platforms and via social media, journalism provides the most effective means of ensuring that public debate is based on a diverse range of established facts.”

Norway is ranked first in the index for the fifth year running, even though its media have complained of a lack of access to State-held information about the pandemic. Finland maintained its position in second place while Sweden (up one place at third) recovered its third-place ranking, which it had yielded to Denmark (down one at fourth) last year.

The World Press Freedom map has not had so few countries coloured white – indicating a country situation that is at least good if not optimal – since 2013, when the current evaluation method was adopted.

This year only 12 of the index’s 180 countries (seven per cent), including Jamaica, can claim to offer a favourable environment for journalism, as opposed to 13 countries (eight per cent) last year.

The country to have been stripped of its “good” classification is Germany (down two places to 13th).

Dozens of its journalists were attacked by supporters of extremist and conspiracy theory-believers urging protests against pandemic restrictions.

The press freedom situation in Germany is nonetheless still classified as “fairly good”, as is the case in the United States (down one place to 44th), despite the fact that Donald Trump’s final year in the White House was marked by a record number of assaults against journalists (around 400) and arrests of members of the media (130), according to the US Press Freedom Tracker of which RSF is a partner.

As a result of falling four places Brazil joined the countries coloured red, indicating that the press freedom situation there is classified as bad. The vilification and orchestrated public humiliation of journalists have become trademarks of President Bolsonaro, along with his family and closest allies.

Brazil shares the bad classification with India (142nd), Mexico (143rd) and Russia (down one place to 150th), which deployed its repressive apparatus to limit media coverage of protests in support of Kremlin opponent, Alexei Navalny.

China (177th), which continues to take Internet censorship, surveillance and propaganda to unprecedented levels, is still firmly anchored among the index’s worst countries, which are indicated in black on the World Press Freedom map.

Right below China is the same trio of totalitarian countries that have historically occupied the bottom three places. Two are Asian: Turkmenistan (up 1 at 178th) and North Korea (up 1 at 179th). The third is African: Eritrea (down 2 at 180th).

The country that fell the furthest in 2021 was Malaysia (down 18 at 119th), where the problems include a recent “anti-fake news” decree allowing the Government to impose its own version of the truth.

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