Pandemic weighs on press freedom, survey finds

Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, RSF, says the coronavirus pandemic has helped curb press freedom and spread disinformation, with a dwindling number of countries providing supportive environments for journalism.

The latest Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index brings little good news about the state of the media today. Although showing little change from last year, the overall indicator of press freedom around the world has declined significantly in recent years.

The Nordic countries, along with Costa Rica, topped the index again, with Norway ranking first for the fifth consecutive year. North Korea again ranked last, at 180, with Turkmenistan, China and Djibouti close behind.

Significantly, according to RSF, the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to exacerbating the repression.

Pauline Ades-Mevel is the group’s spokesperson.

“This year’s index, which assesses press freedom in 180 countries, shows that journalism – which is arguably the best vaccine against the virus of disinformation – is totally blocked or seriously blocked in some countries, and they are three-quarters (of them) we monitor around the world,” Mevel said.

In Brazil and Venezuela, ranked 111th and 148th respectively, leaders promoted unproven COVID-19 cures and false claims about the virus. However, notes RSF, they have been debunked by investigative journalists.

In countries like Iran, Egypt and Algeria, authorities have cracked down on journalists – in some cases, according to RSF, to cover up high COVID-19 tolls. Ades-Mevel says other governments have cracked down on journalists for different reasons.

“Even though there were lockdowns around the world, journalists were attacked more in the field, those covering protests, those covering in the field were arrested more often,” Mevel said.

Western Europe and North America fare best in the index. Despite this, Germany – where RSF noted journalists were attacked last year by extremists and conspiracy theorists – fell one place. This has reduced the so-called “white zone” of the watchdog, providing good conditions for journalists, to just a dozen countries.

RSF also reported worrying trends in the Americas – where press freedom has deteriorated overall – particularly in the United States. Some US media have picked up fake news about the virus, though others have discredited it, and 2020 has seen an increase in the number of journalists assaulted or arrested.

Africa offered a mixed picture. Burundi, Sierra Leone and Mali climbed the press freedom index. But Ethiopia, mired in conflict in its Tigray region, fell two places, to 101.

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