Objective journalism threatened by fake content and false media platforms

Saunders Portrait 2022
File photo: Sir Ronald Saunders.
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By Sir Ronald Sanders

Media freedom in the Americas, from Canada in the North to Argentina in the South, with the Caribbean in between, did not rank very well in the 2023 World Press Freedom (WPF) Index.

In a measurement of 180 countries and territories, only Canada – rated at 15 – secured a place among the top 20 best performing countries. Costa Rica in Central America is rated at 23. Caribbean countries appear in the Index with Trinidad and Tobago at 30, Jamaica at 32, Suriname at 48, Belize at 51, Guyana at 60 and Haiti at 99. The United States of America is relegated to 45.

The Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), was released on May 3 to mark the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day – a designation of the United Nations General Assembly.

However, the Index excluded countries with populations of less than 300,000. Therefore, The Bahamas and Barbados are not examined, and the 6 independent nations of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) are lumped as one, distorting the situation in each country individually. Therefore, the OECS ranking at 93 is not an accurate reflection of media freedom in its 6 member states individually. Conditions in each of them are not uniform.

The methodology that RWB employed in compiling the index is based on its own definition of press freedom which it describes as: “the ability of journalists as individuals and collectives to select, produce, and disseminate news in the public interest independent of political, economic, legal, and social interference and in the absence of threats to their physical and mental safety”.

There is no mention in the definition of the obligation of journalists to report at high standards of objectivity, responsibility and accuracy. In this sense, it appears to give a free pass to media publications, whose reporting falls short of these standards. A discerning public, which expects media to adhere to these standards in order to maintain credibility, would be rightly concerned at the omission of these requirements from the definition that RWB used as the methodology for the compilation of its index.

The report also does not imply that government action against journalists is the main reason for the ranking of countries, although it is definitely so in countries with authoritarian regimes. Other factors are considered. For example, in the US assessment, the continuing attack by Donald Trump on the media is one of the criteria.

Having said that, the RWB report raises critical issues that are worthy of public attention and informed debate.

For instance, it warns that “political actors in their countries were often, or systematically, involved in massive disinformation or propaganda campaigns. The difference is being blurred between true and false, real and artificial, facts and artifices, jeopardizing the right to information. The unprecedented ability to tamper with content is being used to undermine those who embody quality journalism and weaken journalism itself.”

This observation is apparent in the rise of anonymous social media platforms, which pose as genuine media outlets, with the sole purpose of spreading false information for political purposes. The videos and other material produced by such outlets, claiming to be journalists, do indeed “weaken journalism” by the dissemination of false information to the public that can create grave disaffection in societies.

The creation of Internet portals, also posing as genuine journalistic media, but really established to spread false information and propaganda for those willing to pay for it, also undermines the value of principled journalism that should be committed to accessing and publishing accurate and substantiated information for the public good and within the laws of libel.

The report also points out that the misuse of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is “wreaking further havoc” with tools that “flout the principles of rigour and reliability.” It warns of the creation of “very high-definition images” that have been “feeding social media with increasingly plausible and undetectable fake photos”.

These developments require all societies to be alert and vigilant in calling them out as malicious, deceptive, and misleading. The greatest responsibility falls on the reputable media houses that place value in their integrity and credibility. In their own interest, they should counter such instances with truth, facts and objectivity.

The only region in the world that emerges from the Index with a “good” category is Europe at 15%. In the satisfactory category, Europe is again the highest with 41.5% and the Americas, including the Caribbean, is second with 35.71%. Violence against journalists and arbitrary imprisonment is rampant in the Middle East and North Africa. In the Americas, violence and imprisonment are also prevalent in a few countries where the numbers are high. These countries do not include the English-speaking Caribbean, Canada and the US.

Murders and imprisonment of journalists in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes are increasing and must be condemned and resisted by all nations which value freedom. Two hundred and ninety-three journalists were behind bars at the end of 2021; the official figures for 2022 are likely to be higher.

Governments should be in the forefront of preserving and upholding freedom, which is the oxygen by which all nations breathe and thrive, and which energizes their people to creativity that builds socially and economically vibrant countries.

Fair and objective media reporting is sometimes harsh, sometimes unfair, sometimes wrong, but mostly the responsible reporting creates awareness and raises alarms. There are many thousands of journalists who report on events to inform societies; they shine light in dark corners to alert publics to perils; and they risk their lives in areas of conflicts to expose tyrannical regimes.

These are the principled activities that make journalism a noble profession and that should attract persons committed to high standards of reporting in the public interest.

Good journalism is like a bad toothache – it hurts, but it warns that something is wrong and requires remedying. In this regard, good and responsible journalism should be encouraged by all as a public good, and media houses should strive for the highest standards of objectivity and accuracy in the public interest.

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com)

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