REPORTAGE:

War on Journalism – The Hidden Pandemic

Foto: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

REPORTAGE

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War on Journalism – The Hidden Pandemic

Journalism is forced to a global retreat. Evermore grim working conditions, cut-back salaries and “fake news” accusations slouch around the world, bringing threats, misinformation, and deadly violence to numerous independent reporters and media workers worldwide. Furthermore, Covid-19 forces journalists—as people in general—to adapt to shutdowns, health risks and a reality more frequently viewed and reported per digital platforms. 

“The pandemic brings long-term changes to global journalism, along with new rules and challenges,” per four journalists—in Honduras, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, and West Papua—with whom Global Magazine has spoken to.

By Klas Lundström

JOURNALISM The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has paved way for enclosed societies, restrictions and virus tracking to decrease the spread of the coronavirus that has cost three million lives since its outbreak in late 2019. During the pandemic, information—or the lack of it—has become hard currency.

Amidst the pandemic, the general public’s demand for information, regular updates and reported witnesses accounts regarding the coronavirus’s plights increase. All the while governments exploit the coronavirus pandemic to strike back at free and independent reporting. 

“It’s now more difficult than ever to conduct independent journalism since the outbreak of the pandemic,” Filep, which is not his real name, tells Global Magazine.

“Mouthpieces of the rulers”

Filep is part of a small and vulnerable profession in modern-day West Papua—independent and locally based journalists. He has been a journalist for over ten years and reports “out of a ground-perspective,” about Indonesia’s increased violence against the evermore vocal independence seeking public, and on the Indonesian army’s extrajudicial killings of political activists, religious leaders and unarmed minors later presented as guerilla members killed in crossfire. 

West Papua has for 60-odd years remained an open political wound to Australia, the US, and the Netherlands—and the region’s inhabitants has suffered due to an ongoing armed conflict ever since Indonesia occupied what was then Dutch West New Guinea; an annexation the local Melanesian people never requested nor wished for.

The conflict has sharpened its knives since late 2018, when West Papuan guerilla forces killed some twenty-odd Indonesian roadworkers, considered spies by the guerillas. The killings led to ruthless Indonesian bombings of civilians, spiced with (although not yet fully investigated) usage of chemical weapons, and over 40,000 internally displaced Papuans.

What is clear, though, is that the outside world has been kept at bay by the Indonesian government, led by President Joko Widodo, while a large-scale humanitarian crisis collects the bill from an exhausted, money-stripped, and displaced local population—nowhere near foreign aid organizations, human rights investigators, or independent reporters.

“It’s hard,” Filep says. “Indonesia wants us to conduct journalism according to their wishes, as a mouthpiece of the rulers. But as we keep covering the conflict and its human toll, our reporting is a poke in the eye for the central government in Jakarta, who accuses us of all kinds of things—for supporting ‘terrorists,’ telling lies and to be ‘fake news.’”

A weakening freedom of press

Per Reporters Without Borders’ latest global index of global press freedom, journalism is “totally blocked or seriously impeded” in 73 countries worldwide, and “constrained” in another 59. Journalism, thus, finds itself, in one way or another, to be restricted in 132 nations worldwide.

“Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation,” secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a press release along with the annual index announcement. 

The index’s top spots are taken by Scandinavians—Norway, Finland, and Sweden. Fourth is Denmark, a country that suffers a setback due to the political storm that erupted after journalist Sofie Linde disclosed she had been being sexually harassed early in her career by male and older colleagues. A confession that led to an open letter signed by six hundred female Danish journalists, who all shared their experiences of similar illegal behaviors. 

The biggest movement on Reporters Without Borders’ index, though, can be found in the middle and bottom section. 

“Fake news”

A pattern and a development which now also has a global pandemic to adjust to. Thus, the need for free and independent reporting has not lessened. To the contrary, media outlets and individual reporters are no longer seen as objective commentators, but rather “fair game” by various nations’ leading political figures. 

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, the Filipino ditto Rodrigo Duterte, and the former American President Donald Trump have all painted journalists with totalitarian brushes, canvassing a reality where journalists are seen as targets, enemies, and the creators of “fake news.”

The possibility to conduct publicity campaigns in social medias has not merely given us staffed troll factories, state-initiated cyber warfare, and consciously widespread disinformation. It has also increased the demands and standards for every reporter’s knowledge, protection of sources and independent reporting—which, in the end, stands and falls with investments and commitments made by the real power players: the media outlets.

“From the street to Zoom”

The Covid-19 pandemic has not merely changed the way journalism is conducted and presented, it has also forced its roster of reporters to do what everyone else does, which is avoiding the streets, squares and plazas and instead conduct journalism in the digital and contagion-free world.

“We’re slowly getting used to the ‘New Norm,’” Rebecca Kuku, reporter at The National, one of Papua New Guinea’s leading newspapers, tells Global Magazine.

Her base and home lies in the capital, Port Moresby—but her field of work is the entire eastern New Guinean archipelago. One day she might follow up a lead inside government corridors in the capital, while the next sends her out in the rural corners of the island nation, often reachable only per small Cessna planes or riverboats.

“It’s been very challenging with a lot of restrictions and having to do almost everything virtually and via Zoom,” Rebecca Kuku says. “There have been some slow days, because you can’t do one on one interviews anymore or just run into any building or government department to ‘chase news.’” 

Lack of information during “Information revolution”

Filep conducts journalism on the other side of the border—in the gulf between Southeast Asia and Oceania, in the shadow of a proud Indonesian press tradition with independent voices and a lively civic debate. Indonesia’s constitutionally guarded freedom of speech and press freedom exclude its easternmost corner.

In West Papua, a constant state of emergency rules along blatant and frequent internet blackouts. A similar atmosphere of suppressed journalism—if existing at all—and censored reality exported to the outside world, was also the case during Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, from 1975 up until the Timorese population voted for independence in 1999.

“Our journalistic product has been blocked by the central government on numerous occasions, without any further explanations,” Filep says. “Besides, internet blackouts are frequent and often occur along with large-scale manifestations for an independent West Papua. That has made it hard for us to seek information and to spread our articles, as it’s hard for the public to maintain contact with family and friends.”

Filep’s working area—West Papua’s central highlands—is the conflict’s “hotspot,” with daily fights between the Indonesian army and armed separatist movements, since late April labeled “terrorist organizations” by Jakarta. All while a civilian population, independent reporters, human rights activists, and social movements are caught in the crossfire of a war seldom notified beyond the greenery and the mountain ranges. 

“Reporting and writing about the West Papuan people’s sufferings might awake people’s attention to what’s really going on here: politically, economically and environmentally. That’s what encourages me to continue to work as a journalist here,” Filep says. 

Latin America, the Dark Side of the Moon

Per data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalist’s, CPJ, 32 journalists were killed in 2020. Afghanistan and Mexico came out on top of the less-than-prestigious index; each with five journalists murdered on their respective soil. 

Latin America remains the planet’s most dangerous region for a journalist, and home to a third of all deaths in 2020. Not only reporters, but also human rights activists, labor unions representatives, and indigenous leaders run to the risk of being subjected to violence, harassment, or murder. A situation that has deteriorated during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

In Central America, entire nations fall apart due to corrupt regimes, organized crime, and widespread poverty. CPJ underlines that threats, attacks and even killings of journalists in Honduras often occur with no legal consequences.

Journalism in “failed states”

In 2020, four reporters were murdered in Honduras, and the pandemic’s arrival has nearly choked the nation’s journalists’ freedom of movement and their ability to work.

“Beyond the limitations of one’s self-determination and freedom of movement, I believe the declining access to information has awoken the wrath of the people,” Dunia Orellana, investigative journalist, documentary filmmaker and director of the reporter network Reportar sin miedo (“Reporting without fear”), tells Global Magazine. “Conducting journalism is the most dangerous thing you can do.” 

By the same token, Dunia Orellana adds, Honduran journalists have been forced to think outside the box, and to look outside of “politized media houses” to reach out with their reporting. A new mindset and a new wave of journalism that has resulted in new alliances and new alternatives—all in a parallel media environment, which the public can easily access per social media channels.

Media oligarchies and popular diversity

Still, per Reporters Without Border’s survey, Honduras’ future for free speech and independent journalism is far from secured, and the root to Honduras’ journalistic dusk—which runs along a political and socioeconomic crisis—was dug into the Central American nation’s soil in 2009, when a US-backed military coup ousted the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya.

Honduras’ cocaine bonanza and migration exodus has, since then, become domestic American policy, and Hondurans running away from the violence in their own homeland are used as an excuse to build a “safety wall” along the US–Mexican border. In the end, “Big Brother” in the north remains far from keen to acknowledge its own foreign policy actions as an integral part in feeding Central American military dictatorships and corrupt regimes throughout for many years.

Per Dunia Orellana, journalism’s future is a big challenge in modern-day Honduras. The principle of searching for the truth remains the same, it’s the way getting there that has undergone rapid changes due to external circumstances.

“We don’t just need to confront the pandemic and its challenges, we must also confront the corruption in a country that provides no opportunities for its citizens,” she says.

A political pandemic

Paraguay is another Latin America nation with a press in the hands of a minority of influential media moguls. Still, Paraguay has seen widespread protests with demands for the resignation of the President and the rightwing government during the pandemic.

Here, journalism is a profession in peril, and independent reporting—especially in rural areas—might lead to reporters being targeted by organized crime syndicates and paramilitary militias. In February 2020, Brazilian journalist Lourenço “LĂ©o” Veras was killed by a paramilitary group, linked to organized crime.

The reporter’s profession is evidently vulnerable in the nation, landlocked at the heart of South America. A nation which has for decades been ruled and controlled by the mighty influential Colorado Party, and whose current President Mario Abdo Benítez has been the target of popular demands for his resignation due to the government’s dealing—or lack of dealing—with the pandemic.

“Power of the private sector”

The popular demands for social justice and political reforms, however, are equally obstructed as “washed away” by Paraguay’s leading media actors—owned by patriarchs and mighty players in the private actor, all enjoying close ties with “Los Colorados.”

Norma Flores Allende, contributor to Global Magazine and residing in the capital Asunción, a witness of fifty shades of the region’s journalistic twilight. 

“It’s not merely a question of threats from the government or organized crime that must be considered,” she tells Global Magazine. “We must also talk about the power of the private sector, and the conditions of the quality that they force upon the journalism we produce.” 

“Technological solutions must never replace reality”

Paraguay’s business media, Norma Flores Allende says, often play the part as “advertising agencies” and megaphones to mighty groups in a time when journalists find their salaries slashed and their working conditions worsened. A development that will only hollow out the possibilities of high-quality journalistic products and which full further endanger Paraguay’s already silenced press. 

During the ongoing pandemic, this development is mostly on the rise in countries with a weak democratic immune system and a population suffering from corruption-sprayed healthcare sectors. Paraguay is no exception, which has paved way for the rise of “vaccine tourism,” where rich citizens travel to the US to get vaccinated. 

Left behind, in the heart of South America, are the vast majority who awaits the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel; all while reporters find themselves with their hands tied to their backs, excluded from access to “the field” due to pandemic restrictions.

“The reality must be experienced and seen with your own eyes, it can never be replaced by technology,” Norma Flores Allende says. 

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