TORONTO, Canada, Apr 30 (IPS) — Peak oil was first up, followed by peak gas, gold and others, as if the world was draining natural resources like toilet roll panic buying in a lockdown supermarket. But should we now be worried about Peak Press?
Shifting and even intangible is it possible that we are already sliding downhill, and that moment of peak media freedom is disappearing in the rear-view mirror?
World Press Freedom Day, child of the UN General Assembly, marks its 30th birthday on May 3 – still relatively young, but definitely showing signs of wear and tear.
Measuring the state of its vital organs is not an exact science. The Paris-based non-profit media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) compiles an annual and thorough medical bulletin, and the latest check-up, country-by-country, makes for mostly alarming reading.
There are common denominators in all the ailments afflicting press freedom around the world, but with each region or continent seeming to specialise in certain characteristics.
Asia is particularly worrying, with the common theme of muscle-flexing autocrats vying for absolute control of information and exercising what RSF calls a dramatic deterioration of press freedom. Post-coup Myanmar and China are the world’s biggest jailers of journalists. Afghanistan back under the Taliban is brutally repressive. North Korea brings up the rear of the rankings, again.
Hong Kong, under China’s imposition of the draconian national security law, fell 68 places in the RSF league table. Vietnam and Singapore also tightened their grip on the media.
Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of The Kashmir Times recently wrote in The New York Times that his newspaper “may not survive Mr. Modi. His repressive media policies are destroying Kashmiri journalism, intimidating media outlets into serving as government mouthpieces and creating an information vacuum in our region of about 13 million people.”
This year Pakistan was placed at 157 among 180 countries on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index list. The country has been ruled by the military for more than half of it’s 75 years of independence since 1947. In a report last year, along with a list of global leaders who suppressed opposing voices, RSF named former Prime Minister Imran Khan as one of the “predators of press freedom”.
Repression is dressed up in legislation as seen in Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act, passed in 2018 and applied to journalists, activists and others.Two days after a journalist with Prothom Alo was detained, the UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk called on Bangladesh to suspend application of the DSA immediately.
Where Asia can be ruthless and draconian, it is lawlessness and societal fragmentation that make parts of Latin America the most dangerous place for journalists. Mexico and Haiti lead the way. At least 67 journalists and media workers were killed in 2022, an increase of almost 50 percent on 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Research published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that 30 to 42 media workers were killed in Latin America in the line of duty.
Rocío Gallegos, a journalist and co-founder of La Verdad Juárez, an investigative journalism outlet in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, was quoted as saying the situation is desperate and complex, not just due to growing conditions for violence, but because there is “less and less support from society towards journalists and journalism.”
Courageous reporters like Gallegos and the underground citizen journalists covering Myanmar’s horrific civil war inspire us, and lend hope to the survival of the ideals of a free press.
But it is in the West, the cradle of a free media, that we can feel most cynicism over the frightening erosion of media credibility led by its very own moguls and conglomerates.
The wanton and deliberate peddling of conspiracy theories over the 2020 US election results by Fox News (among others) was laid bare by the defamation case brought by Dominion Voting Systems. Fox settled out of court for $787 million in damages. Its lies were not trivial as we know. Five people died as a result of the January 2021 storming of the US Capitol by a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters.
Democracies need truth-telling media to flourish, and it was telling that much of the media coverage focused instead on 92-year-old Rupert Murdoch and his family succession machinations.
Fox News was – and quite possibly will remain -- the ultimate mainstream player in the theatre of performance media, where facts don’t get in the way of a good conspiracy.
The recent demise of BuzzFeed News and its Pulitzer-prize winning department can also be seen as marking the end of an era. The suggestion by its founder, Jonah Peretti, that there may not be a sustainable business model for high-quality online news should be ringing alarm bells everywhere.
To add to this potentially toxic mix, where social media platforms become a blurry cauldron of conspiracy theories and state-sponsored disinformation, we now have to contend with the new disruptive age of ChatGPT.
The polarisation of the press in the West and its weaponisation in superpower conflicts are highly damaging trends. Russia’s arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and China’s detention of Taiwan publisher Li Yanhe are the most recent examples. A possible Biden-Trump rematch in the 2024 US elections, and the dangerous deterioration in Sino-US relations threaten to exacerbate both polarisation and weaponisation of the media.
As for Peak Oil – the world may have passed that point already, and economists are debating whether 2019 was when overall fossil fuel demand reached its zenith. There are many reasons for this historic shift, not least that the alternatives, such as renewable energy, are becoming cheaper.
But what is the substitute for a free and healthy press – the lifeblood of free and healthy societies? The alternatives are clearly on view all around us and they don’t look good.
Farhana Haque Rahman is Senior Vice President of IPS Inter Press Service; a journalist and communications expert, she is a former senior official of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
IPS UN Bureau