COVID-19 has been dominating the news cycle around the world since that day more than a year ago when alarms were first raised about a highly infectious respiratory illness that had emerged from Wuhan, China.
On the eve of World Press Freedom Day 2021, the all-consuming pandemic remains one of the biggest news stories of our lifetimes, dominating global headlines.
In T&T the theme for this year’s observance, Information as a Public Good, has a particular resonance. This country is grappling with an alarming upsurge in cases and a vaccination programme that is mired in uncertainty due to the unavailability of sufficient doses to cover the population.
That is why upholding information as a public good and working to improve the production and distribution of news in the interest of transparency and empowerment remains a top priority for Guardian Media Limited.
There is also the recognition that COVID-19 has compounded the issues facing journalists who have the challenging task of gathering and distributing accurate information. It is a role that has come under greater scrutiny in the pandemic.
The thrice-weekly Ministry of Health media briefings has placed journalists in the spotlight as conduits for communications from public health officials. Relaying information that can influence the public’s decision-making in a crisis is a critical but misunderstood role.
Unfortunately, as pinpointed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), facts about the pandemic are generally shrouded in an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation, disinformation, and rumours that can spread quickly and widely.
The latest edition of the World Press Freedom Index, an annual report compiled by Reporters Without Borders, shows that there has been a dramatic deterioration in access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage.
Over the past year, with the world in the grips of the pandemic, journalism has been totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries. COVID-19 has been used to block journalists’ access to information in many parts of the world.
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire assessed the situation this way: “Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation. 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.”
That is a responsibility that weighs heavily on media practitioners here, even with the good news that T&T has improved its ranking in the World Press Freedom Index, moving up five notches to 31 among 180 countries and regions.
This improvement is due in part to a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that struck down the use of police search warrants to gain access to the home and office of a journalist.
However, even with that victory, there is still a need for vigilance to defend freedom of the press. The pandemic has shown the extent to which it remains constantly under threat.