“The onslaught of false news against real news is unprecedented. In the Middle East, an alarming trend of people doubting published news is overwhelming,” Mohammed Komani, Thomson mentor and coach for Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).
In a debate organised by Thomson Foundation and co-hosted with Reporters Without Borders to mark World Press Freedom Day, Mohammed, a mentor on our Connect 6 programme, said mis and disinformation had a big impact on the work of journalists he trained with ARIJ.
“As an organisation we are doubling up our skills to have fact-checkers to help ensure everything is verified and documented," he added.
Responding to how this verification process delays their work he said, “It's a challenge but they have to take their time to verify information to escape these kinds of rumours against journalists publishing fake news.”
Mohammed was taking part in the discussion ‘The Media Siege: how the tools of repression have changed' with fellow panellists, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ewen MacAskill and Rebecca Vincent, Director of Programmes and Campaigns for Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF).
RSF published its annual index on the state of media freedom in 180 countries on World Press Freedom Day which revealed seven out of ten countries to be in a “bad situation” with an unprecedented 31 countries deemed to be in a “very serious situation”.
Pointing out that each year has its significant rises and falls, Rebecca highlighted some of the positive and negative instances.
The change in leadership in Brazil played an active role in the rise of the country's rankings.
"After many years of talks about the rise of the strongman model,” she said. "Figures like Jair Bolsonaro’s departure and the return of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva moved Brazil 18 places in the rankings."
In Turkey, the active crackdown and targeting of journalists and media organisations lead to its drop in rankings.
"Twenty-five Turkish journalists remain detained,” she said. “Resulting in a drop of 16 places to 165th on the index."
With all eyes on Iran and the protest that broke out in August 2022, more journalists were targeted. "Twenty-five journalists remain jailed today,” she added. “But 70 were targeted, detained at some point in the months following Mahsa Amini's death."
The rapid developments in Artificial Intelligence were highlighted in the press index and during the debate. Rebecca also reiterated the need for "the industry to find solutions fast to ensure the protection of quality and independent ethical journalism."
Mohammed agreed AI was one of the challenges journalists now faced. "We have to ensure good journalism as we benefit from new technologies,” he stressed.
Surveillance is increasingly seen as a tool of repression against journalists.
Recalling his involvement in sensitive projects like the Panama Papers, Mohammed revealed that he did not put his name to six of the investigations in which he was involved to protect his family and himself.
He offered practical steps for journalists to ensure their safety advising them that, “the first step is to check your mobile phone, your laptop, encrypting all your documents, emails, messages as well as operating in a safer environment.”
Ewen MacAskill was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his work on the revelations about mass surveillance from US National Security Agency contractor and former CIA official Edward Snowden. When he first met the whistle blower in Hong Kong, Snowden told him to turn off his smartphone and lock it in the fridge in his hotel room.
“I wasn't aware at that point a mobile phone was basically a speaker, and anyone could easily activate it and listen," he said.
Media freedom can be achieved through the enforcement of laws, but increasingly the law is being used to try to silence journalists. Libel and defamation laws were the favoured choice to use against journalists but recently that’s changed.
Ewen described how governments attempt to intimidate journalists using charges such as irresponsible breaches of national security.
“One of the commonest things you see in some countries is not just about jailing people, or torturing or killing, sometimes the law is keener than that,” he said. “For some journalists, they end up in a form of self-censorship to avoid getting into more trouble or leave journalism all together"
Mohammed described how one particular law is used against journalists, forcing them into silence.
"There is something called pre-trial detention law, which allows authorities to hold journalists before arraigning them before court every 15 days," he said. "Resulting in some journalists spending 4 years without knowing what is going on."
Going forward both Mohammed and Rebecca said that there was a growing need to help financially support journalists under threat including those living in exile. Ewen emphasised the need for transparency, saying "the way to combat disinformation is for journalist to be more open about their sources".
‘The Media Siege: how the tools of repression have changed'
A debate to mark World Press Freedom Day 2023
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