Celebrate the bravery of reporters during Covid-19
By Alex Wake
May 2, 2020
World Press Freedom Day (May 3)
While CoVID-19 casts a shadow over journalism, we celebrate the bravery of those on the reporting frontline.
There is little to celebrate in Australia this World Press Freedom Day. CoVID-19 is casting our struggling news industry into deeper turmoil, populist world leaders are cheering on attacks on journalists, and funding cuts at Australian universities pose a looming threat to journalism education and research.
However we can honour the extraordinary work of our frontline reporters, many of them just out of our classrooms, putting their own safety at risk covering the CoVID-19 pandemic. We recognise that CoVID-19 is impacting on all of society, but today we want to remind our universities and political leaders of journalism’s vital role in the preservation of civil society and democracy, and our importance in preparing and supporting the next generation of reporters who will maintain this work.
Australia’s decreasing press freedom
The precedent set by the raids poses a serious threat to investigative reporting and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. Reporters Without Borders has also drawn Australians’ attention to the fact that our constitution is lacking in guarantees for the right to inform and to be informed.
Australia’s lower ranking is particularly unsettling as we remain surrounded by countries where freedom of the press is a major concern. Singapore, for example, has introduced what is being called an Orwellian fake news law. Even our more positively ranked neighbour New Zealand is struggling as a result of news closures and media concentration.
Even before CoVID-19, Australia’s news industry was suffering a decline in advertising and the pandemic has exacerbated this, and our media concentration. The sudden decision to close Australian Associated Press (AAP) sent shudders around the country and there is still no announcement of a possible buyer for the newswire, which has long provided the backbone of public interest journalism reporting in the country.
Although the Australian Government has announced a small amount of specific funding to help regional news organisations which have been forced to close because of CoVID-19, and some state governments have also thrown a lifeline to regional news outlets, there is a question mark over about the continued viability of papers, radio and television stations particularly in regional and remote areas. There is genuine concern that even larger news deserts will be created if these outlets do not survive.
The national emergency broadcaster, the ABC, and SBS are providing extensive CoVID-19 coverage, but without any special funding and after a terrible bushfire season, which further strained their resources. The coverage from both broadcaster has won audience share and trust from Australians.
The big platforms Facebook and Google have offered emergency funding to news outlets in Australia and elsewhere to support them during the crisis, but cynics suggest this is only because of growing concern about their business models which have undercut news, and the announcement by the Australia government that it will force the big platforms to start paying for news.
Journalism education and research
Little attention has been paid to the flow on effect of CoVID-19 of news closures to journalism education and research in Australia. Journalism programs are waiting for advice from university bosses about how they might be affected by CoVID-19 funding cuts. While there are unlikely to be seismic shifts immediately, there is a need to advocate for the position of journalism into the future.
Teaching academics have had to pivot their work to an virtual environment to ensure not only their own health but the health of students. Some programs have used the opportunity provide in depth reporting of a news industry in crisis, while others have completely reinvented journalism assessments to mirror virtual industry practice at this time. Our national student collaborative teaching newspaper, The Junction, which operates in some places under the guidance of permanent, but often excellent sessional (casual/contract) staff, continues to showcase the very best student work from around the country and has a growing collection of excellent CoVID-19 reporting.
An immediate concern for journalism schools across Australia is the mandatory work-placement requirements for this year’s graduates because of the physical shutdown of newsrooms. While some news outlets are supporting a number of virtual news placements, this will not be enough to give vital experience to the journalism-focussed graduates who are needed to revive and refresh a robust industry that serves the public.
Academics are increasingly concerned about the impact of CoVID-19 on the long-term viability of industry and also on the world-leading journalism research that occurs within universities.
Australians lead a range of internationally significant studies such as the New Beats project, which has tracked redundancies and changes in news ecosystems, or the The Civic Impact of Journalism project, as well as important work in other areas such as climate change and digital safety of journalists.
One positive of the attacks by world leaders (USA, Brazil, and the Philippines) on journalists is the increasing interest in supporting our work. Journalism academics have long been important independent advocates of public interest journalism in Australia and our region, and JERAA was among one of the first organisations to call on the Australian government to force the big news platforms to help pay for independent journalism.
Many of our members support the work of other Australian journalism advocacy groups including the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, Democracy’s Watchdogs and of course our professional journalism association, the MEAA.
We have been heartened by the arrival of more philanthropy for journalism in Australia, particularly in the form of the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. But JNI cannot be the only saviour for journalism in this country and more support for journalism and also for journalism education and research is needed.
Assange and Yang
It would be remiss for World Press Freedom Day to pass without joining the calls for two Australians to be released from jail. Julian Assange remains at risk of CoVID-19 in prison in London where he is fighting extradition to the US where authorities want him to stand trial on charges of conspiring to hack government computers and espionage. He is facing up to 175 years in prison in the United States because of his revelations about US wars.
Dr Yang Hengjun Yang, an Australian citizen and globally influential pro-democracy political blogger, has been held by China’s Ministry of State Security since being detained in Guangzhou in January. His lawyers say he is being pushed to confess to unspecified allegations of espionage that potentially carry the death penalty.
The world’s biggest jailer of journalists, China is currently holding around 100, of whom the vast majority are Uyghurs.
On World Press Freedom Day we need to thank our journalists, journalism academics, and journalism students, and remind these truth tellers that we value their work now, and in the post CoVID era.
Main image: Journalists follow social distancing regulations at a media conference in Melbourne. Photo by Simon Love/10 News First