World Press Freedom Day: Shrinking T&T media faces greatest challenge in Covid-19

“[…] The health crisis is exacerbating longstanding tensions between the institution of the free press and governments here and around the world. Authoritarian impulses, single-source information flow, privacy incursions, political polarisation, hostility towards the media and shrinking resources in the wake of Covid-19, which will further impoverish the quality of journalism, are among increased threats to the profession.

“In a moment, therefore, when the public’s need for reliable information and accountability is greatest, the institution responsible for answering the call is itself challenged…”

The following is a statement on World Press Freedom Day by the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT):

Photo: A foreign media crew wait for an interview in PPE gear.

World Press Freedom (WPF) Day 2020 is commemorated in a world radically reshaped by the Covid-19 global pandemic. Set against this civilisational threat, press freedom and independent journalism that provide reliable, life-saving information are central to navigating this new time.

The health crisis is exacerbating longstanding tensions between the institution of the free press and governments here and around the world. Authoritarian impulses, single-source information flow, privacy incursions, political polarisation, hostility towards the media and shrinking resources in the wake of Covid-19, which will further impoverish the quality of journalism, are among increased threats to the profession.

In a moment, therefore, when the public’s need for reliable information and accountability is greatest, the institution responsible for answering the call is itself challenged.

T&T media have persisted courageously on the frontline while absorbing organised troll attacks, derision, physical assaults and public denigration. Our journalists are handicapped by risks of Covid-19 infection; stay-at-home protocols keep citizen journalists indoors and insulate populations, while simultaneously suspending most of the normal channels of participatory governance and accountability.

Significant challenges for news journalists covering the pandemic derive from the single-source information channel provided by Government. MATT has recommended flows of information from a wide range of ministries and state bodies. We repeat that call today.

Photo: (From left) Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, National Security Minister Stuart Young and Communications Minister Donna Cox.

T&T news journalism in the Covid-19 context focus on a swathe of issues, including: Covid-19 medical updates, testing, citizens quarantined in various facilities, conditions at those facilities, experiences of Covid-positive patients, discharge procedures, compliance with isolation protocols, the fate of those stranded outside national borders, foreign affairs tensions, legal challenges, procurement procedures, financial borrowing, joblessness, hunger and the multiple anxieties of families.

Substantial news features cover experiences of life-under-lockdown for various sections of the population. Radio and TV broadcast public service messages and link audiences directly with medical doctors, mental health professionals and other experts. News photographers mirror life across the country in diverse and often stunning visuals. Sports journalism employs online interviews to cover all aspects of how individuals and industry are responding to restrictions and uncertainty.

Individual citizens and every sector of civil society find space and time in newspapers and electronic broadcast media while editorials, columnists, guest commentators and others continue to provide alternative perspectives for public discussion.

Challenges being faced by a free press in T&T highlight the responsibility of governments to walk their talk of commitment to the institution of a free press. This moment demonstrates the responsibility of media houses to invest in training, mentoring and all aspects of care for their staff.

Journalists themselves must answer the public’s call for better quality reporting and analysis. Intense editorial guidance, access to senior members of the profession and exchanges among journalists are useful strategies.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley fields questions from the media.
(Copyright AFP)

We salute our international colleagues, producing major investigative stories on obstacles to testing for the virus (Philippines, India, US, Peru); the availability of protective gear and equipment (US, UK, Centre for Investigative Journalism, Canada, France, Ukraine); availability of hospital beds (US, Ukraine, Nigeria, Bangladesh); country preparedness (US, Australia, Botswana); fraud and commercial exploitation (Chile, US, Russia); transparency of officials (US, Iran, Russia, Ukraine); root causes of the pandemic (Korea clusters, China, Australia) and adherence to basic hand-washing protocols (Uganda).

World Press Freedom Day 2020 comes in a decisive moment for journalism and the institution of a free press. Journalists must ensure they communicate accurate, reliable information to the public. The moment demands no less. The institution of a free press must answer.

The third of May acts as a reminder to governments of their commitment to press freedom. It is also a day of reflection among media professionals about press freedom and professional ethics. It is a day of support for a free press and a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of stories.

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About MATT Executive

MATT Executive
The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago is the authorised representative body for local journalists in all formats.

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