Press Freedom, Misinformation and Attacks on Journalists
Three Latin American countries lead the ranking of deaths of journalists by COVID-19: Peru, Brazil and Mexico. Ecuador and Colombia are also part of the global top-10.
by Marry Ferreira
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many journalists and newsrooms across the world. Whether it’s burnout from working extra hours, layoffs, or the fight against fake news and misinformation, this crisis has strongly impacted the journalism industry and affected journalists’ work.
In Latin America, the scenario is no different. The region has registered the highest number of deaths of press professionals by COVID-19, according to data from the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC). As of March 16, 2021, 908 journalists have died from COVID-19 in 70 countries worldwide. Of these, 505 occurred in 18 countries in Latin America – 55% of the total. Since the first death recorded, the region has had a daily average of 1.44 journalist deaths. PEC has been monitoring cases since March 2020 based on information published in the local press and surveys by unions and national organizations of journalists, as well as searches on the internet and social networks in different languages. The organization honored journalists killed in the world and to draw attention to journalists’ work in the fight against the pandemic. Three Latin American countries lead the ranking of deaths of journalists by COVID-19: Peru, Brazil and Mexico. Ecuador and Colombia are also part of the global top-10.
The National Association of Journalists of Peru indicates that the biggest problem for journalists in Peru is the precariousness in which they work, since at least 70% of journalists in the regions are self-employed and have to get their own personal protective equipment to continue covering on the front line.
With more than 4,000 deaths of citizens due to Covid-19 in a 24 hour period, a dossier prepared by the National Federation of Journalists (FENAJ) stated that Brazil is the country with the highest number of deaths of press professionals in the world. The report gathered information from all the unions in the category throughout Brazil. In the country, 169 journalists between April 2020 and March 2021 died from complications of the disease. The dossier also shows that, in just three months of 2021, the number of deaths exceeded the total recorded in 2020. Last year, 78 deaths were recorded from April to December. In 2021, 86 victims have died so far, a percentage 8.6% higher than the total for 2020.
Early in the pandemic, Brazilian newsrooms suffered from outbreaks of infection. At the SBT branch in Rio de Janeiro, 35 professionals became ill and two journalists died. In the FENAJ survey, journalists over 50 are more than half the victims. FENAJ advised the unions, at the beginning of the pandemic, to request protective measures from employing companies and to include media professionals who are working in the field in the vaccine priority groups.
In addition to the challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic, in the month in which it is highlighted the importance of press freedom and freedom of expression during the World Press Freedom Day, media professionals in Brazil also face challenges related to press freedom. In 2021, in the same year that the World Press Freedom theme was “Information as a Public Good”, Brazil moved back four positions in the Ranking of Press Freedom 2021, organized by the NGO Reporters Without Borders, falling to the 111th out of 180 countries, and entering the red zone, classified as “difficult situation”. The toxic context in which the Brazilian press professionals have been working since the arrival and the attacks of the current government of Jair Bolsonaro, largely explain this situation. Insults, stigmatization and orchestration of public humiliation by journalists have become the trademark of the president, his family and his government, says the NGO report.
Given the sharing of disinformation across borders, on digital platforms and on social media, journalism is the main guarantee of a public debate based on verified facts. The World Ranking of Press Freedom, which assesses the situation of press freedom in 180 countries and territories each year, shows that the exercise of journalism, the main vaccine against the virus of disinformation, is seriously compromised in 73 of the 180 countries surveyed and restricted to 59 others, in a total of 73% of the countries evaluated.
In Brazil, access to federal official information on the epidemic has become extremely complex due to the lack of transparency by the Government, which has tried by all means to minimize the scale of the pandemic, generating numerous tensions between authorities and the national media. The report highlights, in this context, the relevant role of the press vehicles during the pandemic, which had to obtain information directly from local authorities in the states to prepare and communicate their own newsletters. Specifically in the Brazilian case, the report involves the dissemination by the president of false information about the use of Ivermectin (a vermifuge whose effectiveness in combating coronavirus has never been proven and which was advised against by the WHO), in addition to criticism of social distancing measures, in disrespect sanitary measures.
As an attempt to combat fake news and reduce the impact of the health crisis in their community, favela-based media organizations have implemented widespread communications campaigns, using strategies from sound cars across the neighborhoods, graffiti, flyers distribution, news via WhatsApp and podcasts to inform residents about the virus. Alongside news information, they have launched crowdfunding campaigns to provide thousands of basic food baskets to those in vulnerable situations and installed public sinks where water access is insufficient. To combat the data problem since the government has been accused of not reporting all cases of Covid-19, favela media organizations in States like Rio de Janeiro have developed a community dashboard based on public data, with daily and updated information from a dozen favelas, where they report the confirmed cases of Covid-19 in their communities.
The Brazilian government and its supporters’ policy of disinformation and fake news goes along with the strategy of daily discrediting and harassing the press and journalists. This is evident in another survey carried out by RSF in partnership with the Volt Data Lab, listing 580 attacks on the media from the president, his sons and ministers during the year 2020. The main means of confrontation were via social media, especially Twitter. From there came 408 direct attacks and another 81 by retweet. There were also attacks on the press in 17 of the lives held by President Jair Bolsonaro via YouTube. The ranking is largely led by the federal deputy and son of the president, Eduardo Bolsonaro, with 208 records, councilor Carlos Bolsonaro (89 attacks) and senator Flávio Bolsonaro (69 attacks). Another eight ministers of state and Vice President Hamilton Mourão also used the rhetoric of attacks on the press to publicize the government’s positions on the environment, health, education and to face investigations against the Bolsonaro family. Often the attacks are against media groups, but it has often been directed to journalists themselves. One of the victims of this strategy was journalist Patrícia Campos de Melo, from Folha de S. Paulo, who revealed in 2018 the use of illegal private funds to finance mass misinformation shots via Whatsapp to benefit then-candidate for president Jair Bolsonaro.
As an attempt to delegitimize the work done by Campos de Melo, deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of President Jair Bolsonaro, said he did not doubt that the journalist tried to extract information in exchange for sexual favors, which was immediately denied by Patrícia and Folha de S. Paulo. The statement, which had generated a series of harassment on social media, gave a leap of visibility with the engagement of the President of the Republic and his son Eduardo Bolsonaro, promoting a new wave of sexist and misogynistic insults against Patrícia Campos de Melo, and marking an era of attacks against women journalists.
Marry Ferreira is a Brazilian journalist and has a master in Public Media from Fordham University. She is the co-founder of Kilomba Collective, the first collective formed by Black Brazilian women in the United States, an international columnist at Revista Afirmativa, and currently an IAWRT Youth Representative at the United Nations. Twitter: @Marry_Ferreira