Critical reporting under threat as revenue losses leave independent news outlets hostage to government subsidies or whims of billionaires
Press freedom groups warn that the integrity of independent journalism could be at risk.
Fake news laws and political interference along with growing financial pressures has left many independent media groups in developing countries fighting to survive during the pandemic.
News outlets around the world have faced measures to muzzle critical reporting in an environment that has already seen dozens of journalists harassed, arrested and censored by governments, according to editors and press freedom groups.
Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, which has launched a dedicated tracker to record the impact of coronavirus on journalism, has reported abuses in more than a dozen countries, including Iran, Egypt and Brazil.
In the group’s annual global report on press freedom last week, secretary general Christophe Deloire said the pandemic had given countries the chance “to take advantage of the fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question, in order to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times”.
Khadija Patel, editor-in-chief of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, said even though the country’s newspapers have been delivering important public interest reporting, they have been left in financial peril.
She warned that unless there was a dramatic culture shift towards news media, the integrity of independent journalism could be at risk.
“The news media needs to be reclaimed as a public good, it should not be seen as the playground of a few billionaires. The saddest sign would be for us to emerge from this pandemic with a handful of billionaires controlling all of our news,” she said.
Mainstream Indian media have offered little critical reporting, according to executive editor of the Caravan journal, Vinod Jose, who pointed to a meeting prime minister Narendra Modi reportedly held with more than 20 media chiefs in March.
He said the media’s financial and political independence is linked in India because as revenues fall companies may be forced to turn towards tax rebates and government advertising to survive.
“Going forward, the challenges for Indian media will only increase, because an authoritarian government who is interested in killing journalism is in power, and a media who doesn’t have the guts to speak truth to power or the financial independence to stay afloat without taking government advertisements constitutes the mainstream press in India,” he said.
Many outlets are reliant on print advertising and have suffered major losses as circulation has almost ground to a halt amid lockdowns and curfews around the world.
Patel said the cancellation of major advertising campaigns meant the Mail & Guardian was suddenly struggling even while its website recorded its best audience numbers.
“Within days of the first [Covid-19] case our CEO had to address staff and say the way things are looking, in April we may not be able to pay salaries,” she said.
Financial problems would have a severe impact on how journalists work, and some smaller publications may not survive, Patel added.
Even before the pandemic, the Reuters Institute for Journalism’s 2019 report into digital media described the future for South Africa’s media as “grim” because of low online revenue and plummeting advertising.
Philanthropic organisation Luminate has argued that with print circulations grinding to a halt for many newspapers and their business models destroyed, the pandemic could become a “media extinction event”.
As a solution, it has renewed its call for a global fund to help public interest media maintain their independence.
The editor of the Dhaka Tribune, Zafar Sobhan, said the crisis should be a wake-up call for Bangladesh’s media, as it accelerates the downfall of print news and potentially puts those who are unable to adapt out of business.
“Print circulation was already in freefall. This could be the knockout blow. Monetising online has proved difficult in Bangladesh. Now we have no choice but to get up to speed and figure out online revenue models that will pay,” said Sobhan.