On Sunday, 03 May 2020, media workers here in the Pacific and across the globe commemorated World Press Freedom Day, amidst the restrictions brought on by the spread of COVID19 which has somewhat limited our work as the Fourth Estate. We are mindful of the already difficult environment we are operating in – striving to stay afloat while trying to provide quality information to a world desperately in need of it.

Here in the Pacific, we have seen how reporting the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on our work, threatening the right to reliable information. We’ve seen the rise in misinformation and disinformation and the shift in the hunger for the truth that is restoring public confidence in the traditional mainstream media than the reliance on social media.

What has also emerged as one of the negative impacts of covering COVID19 is the financial difficulties that media organisations are going through – and the need for governments to include the media in its stimulus package to protect media organisations who are greatly impacted by COVID19.

The Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) consulted with a  number of media establishments in the region on how they were coping during the lockdown and its impact on their revenue – and found that many media outlets were ill-equipped to protect their media workers who are on the frontline daily with basic protective gear like masks, gloves and sanitisers. Some media organisations had temporarily laid off staff while some have been sent on unpaid leave. PINA is urging governments in the Pacific to consider a relief package for journalists and media organisations that are disseminating information to the public even in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic.

This call is supported by Reporters Without Borders in their predictions that digital transformation coupled with the impact of restrictions brought on by COVID19 will force the collapse of many media organisations around the globe. Falling sales, the collapse in advertising revenue and the increase in production and distribution costs have forced news organisations to restructure and lay off journalists. These economic problems have social consequences and an impact on the editorial freedom of media around the world.

As we contemplate on this year’s theme, “Journalism without fear or favour,” PINA would like to remind governments in the Pacific to provide a conducive environment that supports media organisations with laws that protect their operations and their right to report without fear or favour.

O3 May acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. It also serves as an occasion to inform citizens of violations of press freedom – a reminder that in dozens of countries around the world, publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered. It is a date to encourage and develop initiatives in favour of press freedom, and to assess the state of press freedom worldwide.

The Reporters Without Border World Press Freedom Index 2020 released last month said there is a clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic and country’s ranking in the Index.

Four Pacific countries are ranked within the top 50 plus countries out of 180 countries in the latest World Media Freedom Index for 2020. Fiji remains at 52nd place while PNG slipped eight places to 46 and Tonga five places to 50. Samoa remains the best performing Pacific Island country in the World Media Freedom index, up one place from 22 in 2019 to 21st place in 2020.

The Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) congratulates the media fraternities in these four countries and their perseverance to work through media freedom issues with their governments. However, more needs to be done – as we continue to see restrictions imposed on the media with legislations that controls the media and promotes a climate of fear and self-censorship. Our colleagues in Fiji are still operating under the Media Decree, while in Samoa, the Criminal Libel remains in place and there is the Media Operators Act in Tonga. These legislations impose excessive fines and imprisonment terms for media organisations and workers. Another major challenge emerging in our region is the crisis of trust – where more and more democratically elected leaders no longer see the media as an essential part of democracy but an adversary. The unleashing of his hatred towards the media is one of the threats to democracy.

Mistrust of media outlets suspected of broadcasting or publishing news contaminated by unreliable information continues to grow. Undermined by this crisis of trust, journalists become the targets of the public’s anger on social media and in public protests in many parts of the world. The absence of appropriate regulation in the era of digitalised and globalised communication has created information chaos. Propaganda, advertising, rumour and journalism are in direct competition. The growing confusion  between commercial, political and editorial  content has destabilised  democratic  guarantees  of  freedom  of  opinion  and  expression.  This

encourages the adoption of dangerous laws which, on the pretext of restricting the spread of fake news, facilitate tougher crackdowns on independent and critical journalism.

These are issues on the agenda of PINA’s 6th Pacific Media Summit to be convened in Solomon Islands in August this year. The biennial conference was to be held in Honiara this week, but was postponed due to the spread of the COVID19 pandemic.

PINA looks forward to critical discussions and conversations on these challenges that are impacting media development in the Pacific during the Pacific Media Summit in Solomon Islands.