Covid-19: A Turning Point for Independent Media? by Andreas Reventlow, International Media Support
Covid-19’s impact on independent media globally is a serious cause for concern. Worldwide, media business models are collapsing with the new economic downturn, and attacks on media freedom have increased sharply. As such incidents increase during a time of crisis, the Global Network Initiative is proving a critical forum for International Media Support (IMS), a non-profit that supports independent media in countries of conflict and repressive environments. Within the space that GNI offers, IMS works to influence discussions on issues such as surveillance and content moderation, which affect independent media as they try to avoid drowning in a sea of misinformation and staying online while authorities seek to take them down.
Despite the negative impact of the pandemic, it appears it is also reminding people of the vital role that independent media plays in their societies. In countries marked by conflict or authoritarian repression, most journalistic media is often either owned or co-opted by the state or powerful businesses. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, however, many independent media outlets are reporting unprecedented audience growth and increasing interest in their fact-based news and analysis.
IMS partners with many of these media outlets all over the world. As they navigate the unprecedented crisis, IMS supports their work to ensure they reach their audiences and produce high quality journalism and guidance on how people should navigate the pandemic. For many of them, finding ways to communicate reliably and build trust with audiences amidst a global rise in Covid-19 related misinformation, is a particular challenge.
With a 365% increase in social media engagement since the pandemic started, Puma Podcast in the Philippines seems to be succeeding though, and CEO Roby Alampay explains how: “With a podcast the engagement is much more personal. It’s a warmer medium. It sets us apart from the trolling culture, it insulates us from the paranoia, the anger and the overall culture of fake news.”
“A palpable mobilisation of troll armies has been visible in the online information sphere — perceived by the public as government-sponsored, -sanctioned, or at the very least — enabled with the primary objective of defending and rationalising potential failings of government action related to the virus,” explains Carl Javier, Puma Podcast’s COO.
Podcasting is also proving effective in the Middle East and North Africa, where Sowt provides the only podcast covering the pandemic in the region. Their series Almostajad, which is both the Arabic term used to address the coronavirus and which translates into ‘the latest’, is attracting a growing audience in a region where podcasting is otherwise not a popular medium, explains Ramsey Tesdell, Sowt’s Executive Director: “There is information [on Covid-19] that needs to be questioned. There is information that the citizenry needs in order to make good decisions, and in most of the Arab world we are not getting that. So hopefully we can create a conversation around that with Almostajad.”
While such positive developments exist, the pandemic has also exacerbated what was already a fragile economic situation for many independent media outlets. It is a paradox that, as more and more people realise they need high-quality factual information to navigate the crisis, the business models that sustain that very information are collapsing with severe drops in the advertising revenues that many media outlets depend on.
This goes hand in hand with states using emergency measures put in place to respond to the pandemic to detain journalists reporting on how authorities are handling the crisis and blocking news websites that reveal discrepancies between official figures and actual numbers of infected and dead. In some countries, a Facebook post or a tweet can lead to a visit from the security services, an investigation, or worse.
The Beirut-based news website Daraj, an IMS partner and one of the leading Arabic-language, online regional media platforms in the Middle East is yet another example of an independent voice providing a fact-based, analytical counter-narrative to that of the region’s state-sanctioned news.
Like dozens of similar media platforms from all over the world, they continue to produce the type of journalism that audiences are increasingly keen on. Daraj’s CEO and Co-founder Alia Ibrahim sees the crisis as a chance for journalism to win back the trust of the people.
“In this period of time where the world is on alert and is in a state of lockdown, we have an opportunity as independent media to try and win back the loyalty of the people and become the reference, become the reliable source of information.”
With World Press Freedom Day around the corner we are reminded of the critical importance of openness and transparency in government and strong and independent media that can provide guidance, reliable news and information, and hold authorities to account. The role of organisations like the Global Network Initiative are extremely important in making sure this happens. Alongside independent local media, multi-stakeholder initiatives like GNI are a force for accountability and for ensuring that people, whether they are journalists or citizens, have their rights respected and guaranteed. If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it may well be that the same crisis which is pushing independent media to the brink, could also be a positive turning point for them and their growing audiences around the world.