Speaking Out: Journalists On The Front Line:

The daily tide of troubling news reports can be overwhelming, even for folks like us who have to read it”. It was with these words that Robyn Curnow, a CNN “anchor”, concluded her International Newsroom programme on 3rd April, thanking her viewers for their understanding. It was a rare acknowledgement that even trained professionals like her can be personally affected when conveying distressing statistics to the public – which is precisely what so many of her counterparts on TV and radio stations around the world are also currently having to do.

As Lydia Morrish, a contributor to First Draft News, noted on 17th March, while the pandemic is anxiety-inducing for anyone, the reporters and researchers whose role it is to keep worried populations up-to-date must particularly be feeling the brunt of “information overload”. Morrish cited studies depicting journalists as a “resilient tribe”, However, it’s also clear that they are now having to balance the potential dangers to themselves and the restrictions under which they are working against what Ros Osborne, the national correspondent for ITV Wales, described to the Guardian columnist Hannah Mayo on 21st March as their “moral duty to explain the biggest story they will probably ever cover”.

On 20th March, the UK Foreign Press Association issued a bulletin confirming that the British Government would be classifying journalists and broadcasters, whether from this country or abroad, as “key workers” who would thereby be allowed to circulate freely even in the event of a “complete lock-down”, as long as they carried a valid press card.

Not everyone in this category has found this totally re-assuring. As one of them told the MSN commentator Holly Watt, on 23rd March; “To be honest, it’s not great being sent out again and again when we don’t know what’s going on and what the risks really are. But I can’t exactly say that to my news editor”.

Charles Pellegrin, France 24’s Beijing’s correspondent, has expressed to Watt his disquiet that, if by chance he’s an asymptomatic carrier, he could pass the virus onto his interviewees. Graham Keeley, a freelance reporter based in Madrid, has pointed out to her that, although he can go around with his passport and press card, that isn’t much help as almost everyone else is at home and the few people outside “don’t want to be anywhere near you”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has published a long list of safety recommendations, such as emphasising that interviews (reflecting Pellegrin’s concerns) should be conducted at a safe distance, which is why British TV reporters are now brandishing microphones at the end of long poles. The CPJ insists that all equipment, including mobile phones, tablets, leads plugs, laptops, cameras, press passes and lanyards as well as the microphones should be decontaminated “when returned to base”.

It also suggests that, in the absence of access to disinfectant, the equipment should be exposed to direct sunlight for several hours “as this will kill the viruses” (advice which appears to contradict World Health Organisation guidelines). Furthermore, if a vehicle has been used for the assignment, the interior should be thoroughly cleaned afterwards and special attention paid to the door handles, steering wheel, wing mirrors, head rests, seat belts, dashboard and window winders – all of which constitutes a time-consuming, extra burden when trying to keep to editorial deadlines.

The CPJ – along with civil liberties groups such as the Index On Censorship (IOC) and Transparency International – has expressed unease that the surveillance methods that governments and tech companies are currently employing to track COVID-19 will be switched to targeting specific individuals once the health crisis has passed. According to “Citizen Lab” (states the CPJ) this includes the NSO Group, an Israeli firm which created Pegasus, “a spyware that transforms a smartphone into a mobile surveillance station and has already been deployed against journalists in, among others, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and the US”.

The IOC has highlighted what it regards as a disturbing trend towards the diminution of free speech in Europe, notably in countries such as Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban now has the power to imprison those considered to have spread “false information” about coronavirus and likewise in the Republika Srpska (one of the two entities of Bosnia Herzegovina) where fines have been imposed on anyone in the mainstream press or social media publishing allegations that “cause panic and fear among citizens”.

In addition: President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has urged his cabinet ministers and compatriots to go and work in the fields because “tractors heal everyone”, President Aleksander Vucic of Serbia claims he now has an extra drink every day as “coronavirus doesn’t grow where you put alcohol”,

Egypt has revoked the press credentials of a Guardian correspondent and censured the New York Times’ Cairo bureau chief for sharing “incorrect data” and the Chinese government has “cracked down” on journalists’ visas, expelling thirteen employees of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, over in the USA – as the “management guru” Jill Geisler, has observed in the Columbia Journalism Review – President Trump continues to “ play fast and loose with the truth, attacking reporters for fact-checking his falsehoods” and portraying them as being opposed to the national interests of their own country.

Filed under: Healthcare, Media | Posted on April 8th, 2020 by Colin D Gordon

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