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Fighting for our future

Under threat: May 3, 2020 acts as a reminder to governments, David Burt’s included, of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom. It is also a day of ethical reflection among media professionals

It is timely and right, with World Press Freedom Day having been internationally recognised yesterday, that we remind Bermuda of the significance of independent media and their value to society — especially amid the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic.This crisis has brought to the forefront the importance of the media and of access to verified information. Free and independent media serve as a key source of credible and life-saving information, and they help people by detecting and debunking the lies of what has been described as the “disinfodemic”.Recognising the danger, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that “our enemy is also the growing surge of misinformation”. Additionally, the World Health Organisation has described the “infodemic” as a “second disease ... an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.You will recall in Bermuda that David Burt, the Premier, implored residents in several of the early press conferences to get their factual information from government sources only. This was in response largely to misinformation that had been gleaned from social media by residents desperate for news from whatever source they could find — and then circulating it. And because many in the international community had such a head start on Bermuda in dealing with Covid-19.Mr Burt was right to a large extent because it has been proved that a sizeable chunk of social-media posts has been what can be said to be “fake news”.According to a study published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, research by the Bruno Kessler Foundation showed that of 112 million public social-media posts related to the pandemic, 40 per cent came from unreliable sources.Another Unesco study using similar machine-learning techniques found that almost 42 per cent of more than 178 million tweets related to Covid-19 were produced by bots, and 40 per cent were “unreliable”.However, where the Premier was deficient in his protestations was in not reaffirming mainstream media as among the “reliable sources”, despite inviting them to every press conference gathering. Far from being Trumpian in decrying the media as “the enemy of the people”, we consider this an oversight when placed in the context of the myriad responsibilities at Mr Burt’s door. Independent journalism is under threat as it has been never before.The Guardian reported that the national community radio association in Britain warns that one third of community radio stations risk closure, a situation even more fragile in countries with local media with even fewer resources.Such as ours.The media organisations that fold may never come back — creating news deserts for the public. In the absence of verified information, disinformation fills the gap. Of those who do survive, the fall in revenue from private advertising jeopardises their ability to provide independent coverage.We must resist this at all costs in Bermuda.The Royal Gazette has been no different than many businesses on island in feeling the economic pinch brought on by Covid-19 — and even before!What we do and what we provide for the Bermuda public is so essential, but the existential threat posed to journalism by the pandemic is very real.When the Mid-Ocean News was shut down for financial reasons in October 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession, Ewart Brown, then the Premier, famously said: “One down, one to go!”We know that now to be a quote borne of political expedience, for even the good doctor turned author appreciates the value of an independent media.Bermuda Press (Holdings) Limited, owner of The Royal Gazette, has reacted to the impact felt across its businesses by seeking and securing staff agreement on a 25 per cent wage cut across the board — that is, after a round of layoffs in March and April that reduced the overall workforce by 40 per cent.In the meantime, we have endeavoured to get a newspaper out to our readers, and beefed up home delivery subscriptions for the added masses sheltering in place — all while continuing to place our journalists, photographers and videographers at risk with a view to delivering the news from close quarters.Which is why journalists and affiliates have been described, albeit belatedly, as essential workers with permission to continue reporting and to be exempt from movement restrictions.In some places, journalism has been called an “emergency” service. The overall effort of our team has been commendable. Editorial staff have been working remotely for the past five weeks or more, in some cases around the clock. But this has been accomplished against a backdrop of falling advertising revenue and a physical newspaper that has shrunk in size from 40 and 36 pages with a Sport section to 28, 24, 20 and the 16 we see today with nary an advertisement, no Sport section and Business subsumed by News.A 16-page Monday newspaper? Unheard of in the postwar era. But these are the unintended consequences of the realities we face today. How sustainable this is for the future remains to be seen. But the value of what we do for the community cannot be overestimated and may be best equated by the number of eyes on our online product as the paper has shrunk — a 47 per cent hike in pageviews on the website month-on-month from February to March, and an additional 9 per cent increase from March to April.It shows that what we do means something to the community and that they will continually look to us for answers. Which means we must continue to ask questions of our governments. Whoever is in power.Mr Burt and his team by and large have done a laudable job of keeping the country informed, but we would not be doing our jobs if we did not hold them to account when information communicated to us does not stack up.Or to have questions of our own on topics they are not quite ready to get into.It is why there is no such thing as a stupid question in journalism, even if it is repetitive and seemingly “answered” in previous dispatches.May 3, 2020 acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom. It is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.We all play a part to ensure that the fundamental principles of press freedom are celebrated, and that the media are defended from any attacks on their independence.