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Disinformation a Major Theme in Another Bleak Year for Global Press Freedom

03 May 2023
By Dr Alexandra Wake
Protestors at Federation Square, Melbourne. Source: Gordon Farrer.

Conspiracy theorists have been fuelled by disinformation in mainstream Australian media and from propaganda spread online from Russia. These are the two major concerns for this year’s World Press Freedom Day.

Every 3rd of May there is a world-wide intake of breath from journalists who are forced by World Press Freedom day (WFP) to consider the journalists who have died, the press freedoms that have been further eroded, and the woes of an industry seemingly teetering on the precipice of financial failure.

The theme for this year’s WPF Day is “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights.” UNESCO states that freedom of expression is required for all people to enjoy and protect all other human rights. This year’s theme is meant to focus attention on the need for an independent press and a media-literate public to tackle disinformation, hate speech, excessive content moderation, and poor transparency.

Disinformation is a major theme of this year’s day. Russia’s conflict with Ukraine has given us a contemporary reminder of the effectiveness of disinformation, which thanks to the power of smart phones and social media we can watch from half a world away in Australia. It is chilling to consider just how effective the Russian propaganda machine in southern Ukraine has been. Almost as soon as it fell into Russian hands, the region was flooded by propaganda designed to support the Kremlin’s message and sweep away Ukraine’s past. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that it took just three months in 2022 for pro-Russian TV and radio stations to start broadcasting in several war-ravaged Ukrainian cities with new “journalists” recruited to the propaganda cause. The RSF investigation has provided significant evidence of the disinformation bubble created by the Kremlin, which further underline the urgent need to combat propaganda and fight for the right for reliable news and information.

Australians don’t even need to think about a foreign country to be concerned about the value of fact checking and verification. Less than 50 kilometres from the largest Australian city, Melbourne, the Council of the Yarra Ranges has had to close its art gallery and put its council meetings online because of what the mayor says is a targeted campaign from conspiracy theorists. The region does have a small paper that covers the district, but that’s clearly not enough to combat misinformation. The Yarra Ranges is not the only council that has been targeted in this way. The City of Casey in the middle of Melbourne has struggled with similar issues.

Australia has one of the most concentrated media eco-systems in the western world, and an increasing number of news deserts, or places where there is no or little news coverage. The new Labor government has been more supportive than the previous government of the public broadcaster, the ABC, and has funnelled money into a range of initiatives to support local community and hyperlocal journalism. It has also provided further funding to map the increasing number of places with no access to news in Australia, and increased ABC funding from Australia to the Pacific.

A real solution to funding journalism has not yet been found, although the Media Bargaining Code enacted by the previous government has done much to support mainstream news organisations with over 30 agreements with publishers taking place. Smaller independent news groups are worse off since they don’t have the bargaining power to win lucrative funding packages from Meta and Google. The code is being replicated around the world in places where news continues to struggle.

One of these small independent publishers is the online news operation, Crikey, which stared down a defamation action this year that could have closed them. Crikey dared Lachlan Murdoch, son of Rupert, to bring a defamation action against them after naming the Murdoch family as an unindicted co-conspirator in the US Capitol riot. Crikey stood strong until the Murdochs walked away, just days after News Corp’s US network, Fox News, was forced to settle a US defamation lawsuit for making false claims about the election. The end of the case was welcomed by many in a country where the Murdoch media is so strong that not just one, but two former prime ministers from different sides of politics have called for a royal commission into Rupert Murdoch’s Australian media empire.

Apart from ongoing concerns about defamation laws, the biggest concern for Australian journalists in 2023 is the increasing uptake in Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools that are making research and writing easier, from transcription to editing tools, but there are also others that can take on much more sinister uses. Just five years ago, creating a fake Barack Obama video was for highly skilled computer experts, today it’s a few clicks from a teenager with a smart phone.

AI will undoubtably lead to the further loss of jobs in the journalism industry as news managers and news owners determine that using robots to write a story is better than paying a journalist. But it will also bring into sharp focus the value of the very best journalism that cannot be replicated by a computer. AI will make it easy to access, curate, analyse, and present information that is freely available online. It will not be able to do the job of journalists who are required to search for answers outside of the internet, where information has been deliberately hidden by powerful interests, government or business. It is with these kinds of stories that journalists will continue to shine. Maybe by focussing on this work, and less on celebrity reports, journalists will be able to turn around trust in the profession, which this year has dropped even further from 43 percent to 41 percent.

Australia has two journalists currently in jail for doing their job. One in the UK and one in China.

Julian Assange remains languishing in the UK’s Belmarsh Prison awaiting extradition to the US. He has finally started to receive visits from the Australian High Commissioner to the UK. The Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, is quoted as saying he wants the US government to end its pursuit of the Wikileaks founder. It’s been more than 10 years since Assange went into the Ecuadorian embassy to prevent his extradition for his role in publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as well as diplomatic cables.

There is still no news of broadcast journalist Chung Lei who disappeared in China 2.5 years ago and is facing national security charges. The Victorian premier was asked by her family to raise her case with officials in China during his last state visit, but there’s been no word at all on the welfare of the mother of two. Latest news reports say her case has been further delayed. China holds the dubious record as the world’s leading nation for jailing journalists and press freedom defenders, with Reporters Without Borders counting at least 115 detained. China also ranks 175th out of 180 in the 2022 RSF World Press Freedom Index.

Alexandra Wake is an Associate Professor of Journalism in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. She is also the elected President of the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia. Before turning full time to the academy, she spent more than 25 years working for broadcast and print international news agencies in Australia, the Asia Pacific and the Middle East. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.