Fake content a growing threat to press freedom, democracy

Last updated on May 11, 23

Posted on May 11, 23

2 min read

Hot on the heels of World Press Freedom Day comes the 2023 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Canada at 15th on the list of 180 countries, sandwiched between the Czech Republic and Latvia.

Not surprisingly, the list is headed by Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Netherlands, countries that often top the list of progressive traits. Up dramatically this year to second place is Ireland. For comparison purposes, the US is ranked 45th, putting it between Tonga and Gambia.

Down among the bottom dwellers are the likes of North Korea, Syria, China, Vietnam and Iran.

Not uncoincidentally, some of those at the bottom of the list are countries where journalists are more likely to be killed or imprisoned.

The spotlight put on the industry this month helps us take stock of press freedom throughout the world – not great on much of the planet – and to draw attention to the ongoing battle to maintain an independent press. It’s also an occasion to mark the deaths of those journalists killed on the job.

At least 68 reporters were killed on the job in 2022, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Some were murdered, some caught up in bomb attacks and others killed in crossfire incidents. More than 375 journalists were in prison last year.

The situation underscores the need for something like World Press Freedom Day. More broadly, the press is working in an environment where governments and corporate interests are working hard to keep the public in the dark, preferring their power go unchecked.

With this latest RSF index, the spotlight is on the growing threat the digitally driven fake content industry has had on press freedom. In 118 countries, two-thirds of the 180 countries evaluated by the index, most questionnaire’s respondents reported that political actors in their countries were often or systematically involved in massive disinformation or propaganda campaigns. The difference is being blurred between true and false, real and artificial, facts and artifices, jeopardising the right to information. The unprecedented ability to tamper with content is being used to undermine those who embody quality journalism and weaken journalism itself.

The digital ecosystem has made the job much more difficult, and poses a threat to the very idea of truth, even in democratic countries, where openness is under attack.

By and large, journalists everywhere struggle with political infrastructures seemingly dedicated to keeping the public in the dark. Openness is an anathema to many in the political ranks, elected officials and administrators alike, who seek to keep information to themselves. This sad reality has spawned organized efforts by public groups, including journalists, to make government more transparent .

Of course, such obfuscation is more clearly evident in larger governments (and, in keeping with current trends, larger businesses whose executives have a vested interest in hiding the truth). This is not to say that local governments are bastions of openness. Given their size and relatively lighter agendas, however, there are fewer opportunities to impose blackouts on the press and, by extension, their readers.

Transparency is crucial to ensuring that elected representatives are politically accountable, an ideal check on power. Access to information is the cornerstone of democratic development.

Even when there is nothing to hide – a refusal to divulge information is not always associated with a cover-up – public officials tend to be stingy with the facts. This may be a proclivity for erring on the side of caution; newspapers, this one included, would have governments lean toward the other, more open side.

Events such as those marked by groups such as Reporters Without Borders and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression have shown the perils of doing otherwise.

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