When the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded journalists Maria Ressa (Philippines) and Dmitry Muratov (Russia) The Nobel Peace Prize for 2021 for their efforts 'to safeguard freedom of expression, a precondition for democracy and lasting peace' it was a win for journalists globally.
This prize is a recognition of the Fourth Estate of journalists and their support teams of media workers who protect the fundamental rights of the freedom of the press under increasingly adverse conditions.
As people casually switch radio and television stations and scroll online the print media for news, nobody thinks of the invisible army of media workers behind the scenes, the studio operators, sub-editors, technical staff, camera people, graphic artists. Given the noise and fake news in social media, journalism today needs to be buttressed now more than ever.
When the Minister of Finance declared in his budget speech that it was the first time in 59 years as an independent nation that we faced health and economic challenges simultaneously–making this an 'exceedingly difficult period' he was also speaking of media workers. The 'shuttering of businesses and loss of income' has reportedly affected some media workers so badly they struggle to have three square meals a day.
The irony is that the very journalists covering the stories of people suffering from the fallout of COVID-19 are themselves victims of health and economic challenges. And according to my colleague Wesley Gibbings, recently elected to serve on the steering committee for the Global Forum for Media Development, this is not new. The media have felt the brunt of the pandemic from the very beginning. He wrote this on his blog.
"A study conducted by the International Federation of Journalists on the state of global journalism in the current COVID-19 era, last year polled 1,300 frontline journalists in 77 countries and found the following:
1. Nearly every freelance journalist has lost revenue or work opportunities
2. More than half of all journalists are suffering from stress and anxiety.
3. More than a quarter lack essential equipment to enable them to work safely from home, while one in four lack any protective equipment to work in the field.
4. Dozens of journalists have been arrested, faced lawsuits or been assaulted.
5. More than a third of journalists have shifted their focus to covering COVID-19 related stories.
Gibbings warned that "business shrinkage" and closure of media enterprises due to severe contractions in advertising revenue have left media workers "job vulnerable."
"In several instances, private enterprises that have remained relatively intact and resilient have the potential to...impose pressures on the editorial integrity of media enterprises in return for the promise of advertising revenue."
This COVID economic crunch threatens the independence of media workers, hindering their ability to provide free and fair information. I understood too how isolated my fellow freelance journalists feel when I began calling some of them, urging them to join the Media Association of T&T.
Those without support systems have been the worst off, not just suffering from anxiety and ill-health given the odd hours we work, but job uncertainty while doing frontline work. COVID or no COVID, the show must go on, a paper must be published, air time must be filled.
The slate I put together of six brilliant journalists across disciplines and platforms who are as determined as I am to fortify and serve our fraternity was uncontested at the Media Association of T&T election on October 2.
But as the spirit of democracy would have it, journalists voted to make membership free for three months even before the handing over.
I trust media workers across platforms will join MATT using a red-tape free online form and feel personally and professionally supported.
For those old enough to remember the virtual media blackout in 1990, with only a single radio station (NBS Radio 610) allowing dialogue to bring the crisis to a close, we understand the desolation when media lights–the mirror to our world–is turned off.
While the tenets of the freedom of the press will remain fortified as they have since the formation of MATT 35 years ago, it's time to uplift the invisible ones–my colleagues, who have been silently, and under trying circumstances, holding up the walls of the Fourth Estate with fortitude, never failing in their duty even when they were crumbling.
Even as the global fraternity salute Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov for their Nobel Peace Prize, I believe our nation, too, owes our invisible media workers a debt of gratitude and support for never letting the lights dim on a free and fair press. I ask you to stand with T&T's media fraternity in solidarity.