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In the Philippines, journalism is at risk of being cancelled. What about freedom of the press?

By Camay Abraham

Human rights

Aug 20, 2020

As bits of our freedoms are torn down from the pandemic’s lockdown to the protests against injustice and racism, we have turned to our screens to see what’s happening in the world. Journalists have helped become our eyes and ears at the frontlines as sadly seen with CNN’s Oscar Jimenez, who was arrested on live TV while reporting at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis or Australian reporter Amelia Brace who was attacked by US police at a protest in Washington. Here’s why journalism is seriously at risk of being cancelled.

The US is not the only country turning on journalists. In February 2020, the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, passed the anti-terror bill, which states it will use online surveillance to target suspected terrorists. However, this bill creates a loophole, it also allows the government to legally arrest anyone for criticising or opposing the country’s administration or Duterte, and be arrested as a “suspected terrorist.”

The government of the Philippines can detain and charge suspects for up to 24 days or even imprison them for life without parole. Case in point, Maria Ressa, a Filipino-American investigative journalist who wasTime’s Person of the Year in 2018 and CEO of Rappler, a political news site in the Philippines. She was arrested allegedly for tax evasion and cyber-libel crimes. In reality, Ressa was arrested for being a competent journalist and doing her job perhaps too well.

NPR and international lawyer Amal Clooney, who is on the team representing Ressa, told The Washington Post that this bill is extremely dangerous as it can give other world leaders the idea to do the same in their own countries and gives the message to other journalists to “keep quiet or you’ll be next.”

A new documentary by Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz titled A Thousand Cuts covers Ressa’s arrest and the global discussion of censorship it created. It highlights the fact that what’s happening in the Philippines could easily spill over to other countries like the US who are friendly with the Philippines. The public has already seen acts of censorship on what’s really going on in countries such as Hong Kong, the US, the UK and the documentary’s trailer succinctly summarised why we need to pay attention.

But this isn’t a story about just the Philippines; it is a global story on how to protect journalists and other western democracies. With social injustice happening all over the world, freedom of press is also under attack and is slowly being extended to online media platforms. So what could happen if our digital world was taken over by online censorship?

Whether it’s BBC journalists attending protests or sharing TikTok videos showing recordings of first-hand brutality.  A  censored press would erase peace movements altogether, marginalised communities would continue to be mistreated without anyone knowing about it, and the rich, powerful, and corrupted would continue to take advantage of the people.

We are at a crucial point, not just in the history of our respective countries, but as a global community. As said by Ressa in her Princeton graduation speech, this is an opportunity to build what you envision for the future. This might sound like an idealistic sentiment but it’s simply the truth. If we don’t do anything now then we’ve already lost.

So what can we do? Taking a cue from Ressa who is currently awaiting trial and advises people to be prepared, to do their research and to think of a Plan B in the worst-case scenario.

As journalists are taking the brunt of this online censorship, we need to do our part by helping them spread facts—true facts. Try this old-school journalist trick, and pause for seven seconds before reposting that Instagram post or video. Think beforehand and decide if the information is accurate, and what repercussions it may cause to the local community. Ask yourself, who is behind the news you want to post about or repost?

It’s okay to be afraid. Speak your mind, share your thoughts with others, open a dialogue where you also make the effort of listening to what other people have to say; build a community. Educate yourself, and support younger generations, as this is probably their first time facing information overload and fake news. We must learn how to identify, discern, and judge what is real and what isn’t.

Could a government’s interference cancel journalism for good? While most of us don’t think so, it’s definitely a test to see how far we are willing to go to protect our freedom of speech. Don’t be scared to do the right thing and as eloquently surmised by Maria Ressa, “Don’t shut up.”


AI journalism is here to stay, but what does it mean for newsrooms?

In recent years, the digital media landscape has seen an array of trends—the rise of clickbait and fluff articles emerging from ad-generated revenue models, and positive feedback loops created by social media middlemen in the grand scheme of timeline catering. Changes in business models led to the thriving success of some and the bankruptcy of others. Throughout this volatility, the world of journalism has been disrupted by technology just like any other industry, and with that, the era of digitisation might have saved the dying world of the newspaper, but the introduction of AI journalism might very well be able to provide the news industry with a solution to its newest problem: keeping up with the speed of information.  

In many main news publications, AI has been a crucial aspect of their growth strategy for the last few years. The immediate creation of financial reports, sports articles, and pieces focused on national disaster are being handed over to our machine counterparts. Soon, robot journalism will seep into just about anything that falls under some sort of numbers-based reporting.

The rise of machine-generated journalism is inevitable, and one that we shouldn’t want to push away. Currently, about one-third of all content on Bloomberg News uses some sort of automated technology, while Forbes is testing out an AI technology that will help create rough drafts and templates for reporters. The WSJ and Dow Jones are both experimenting with technology that can transcribe interviews, and Wired constantly plays around with AI written science fiction stories and scripts. Some extremities have even seen an attempt at replacing human news anchors with machine ones, like the recently introduced AI news anchor in China.

With the world around us bursting with upgrades, it seems that gradually everything around us is becoming excitingly infused with the technology of the future. Within this constant tech conversation, the world of news and its gizmos is no exception. What the use of AI journalism in some of the world’s staple media publishers shows is just how much more intrinsically connected robots are to journalism than we currently assume. So why is our initial feeling towards robot written articles ones of uneasiness?

At the end of the day, if done properly, AI is able to crunch numbers better and faster than we’ll ever be able to. As robot generated journalism takes over the responsibility of producing these reports and articles, journalists will have more time to tackle investigative, in-depth pieces that demand humility and a moral compass (so you would hope). Arguably, now more than ever there is a need for journalists to be able to provide think-pieces that hold governments and powerful players accountable.

The integration of AI journalism will quite possibly lead to a strengthened trust in news and journalism, as the intelligence landscape of news outlets becomes more competitive. The journalistic standard has and always will stay the same, and the integration of AI will only help us better achieve that level of standard.

With the current pattern of those consuming the news being reading small, mainstream, information-heavy pieces, the focus has been on utilising human capital to create those repetitive and simple pieces. With the projected use of automation though, computer-authored journalism will give way for journalists to pursue less mechanical stories, and focus instead on ones that are of higher quality and of a more investigative nature.  

The upcoming technological reshaping in the newsroom is going to be incredibly disruptive. Robots will be able to automate certain aspects of reporters and their jobs, but more importantly, augment their abilities to do real investigative, opinion-based journalism. With the automation of redundant and labour-intensive reports, the availability of human capital to focus on less repetitive work will result in humans being able to do what we do best: having an opinion, providing perspectives, being curious, and extracting some sense other than numbers and figures from what’s happening around us.