On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2020, reflecting on the most imminent threat faced by media around the world amid the global COVID19 crisis - an existential one.
As a cursory glance at any front page would doubtless confirm - for media outlets around the globe, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has certainly carved its place as THE story of the century.
For what it’s worth, ‘media’ has never been in greater demand. Readers parched for stimulus visit online sources multiple times a day, in search for anything and everything - from the latest news updates, progress and calamity reports to finding entertainment in days that have grown long and tedious with most of the world under lockdown.
Meanwhile, media heads around the globe may find that the principle fear prickling for years at the back of their minds has, now catalyzed by the wide-spread ripples of this pandemic-induced recession, begun to slowly set its roots in reality.
To elaborate, this means that the blood, sweat and tears being shed by newsrooms and content production units serving day after day as the nation’s fourth estate of democracy, is beyond the shadow of a doubt, fast out-pacing any reasonable chance of market adaptation, much less progress or profit.
Back in 2017, Matt Derienzo of LION Publishers wrote these haunting words, “The last recession was brutal for newspapers and local news. The next one could be an extinction-level event, especially for small dailies owned by big corporate chains that have pillaged local newsrooms and local leadership.”
To spell it out in the simplest of terms, the greatest threat to the freedom of press today, is a lack of financial protection and provisions, to overcome this recession.
Major publications like the UK’s Guardian and even the Daily Mail, have reported an exceptional rise in readership, as inversely, gutted advertising has led to revenue dips like never before. United States’ largest local newspaper owner Gannett, decreased in value by 94 percent since last year, with much of the fall attributed to February. Platforms like Facebook and Youtube have since gobbled up the void, depriving news of its last existing revenue stream.
In Maldives, we bear witness to more of the same. With more than double in the hundreds of hits received per day, rising by millions in the number of page views achieved each month, counting from November 2019 when the novel coronavirus first reared its ugly head, both Mihaaru Online and The Edition have recorded an all-time high in the number of unique visitors as well as viewer engagement across our websites, social media channels and associated platforms.
On an ordinary day this would mark an incredible rise in profits, revenue that could be spent to better train journalists, compensate their danger, invest in investigative pursuits. Truly, if audience numbers translated directly into earnings, the year 2020 would already signify the most prosperous for our media house at large, since the phoenix rose from the ashes of Haveeru News.
Nevertheless, these are unprecedented times and unfortunately, business projections have spurned in directions that are, to be certain, far from optimistic.
Although Mihaaru Media Family remains one of the largest media houses in the country, enjoying one of the widest readerships, like everyone else, it is too forced to cut costs in line with receding profit margins. Advertisers have been jumping ship since the beginning of the year, with only a few pledging to stay on, that too solely for the purpose of supporting free media; sadly, a loose commitment that hinges on the enterprises’ own fluctuating survivability.
With 80 percent of overhead expenses being spent on human resources and the rolodex of financial solutions nearly exhausted, the company’s board finds itself having to pull money out of thin air to support an establishment that, having had to start over afresh in 2016, has collectively, barely begun to break even.
It is with a heavy heart that one realises the only option left is to compromise salaries of journalists that work truly inhumane hours, analyzing and verifying mountains of often horrific information, compromised in order for the platform to continue surviving its purpose. It is unfair and tragic, but when is a recession ever not?
And so we approach the real moment of truth. The effect on Maldives’ brand new democracy, as the voice of the people grows quiet and perhaps even, more subservient, will be dire.
Last week, when a local media outlet announced that it was facing imminent threat of having to close down, the news was met with pronounced derision. It demonstrated just a sliver of the way in which recent events have highlighted a climate of public mistrust with regards to media, especially local outlets.
Understandably, the placement of ambitious journalists or papers locked in heavy competition, under the modern microscope that is social media, may have left most with a bitter taste for local journalism. However, despite transgressions and of course, due criticism, it should be noted that Maldivian media has experienced freedom of expression for less than a decade, that too marred by a 5-year cavity that involves one draconian Defamation Act and strongarm tactics that caused insurmountable pain.
From the loss of Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla in 2014, to the murder of Yamin Rasheed in 2017, and the many voices silenced before them - journalists in Maldives are still reeling from years of trauma, experienced and inherited alike. To this date, together with the families of the aforementioned writers, the local journalistic community continues to await any form of resolution for these high profile cold cases.
Therefore, not only are such growing pains to be expected, though it may be a tough pill to swallow for many, the presence of differing voices at, for instance, the daily press conferences at the National Emergency Operation Center, is a positive indication that our democracy too - is blossoming.
Just recently, Maldives made some headway on the 'World Press Freedom Index' monitored by 'Reporters Without Borders', climbing up 19 spaces to the “79th” position in April 2020. The improvement is a credit less to the incumbent for dissolving previous restrictions, and far more owed to the fresh voices cropping up across the local media sphere, infusing news with the restorative breath of innovation.
The question now becomes, will the new generation of journalists be allowed an opportunity for further development and refinement? With all of our energies focussed on riding out this health crisis and subsequent fiscal storm, a helping hand is important, nay - essential, if the critique directed at journalists are to be abided by and built upon.
Journalists in warzones are pictured right next to soldiers and victims, thus for audiences watching shells exploding in the backgrounds, the risk they take upon themselves needs no explanation.
With the onslaught of this viral pandemic however, circumstances faced by reporters are much less apparent.
Not only are media personnel working overtime with decreased pay, but they also risk their lives to document the historic movements taking place, they risk their own health as they subject themselves to difficult conditions and sideline their personal affairs to ensure the public gets the best possible information in real-time.
That is true not only of the interviewers, reporters, cameramen, writers but also of the administrative staff, sales and marketing teams, and especially the developments that make sure the websites are secure and able to handle increasingly heavy traffic.
Every piece of information a reader digests on our platforms is always the result of a comprehensive team effort.
It is an effort that has proven vital especially in these times, as newsrooms compete to pierce every article of ‘fake news’ that surfaces with truth and accuracy, whilst arming the public with verified information.
During this time of need, journalists play a vital role in inspiring awareness on issues indirectly related to the outbreak, such as increased incidences of gender-based violence, access to medical care for those suffering from long-term medical conditions, rights of persons with disabilities at this time, accountability of companies for living conditions of expatriate workers, in demanding that resort workers be offered better job security at this precarious juncture and more.
At this moment, the same companies that media firms helped build by raising their profiles and telling their story, are pulling out of payments that are due to media firms. Irrespective, media platforms continue to raise the profiles of businesses, especially Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) by connecting consumers to service providers and fulfilling a need on both ends.
In a country where more journalists have died trying to protect and serve the people’s freedoms of knowledge and expression than businessmen, it is a pity that, beyond the government's promise of a share in the MVR 2.5 billion financial stimulus package launched by SME Development Finance Corporation Pvt Ltd (SDFC), little move has been made to preserve media voices.
With the state already having confirmed a lack of resources to sustain the freelancers, questions such as whether medias especially smaller set-ups can put up the necessary collateral, can advertisers be recovered in time for repayment, will 13 medias each taking a 1 million chunk of the shared funds prove to be feasible - remain as yet unanswered.
From a revenue perspective, media operates quite differently compared to other businesses, non-adherent to the typical laws of demand and supply. For instance, all the companies under the Mihaaru umbrella are wholly ad-based. Therefore, earnings generated depend on the profitability of ‘partnering’ companies.
With the economy in decline, anyone with a modicum of good sense will slash their marketing budgets, cutting off media lifelines. It is safe to assume that even when consumer behaviour is back on track and companies return to a profitable state, it may be a good long while before they structure themselves for advertising.
In any case, the playing field is a competitive one. There are over 13 media outlets based in Male’ alone, of which at least five are established brands that dabble not only in old media, such as television broadcasting, but also the new - online platforms.
It could well be that, as with the likes of mass media conglomerates such as The New York Times Company, this results in the absorption of select small voices into a larger whole, which while outwardly may seem like a fair trade-off supportive of individual writers, comes at the expense of the important, disruptive roles played by small, independent media.
Add to that Maldives’ maximum readership cap of 400,000, and because relevance-wise lying on the equator does not guarantee one to be the centre of the planet, the conclusion arrived at must be that the subscription-based ‘truly free media’ that some tout, is not realistic.
In any case, we are already beginning to see evidence that a recession of this level would not leave subscription models unaffected, either.
As a Managing Editor, with these near-death experiences being not only far too familiar but uncomfortably frequent, from my perspective, the most pressing question remains;
‘Are we, the media, forever fated to be teetering on the edge of existence?’
As the toll on media increases, foreign giants like Facebook and Google have launched initiatives to help support and sustain local news outlets. Google announced a Journalism Emergency Relief Fund and donated USD 1 million to the International Center for Journalists, which provides reporting resources, and the Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which offers support to journalists who are suffering from their coverage of traumatic events. Meanwhile, Facebook invested a cool USD 100 million to bolster the US news industry.
The UK's National Union of Journalists issued warnings that many papers will close permanently as a result of the pandemic, and thousands of journalists will lose their jobs. In response, their government launched a three-month advertising partnership with the newspaper industry to further amplify public information and campaigns, while supporting journalists.
In Maldives, journalists work in seclusion watching the situation unfold, hands together and somehow, still vaguely hopeful.
Although obvious to me, upon reflection I realise that, if one were not to give the matter depth of thought, it would only be natural to assume that as media is so highly in demand, profits must be soaring in the news business.
Nevertheless, it would be unforgivably naive to suggest that the obvious benefits of such a scenario for any party in power should pass by unnoticed.
Case in point, the International Press Institute has to date recorded 162 media freedom violations all over the world, all linked to COVID-19 coverage.
Governments in some parts of the world have used such recession periods to their advantage, pulling the benches out from under those that are meant to hold them accountable, and then throwing their arms into the air cursing mysterious “economic forces” for creating the situation.
A situation that, it must be highlighted, a responsible, democratic state would have applied solutions to alleviate, for the purpose of continuing to serve the people with transparency and answerability that only privatised media can provide.
As we commemorate world press freedom day safely behind doors, faces locked on to our various gadgets, it is safe to say no one around the world truly feels free anymore.
And that is why, the voices that speak for us all, must be sustained. Free media must survive this, must be elevated, if only for the sake of telling our stories.
Because if that legacy continues, so does a hope that journalists will, as they always have, to inform and educate the public, call out society’s ills, lifting the better values and most importantly, continue the good fight.
Enveloped in darkness, nary a ray of ‘Moonlight’ in our midst, the question remains - are Maldivian journalists fated to always remain in anticipation of a better, more optimistic ‘Haveeru’?
The battlefield would certainly be levelled fairer if Maldives and Maldivian readers would help pave the way for the new ‘Edition’ of news’ to come forth. For when it comes to preserving the fourth estate of our democracy, undoubtedly, ‘Mihaaru’ is the time to act.