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The Inside Story - A Free Press Matters; Disinformation | Episode 107 TRANSCRIPT

The Inside Story - A Free Press Matters; Disinformation | Episode 107 THUMBNAIL horizontal
The Inside Story - A Free Press Matters; Disinformation | Episode 107 THUMBNAIL horizontal


The Inside Story: A Free Press Matters

Episode107 – August 31, 2023

Show Open:

Unidentified Narrator:

This week on The Inside Story: A Free Press matters.

A local newspaper in the US gets raided/.

Latin American journalists armor up.

China pushes propaganda while African fact checkers fight disinformation.

What's happening to journalists around the world?

What's next for reporters on the front lines on the inside?

The Inside Story: A Free Press Matters.

The Inside Story:

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

Hi I’m Jessica Jerreat, VOA’s Press Freedom Editor.

I’m here at the Thomas Jefferson memorial on Washington’s National Mall.

America’s third president was a vocal defender of a free press, saying:

"Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Jefferson even pardoned publishers convicted of criticizing his predecessor, John Adams.

Press Freedom is a cornerstone of America’s democracy. But US journalists occasionally find themselves having to defend that constitutional right.

And with economic hardships affecting the number of local newsrooms, and a rise globally in disinformation, the need for credible news is ever more important.

Today’s show looks at the work of those defending their role as public watchdog, combating propaganda and exposing corruption.

We start this week right here in the United States where a police raid on a smalltown newspaper rocked the press freedom community.


It was a scene that shocked journalists across the United States.

Kansas police raiding the newsroom of a small-town newspaper, the Marion County Record.

The paper’s publisher Eric Meyer says the raid was unwarranted and says he will take legal action. He blames the police for the death of his 98-year-old mother Joan.

The paper’s co-owner died one day after confronting officers as they searched her home.

A veteran reporter and former journalism professor, Meyer says a strong response to the raid is needed to set a precedent and prevent this happening to other local U.S. outlets.

Eric Meyer, Publisher, Marion County Record:

I wasn’t entirely surprised except for the fact that I’ve never seen anyone raid a newsroom. I mean that’s against the law, categorically. There’s federal statues against it. There’s ways your supposed to do this, You’re supposed to subpoena, you’re not supposed to search.


Marion police did not respond to VOA’s requests for comment. But they have defended their actions, saying they were investigating a complaint.

Seized equipment was returned, and the paper’s lawyer says police have agreed to destroy data copied from the newspaper's computer system.

The raid rattled staff at the paper, which has served as a key source of local news for its community for 154 years.

Deb Gruver, Reporter, Marion County Record:

Our constitutional rights were violated, and that’s not supposed to happen in our country. Journalists are not supposed to have this happen and it’s been a real eye opener for me about what journalists in countries such as Russia have to deal with.


Newsrooms raids are rare in the U.S. but the country’s media are seeing a rise in searches and seizures as well as financial hardships that create so-called news deserts, where there is no independent media covering local news.

Emily Bradbury, Executive Director, Kansas Press Association:

Our amount of dailies has shrunk. The weeklies have sometimes combined into more regional papers. That being said, we have been very lucky in Kansas in that we have about 109 print and online-only papers, and we only have 105 counties.


Studies show that the fall of local news contributes to a rise in misinformation and polarization.

Tim Stauffer, President, Kansas Press Association:

We believe in what newspapers do for democracy — very strongly. We believe that sunlight is the best medicine. But I also think it’s a secondary, deeper role that’s now coming more to the forefront about helping connect and build communities that frankly in rural America are confronting a lot of challenges.


For staff at the Marion County Record, this incident clarified why local news is so vital — for Marion and towns like it across the U.S.

Deb Gruver, Reporter, Marion County Record:

Being informed is important. And who’s gonna cover a 2,000-person community other than a local newspaper? A chain couldn’t do this.”


As the paper and its lawyers contest the raid, the journalists are back to focusing on their priority: covering news for their local community.

Kevin Enochs for Liam Scott, VOA News.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

Access to credible information is vital for democracy, but globally we are seeing attempts to distort the truth. And with social media, falsehoods spread more quickly. VOA’s Cristina Caicedo Smit takes a closer look at disinformation and misinformation: what do these terms mean and how are they affecting society.


Disinformation and Misinformation are hot topics in today's media. But what do they really mean, and how do they affect journalists and their audiences?

Let’s find out:

Disinformation. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “false information deliberately and often covertly spread in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.”

That is different from misinformation, which is defined as “incorrect or misleading information.”

The main difference: intent.

Misinformation is not deliberately spread.

But both present a challenge to journalists.

Research by PEN America shows disinformation is changing the landscape of newsrooms by disrupting editing and reporting processes, requiring journalists to acquire new skills, and more importantly, increasing public distrust in reporters’ work.

And in this digital age, disinformation can spread fast.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology back in 2018 found false news spreads SIX TIMES faster than the truth.

A core concern for the West is how hostile actors use disinformation, with countries like Russia and China trying to undermine trust or sow discontent.

We saw this during the pandemic.

The European Union studied how Russia and China pushed tweets and videos containing fake news aimed at discrediting vaccines. State-run media outlets repeated the lies.

And while misinformation is not intended to cause harm, it also spreads quickly on social media and tends to stick around longer, says the American Psychological Association.

Still, both bring extra challenges to journalists as they try to reach audiences with factual information and gain readers’ trust.

That is why experts advise people to:

  • Think before you share.

  • Verify the sources.

  • And seek out credible, independent news.

Cristina Caicedo Smit, VOA News, Washington.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

As we just heard, disinformation spreads fastest when it comes to issues like politics and healthcare. But a team of fact checkers in Africa is working to set the record straight. From Nairobi, Kenya, Victoria Amunga reports for VOA News.


A decade-long career in Kenyan media has attuned journalist Alphonce Shiundu to some of the gaps in news coverage.

Among them: awareness of disinformation.

When Shiundu first became fascinated by the spread of false information, it was an issue mostly downplayed inside newsrooms, he says.

Alphonce Shiundu, Africa Check Kenya Editor:

The fact checking wasn't quite there. So they are interested in putting out as many stories as they can put out. They are interested in having stories that can sell, and this is being produced without sufficient numbers of people checking to find out that the public is being informed correctly.


It’s a challenge that Shiundu is tackling head-on as the Kenya editor at Africa Check, a nonprofit seeking to promote accuracy and media literacy on the continent.

Shiundu and his team say large numbers of people fall prey to inaccurate or incomplete information, and sometimes it comes from official-sounding sources.

Alphonce Shiundu, Africa Check Kenya Editor:

A more recent example is when somebody claims that unemployment in Kenya has averaged 5% across the last two decades. So we have to check exactly when he says 'unemployment.' What does he mean? How is it defined? Who has the data?''


The internet and social media have enabled disinformation and misinformation to spread further and faster.

And with the swift rise in artificial intelligence technology, Shiundu say they are in a race against time to cut off disinformation before it reaches the public.

Already, many fall victim to false information on topics such as job vacancies, public figures and vaccination campaign policies, he says.

Such news can confuse and upset people.

Leonard Nyabira, Nairobi Resident:

The fake news I got was about opposition leader Raila [Odinga] meeting with President [William] Ruto to talk about working together, what is popularly known as a handshake. I was hurt.


Africa Check researcher Tess Wandia says that women and marginalized communities are often vulnerable.

Tess Wandia, Africa Check Researcher:

When it comes to disinformation and accessing credible information, people who are having a challenge existing in society, have a more sheltered existence, so they may be unaware of where to find credible information.


Disinformation is also used to attack or harass public figures.

A 2021 study by the U.S.-based organization Women in International Security found that nearly 42 percent of female politicians have been harassed online with humiliating or sexualized images and comments.

Tess Wandia, Africa Check Researcher:

Usually we'll see that there is an aspect of sexualization around the disinformation that is being spread about women, and this is not usually very common with men.


Kenya has enacted a cybercrime law to counter disinformation. But Victor Kapiyo, a digital rights expert affiliated with the think tank KICTANET, says it is problematic to apply because of the law’s obscurity in defining fake news.

Victor Kapiyo, KICTANet:

It’s difficult to enforce from a legal perspective because we don't have capacity and we have not invested in such capacity to investigate and prosecute people who are spreading false information.


Media freedom advocates worldwide warn that such laws also can be open to abuse, with some officials using them to silence critical, factual reporting.

But at least when it comes to disinformation, the team at Africa Check are there to set the record street.

Victoria Amunga for VOA News, Nairobi, Kenya.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

We’ve seen how fact checkers are combatting lies online, but what happens when governments are the ones spreading misinformation? China goes to great lengths to control its image both to its own citizens and the rest of the world. VOA recently spoke with Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang to better understand how Beijing works to control the narrative.

Yaqiu Wang, Senior China Researcher, Human Rights Watch:

I think there's several layers, first is the International arm of CGTN, Xinhua, you know, there’s the CGTN brick building in Washington, D.C. I think they have 200 people working there.

So that's like, direct propaganda from the Chinese government.

Then there's also the, the Chinese government, like Xinhua, the newspaper the state newspaper, they place their articles in the newspapers of other countries.

That's pretty effective, because you know, people trusted, you know, big newspapers in those countries.

The buying of foreign media by Chinese government, or Chinese government affiliated entities, you know, they've been buying local media outlets and local radio stations in Africa, massively.

And lastly I think it got become more and more common is the disinformation on international social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

One aspect of the whole mechanism, this system of spreading disinformation, discredit, you know, accurate and fair reporting on China.

People are very, very frustrated . I talk to foreign journalists all the time.

You know, people get surveilled, harassed when they are in China.

But I think to most foreign journalists is the inability to get into China. because they can't get visas. That is the biggest reason and it frustrates a lot of people, it absolutely affects their work.

Fewer people inside the country wants to talk to foreign journalists anymore.

I think the other big factor is that people’s fear of repercussion of talking to reporters. There have been, you know, incidences of human rights activists being imprisoned for talking to foreign reporters.

China complain so much about ‘Oh, the West doesn't understand China’. You know, like, ‘You don't know anything, you're just writing, making up stuff.

Then let foreign correspondents go into China, interview regular Chinese people. Then you know, you get a more accurate picture of China

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

Back in the Western Hemisphere, journalists covering elections in Ecuador had to rethink safety measures after an uptick in violence including the assassination of presidential candidate. Reporting from Ecuador’s capital, Quito, Nestor Aguilera has this story, as narrated by Veronica Villafañe.


With Ecuador’s elections marred by the assassination of a presidential candidate, the country’s outgoing leader Guillermo Lasso sought to reassure citizens.

Calling the 2023 elections an “unprecedented process” Lasso joined with National Electoral Council chief Diana Atamaint to emphasize the right to vote.

Diana Atamaint, National Electoral Council President:

With this gesture, we raise our voices to condemn violence and reinforce our commitment to peace and democracy.


The shooting of Fernando Villavicencio less that two weeks before polls opened had an immediate effect on the campaign trail, with a stronger police presence and heightened security.

A former investigative journalist, Villavicencio had switched in recent years to politics and was running on an anti-corruption platform. Drug cartels are being blamed in his killing.

Shaken by Villavicencio's killing and other violent incidents, journalists in Ecuador are considering extra safety precautions as the country approaches the presidential runoff in October.

Longtime video journalist Juan Francisco Chávez works for international news agency EFE.

Juan Francisco Chávez, Photojournalist:

We have been told to wear bulletproof vests and keep our distance from the candidates as a precaution.


He loves his profession but says he is sometimes fearful for his safety when out on assignment.

Juan Francisco Chávez, Photojournalist:

Unfortunately, insecurity in the country is being normalized. People are seeing all these attacks as something normal. That is alarming. We are becoming a Colombia; we are turning into a Mexico.


For television producer Henry Pillajo, Villavicencio’s slaying was a defining moment for journalists.

Henry Pillajo, Television Producer:

This led all the media and all people to take more precautions in the field when reporting, going out to vote. … It’s a shame. It’s sad to see how the country is submerged in violence.


Pillajo acknowledged the situation is forcing journalists to change how they work.

Henry Pillajo, Television Producer:

Imagine the level of violence that forces media outlets and some insurance companies to tell you that if you have to cover violence, you need to have some form of protection, including security equipment.


Gang activity and violence is the rise in Ecuador, with killings surging by 500 percent from 2016 to 2022, according to global risk analysts.

Adding to the deadly trend in 2023 are three political assassinations.

Susana Morán, president of the Quito-based foundation Journalists Without Chains, says Ecuador is in a moment of "shock.”

And media are not spared from violence. Bombs were mailed to five of the country’s journalists earlier in 2023 and at least five reporters have gone into exile because of threats.

And it’s not just those who report on drug trafficking or organized crime who feel at risk.

Journalists who cover ordinary events such as political rallies are also feeling more vulnerable in the wake of Villavicencio’s assassination.

Susana Morán, President, Journalists Without Chains:

We have never seen anything like this. It’s something new for us. We feel that as journalists, we have never been so vulnerable. The moment we’re living in has forced us to think of new strategies. Many colleagues now go out to cover news in bulletproof vests. It is unbelievable.


With deadly violence being directed at public figures and ordinary citizens, the sight of journalists out reporting in safety gear in Ecuador could become more common.

For Néstor Aguilera, in Quito, Ecuador, Verónica Villafañe, VOA News.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

In Afghanistan, freedoms and civil liberties have declined dramatically since the Taliban seized Kabul two years ago.

With restrictions on women and media, many journalists have gone into exile. Finding work as a journalist in a new country can be hard, but help is at hand. From Maryland, VOA’s Roshan Noorzai has this story, narrated by Bezhan Hamdrad.


A proud moment for Mariam Alimi. A media outlet in her new hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, has published her images.

In Afghanistan, Alimi was one of the country’s first female photojournalists. She had a career as a freelancer and taught photography at the nonprofit ImagineAsia.

But when the Taliban retook control of the country in August 2021, she fled, making her way eventually to the U.S.

Once in America, she had to start a new life and re-establish herself as a photojournalist.

Mariam Alimi, Afghan Photojournalist:

I am new here. I have to network and become familiar with the resources and people working here.


The fundamentals of journalism are the same everywhere, she says, but she still needs to learn some new skills.

Mariam Alimi, Afghan Photojournalist:

I can communicate with people in English, but it is not enough if I want to pursue a career in my field. I should be able to write well. For example, I should be able to write the stories that I work on in the U.S.


Fortunately, for Alimi, help was at hand.

She was part of a six-month program for exiled female journalists set up by the International Women’s Media Foundation, or IWMF.

The program offered a week-long retreat, regular training sessions, and access to mentors, workshops and more.

The IWMF's deputy executive director, Nadine Hoffman, said the precarious situation of Afghanistan’s female journalists inspired the foundation to act.

Nadine Hoffman, International Women’s Media Foundation:

You know many of them were really well established in their journalism careers in Afghanistan and had worked hard to get to where there were. So we wanted to have a cohort that could give them some peer fellowship that could also be a place to talk about some of the trauma that they had experienced, and were experiencing, and to start to process that.


The fellowship also offered practical advice to help the journalists adjust to life and work in a new country.

Nadine Hoffman, International Women’s Media Foundation:

So in addition to trying to just be able to settle here and to think about how their careers could continue in the news, they also have to think about how they're going to stay in the United States; how they're going to afford to, you know, even live here.


Since the fall of Kabul two years ago, the need for such programs is clear. Hundreds of journalists have left the country, and thousands have lost their jobs in the media.

Around 80 percent of Afghan female journalists now no longer work, says the press freedom nonprofit Reporters Without Borders.

For Alimi, the Taliban takeover has rolled back all the progress made in Afghan journalism in the two decades under a more democratic government.

And, she says, she misses her job teaching girls about photography.

Mariam Alimi, Afghan Photojournalist:

I would listen to their stories and see how they were working. That was very pleasant for me. Because whatever we worked on, it would be their first time experiencing it.


But now, she says, the future of journalism, especially for Afghan women, is “dark,” with little room for freedom of expression.

For Roshan Noorzai, Bezhan Hamdard, VOA News.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

The work of female journalists to keep citizens informed, even while in repressive societies, is commendable. Take Yalda Moaiery. The Iranian photojournalist covered conflict and unrest across the globe. But in her home country, she is facing up to six years prison for covering protests. Yalda’s bravery and commitment however is being recognized by the International Women's Media Foundation with its Wallis Annenberg Justice for Women Journalists award. In a statement shared with VOA, Yalda said “Receiving such award for me and other Iranian women means that our voices are heard.”

Keeping audiences informed no matter the odds is also on the mind of Nicaraguan journalist Martha Irene Sánchez Torrez. Like many of the country’s independent journalists, she has gone into exile in Costa Rica to avoid repression. But that doesn’t mean she has stopped covering news for audiences back home. Here she is… in her own words.

Martha Irene Sánchez Torrez, Founder, República18:

The greatest challenges of Nicaraguan journalism inside and outside the country is to be able to recover press freedom, to return to the country and work as a journalist in freedom and without violence.

We continue to report and watch what is happening in Nicaragua. The reality is that our content is not reaching audiences, especially those still inside the country, because of a blackout and information siege.

But we are finding new audiences among the youth (and) women who are part of the diaspora and are able to stay informed through our work.

Recently, talking to my colleagues from the Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua, we said that Nicaraguan journalism is a prevailing profession.

We are subject to multiple attacks and aggression in (our) defense of freedom of the press.

We know there is a policy of repression, of censorship, and that tells us that we are doing things right, that we are committed to our fight to inform.

And that is a flag that we must continue to wave.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

American journalist Evan Gershkovich was back in court in Moscow on Aug 24 as prosecutors ordered that the Wall St Journal reporter be detained for a further 3 months. Gershkovich has been in Russian custody since March 29, on espionage charges he and his newspaper deny.

Media analysts have told VOA the US needs to get tougher when hostile governments target reporters.

Clayton Weimers, Reporters Without Borders:

The United States and indeed democracies around the world need to find ways to raise the cost of this kind of bad business. How do we impose stiffer penalties to disincentivize hostage-taking in the first place?

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

Gershkovich is one of two detained American journalists. The other, Austin Tice, has been held in Syria for 11 years.

Thank you for being with us. Stay up to date with all the news at Follow us on Instagram and Facebook at VOA News. Follow me on Twitter at @JessicaJerreat. Catch up on past episodes at our free streaming service, VOA Plus.

For all of those behind the scenes who brought you today’s show, I’m Jessica Jerreat. We’ll see you next week for The Inside Story.