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The Fix Weekly Digest: Unfreedom of the Press

Welcome to The Fix’s weekly news digest! Every Friday, we bring you five important news stories from the world of media — and try to put them in a wider context.

In early June, the US Senate confirmed Michael Pack to become the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees Voice of America (VOA) and other state-funded broadcasters. Donald Trump has been critical of the VOA, and Pack, his pick, is known as an “ally of right-wing ideologue Stephen Bannon”. The media community has expressed fears of the Trump administration’s potential interference in VOA’s independent editorial processes. 

This week, those fears have materialized. On Monday, two of VOA’s top managers (Director Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara) stepped down amid concerns over editorial independence.

On Wednesday, the new leadership fired the heads of four organizations controlled by the USAGM. As CNN puts it, this move “[is] likely to heighten concerns that new Trump-appointed CEO Michael Pack intends to turn the agency into a political arm of the administration.” The media has dubbed it the “Wednesday night massacre”, a play on Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre.

Outside the US, some governments use much less subtle ways to suppress media freedom. In the Philippines, one of the country’s leading journalists has been found guilty of “cyberlibel” and faces up to six years in prison in what is widely viewed as a politically motivated case.

The journalist, Maria Ressa, has been investigating the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, uncovering information about corruption in Duterte’s administration and widespread extrajudicial killings caused by Duterte’s “drug war”.

In recent months Facebook faced criticism over its decision not to take down political ads containing false information. (Twitter, by contrast, banned political advertising in October last year). This week, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook would allow users to opt out of political advertising, a potential compromise.

In the meanwhile, activists from the Middle East are complaining that Facebook has closed dozens of their accounts used for documenting violence and covering terrorism, despite Facebook’s declared stance in favor of unmitigated free speech and against censorship. Part of the problem might be mundane: as a lot of Facebook moderators are still quarantined during the pandemic, the social network relies more heavily on AI, which is more prone to false positives.

Should Facebook and Google pay news publishers for content? The two tech giants don’t think so.

This week, reacting to Australian regulator’s proposal to “pay for news”, Facebook issued a statement claiming that newspapers need Facebook more than the social network needs them, and the value of news for Facebook is not significant enough to pay for them. Google had made a similar response a few weeks ago. 

The Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford released its annual Digital News Report this week, an important event for the media industry. Unsurprisingly, one of the most important questions tacked by the report is the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the media industry. The Fix has prepared an overview of the report’s main points.

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