The rights of the press have been eroded by governments across the Asia-Pacific region under the cover of COVID-19, experts have claimed at the unveiling of a new interactive tool to log attacks on journalists.

Launching the Press Freedom Tracker on Wednesday, the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom (AJF) said countries, including Australia, were cracking down on journalists’ rights.

Guest speaker Natasha Kassam, the director of the Lowy Institute’s public opinion and foreign policy program, said: “Governments have often creatively interpreted the law to suit their purposes including our government … having national security and press freedom is something, not any country necessarily gets right.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been an opportunity for states to reassert their control in a whole range of ways. The public also took extraordinary sacrifices to their freedom and liberty to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”

It has opened my eyes to the harsh treatment of journalists both in Australia and overseas.

Peter Greste, the director and spokesperson for the AJF, said: “It’s incredibly exciting to be able to snip the virtual ribbon on our Press Freedom Tracker today.

“We wanted to create a piece of information that would inform the advocacy in public and specific debates, that would help diplomacy and understand and monitor what is going on in press freedom both positively and negatively.”

Mr Greste, who spent 400 days behind bars in Egypt with two colleagues charged with terrorism offences while working for Al Jazeera, insisted the Press Freedom Tracker is not to rank countries, but to compare and contrast the various ways countries handle press freedom across the region.

The new project’s data revealed press freedom became drastically worse due to the Myanmar conflict and COVID-19 pandemic.

Regional partners and colleagues from countries including Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, Hong Kong and India joined the online event as Olivia Pirie-Griffiths, the executive director of the AJF, introduced the tracker platform and took them through its different elements.

Natasha Kassam

The Lowy Institute‘s Natasha Kassam.

Ms Pirie-Griffiths said: “Certainly this project seeks to build relationships and collaborations with other organisations to track press freedom in the Asia-Pacific region.”

The Press Freedom Tracker platform includes data collected from 2018 to the present, including incidents such as police arrests or harassment, physical attacks, imprisonment and restrictive government legislation.

Ms Pirie-Griffiths said the tracker would update with other Pacific nations and would continue to be developed.

Bronte Blampied Wild, who helped develop the tracker, in collaboration with software analytics company Qlik, said Facebook had also agreed to support the project.

The final year UTS Bachelor of Communications student said: “Developing the PFT has been a highly informative project and it has opened my eyes to the harsh treatment of journalists both in Australia and overseas. It has also shown me how many governments view a free press as a threat to their power and sovereignty.”

The AJF, a not-for-profit organisation, hopes to help journalists, governments, human rights organisations, and the public better understand the restraints on press freedom across the region.

Main image: Journalist Peter Greste on the Zoom launch of the AJF’s press tracker. Taken by Tamar Pilobisian