A special feature by Kalinga Seneviratne* to mark UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day.
SYDNEY (IDN) — In recent months, there has been alarming one-sided reporting in the so-called mainstream media—both internationally and nationally—that sounds more like public relations handouts from the big pharmaceutical companies from the West. This ‘vaccine consent’ journalism and the labelling of anyone questioning the safety or ethics of the vaccine roll out as “conspiracy theorists” is slowly but surely killing the “watchdog” role of journalism.
The Libertarian Media Function Theory (LMFT) that we have been teaching in mass communication courses for over half a century as the basis of a ‘free media’, says that the media should have absolute freedom to play the role of a “watchdog” and there should be no censorship because the people are rational, and they should be allowed to make up their minds once they receive a diversity of viewpoints from the news media.
The theme of this year’s UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day (May 3) is ‘Information as a Public Good’ and is focusing on topics such as transparency of online platforms and the importance of media and information literacy. But it is equally important to focus on the transparency of mainstream corporate media and whether they are acting in the public good, when labelling those who wish to raise concerns about the Covid-19 vaccine roll out as “conspiracy theorists”?
The “watchdog” model of journalism has been on the decline around the world in the past two decades and the ‘manufacturing vaccine consent’ journalism we see today vindicates Noam Chomsky’s theory that the libertarian model is dead in the West. He argues, that as the power of corporate media increase, what we have is a “manufacturing consent” model of “propaganda” journalism to promote the interests of whoever owns or funds the media—be it governments or corporations or powerful interest groups.
Robin Marantz Henig writing in the National Geographic in July last year noted that, except for AIDS, other recent epidemics—such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012, and Ebola in 2014—did not go global. “It was easy to attribute susceptibility in other countries to behaviours that didn’t exist in ours,” argued Henig.
Thus, when Covid-19 spread to the West, the Anglo-American (as well as the Indian) media was quick to grasp US President Donald Trump’s assertion that this is a “Chinese Virus” and politicized the pandemic with reporting sprinkled with racism. This mentality has continued to this day, when non-western vaccines are dismissed as “untrustworthy” even though medical evidence seems to indicate that these are safer (because these uses tested technology, not new experimentations) and as effective as the western ones.
This racism led to the initial Chinese concerns of a possible American or European origin of Covid-19 were not taken seriously while calling for an investigation of American concerns about the virus escaping from the Wuhan Institute of Virology was considered —even by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Among Chinese concerns was the closing down of a US army deadly germ research centre in Fort Detrick, Maryland in August 2019 by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over safety concerns.
In October 2019, an exercise called “Event 201”, organized by John Hopkins University’s Centre for Health Security, was held, simulating a pandemic, which causes 65 million deaths. The press release said: “Event 201 simulates an outbreak of a novel zoonotic coronavirus transmitted from bats to pigs to people that eventually become efficiently transmissible from person to person, leading to a severe pandemic”.
It goes on to describe the virus as originating in pig farms in Brazil and quietly spreading to the community. It then spreads by air travel to Europe, the US, and China, and ultimately creates health scare chaos globally. The event was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is also a huge donor to the WHO contributing over $400 million a year.
While promoting Covid-19 vaccination with evangelical zeal, in an interview with Britain’s Sky News on April 25, Gates opposed the lifting of patents on Covid-19 vaccines, which countries like South Africa and India have been pressing for, to make these more widely available and especially at cheaper prices.
“The thing that’s holding things back, in this case, is not intellectual property,” Gates said. “It’s not like there’s some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines. You’ve got to do the trial on these things. And every manufacturing process needs to be looked at in a very careful way.”
A taboo subject
But questioning or investigating the effectiveness of the trials done on the western vaccines is a taboo subject in the mainstream media today. Even when development of blood clots or deaths following the taking of these vaccines are reported, it is dismissed as “insignificant” compared to millions that have been vaccinated.
In New Zealand, when an airport cleaner who had taken a western vaccine was diagnosed with Covid-19 in late April, the media covered it up arguing that no vaccine will give 100 percent protection. At the same time, when a Chinese medical officer said that their vaccines don’t yet give protection in the 90 per cent range, this was amplified in the Anglo-American media as an admission of the ineffectiveness of the Chinese vaccines.
But, when a peer reviewed article in the British medical journal Lancet said Russia’s Sputnik V was found to be about 95 percent effective after clinical trials, that news was basically ignored or downplayed by the same media.
According to an analysis released on April 22 by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, major western vaccine producers—Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca—have paid out a combined $26 billion in dividends and stock buybacks to their shareholders over the past year. The new report notes that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are projecting revenues of $33.5 billion this year from their mRNA vaccines
In recent weeks, there have been many video clips circulated through social media sites where western activists have accused the rich pharmaceutical companies of using their financial resources to influence the mainstream media to promote their vaccines. UNESCO should be investigating these as part of their media literacy programs.
Many of the western countries’ inability to control the pandemic compared to initial successes in Asia (except for India), has badly dented Western egos. As 2020 was coming to an end, it seems they were racing to prove that they were still the masters of knowledge and the sciences. But when the Russians beat them by launching the Sputnik V vaccine the Western media dismissed it as not properly tested.
But no such questions were asked when the Pfizer vaccine was launched a couple of months later. President Trump hailed it as a “medical miracle” and said the vaccine “will save millions of lives and soon end the pandemic.” 
Writing in the South China Morning Post recently, Chandran Nair, the founder and CEO of the Hong Kong based Global Institute for Tomorrow noted that for months, the Russian, Chinese, and Indian vaccines have been dismissed as a serious option to combat Covid-19 and viewed with suspicion..
Non-Western vaccines face deep-rooted racism
Looking at the way the world talks about non-Western vaccines shows “structural Western privilege and deep-rooted racism” argues Nair. He adds that when Sinovac’s Brazilian partner noted an efficacy rate of around 50 percent for preventing mild illness, Western commentators jumped on it while ignoring the far more positive news on Sinovac’s ability to stop moderate and severe illness.
“However, when Johnson & Johnson released similar numbers in their trial, the vaccine was still hailed as an important addition to the vaccine portfolio … in preventing moderate to severe illness—much like Sinovac’s offering” Nair points out.
According to Bloomberg’s ‘Vaccine Tracker’ 6 of the 10 top countries in the world on a dose per capita basis, use the Russian, Chinese and Indian vaccines. 57 countries according to recent statistics have ordered Russia’s Sputnik V and this includes 3 European countries —Austria, Hungary and Slovenia—even though EU medical authorities are yet reviewing it.
While the international media focused on whether the WHO would approve a proposal to investigate the origins of Covid-19, the World Health Assembly in November 2020 adopted a much more important resolution that the international response to the pandemic should be considered a “global public good” and any unjustified obstacles must be removed. It was specifically pointed out that flexibilities allowed in the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) need to be strengthened.
On October 2, 2020, India and South Africa had presented a proposal for a waiver of a number of provisions in the TRIPS agreement as a legal-institutional response to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Western nations, particularly the US, UK, Canada, and EU are resisting such changes to the IPR regime that favours big pharmaceutical companies.
While ‘Big Pharma’ resists shedding any of their controls over IPRs, the media need to investigate how much public monies have been spent on vaccination development that these companies are benefiting from. This is “watchdog” journalism in the public interest.
Beneficiaries of research in public-funded universities
In an article in the World University News (WUN), questions were raised on who is benefiting from years of research in public funded universities in vaccine development since the SARS and MERS epidemic. For example, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use what is called mRNA research. “Basic research on DNA vaccines began at least 25 years ago and RNA vaccines have benefitted from 10 to 15 years of strong research,” says immunologist Akiko Iwasaki of Yale School of Medicine.
WUN also points out that the Moderna vaccine has benefited from university research that used RNA sequencing to attack earlier coronavirus strains such as SARS and MERS. Thus, Moderna has collaborated with Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania to develop their vaccine, while Astra Zeneca use a different ‘viral vector’ technology, it has worked with Oxford University and benefitted from years of research into selecting the vector.
WUN points out that Pfizer has not taken any US federal government money to avoid any government control of their IPR, but Bill Gates Foundation has helped to “surcharge the research”. With Gates so passionately promoting the uptake of Western vaccines, the media needs to question his financial stakes in such vaccines. He also needs to be questioned about what made him fund “Event 201” and his continuing advocacy of vaccines that benefit a handful of pharmaceutical companies. After all, a major emphasis of the “watchdog” theory is that journalists must question people in powerful positions.
Meanwhile, the Asian Development Bank (ADB)—which is controlled by Japan and Western governments—announced on March 12 that they will be giving a loan of $400 million to the Philippines to buy vaccines and the vaccines they could buy are only the ones approved by the WHO (so far it is only Western ones). The ADB will pay the vaccine manufacturers direct, and the Philippines has to pay back the loan within 10 years. Philippines is the first recipient of ADB’s new $9 billion Asia Pacific Vaccine Access Facility (APVAX).
If the Chinese offered such a loan to buy Chinese vaccines the Western media will be shouting their guts out claiming this is a “debt trap”. The ADB loan sniff of such a trap and the ethics of this should be questioned.
“The big question is whether Western nations can shed their sense of superiority and moral authority which is integral to their approach to actively retaining and preserving economic power within the globalised system, at a time when they are feeling most insecure from the rise of others such as China,” argues Nair.
Western mainstream media focus on Covid-19
As we focus on press freedom, it is also important to question the focus of especially western mainstream media reporting of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There has been far too much focus on deaths and Covid-19 test results, and the recovery rates have all but ignored. Currently in India, some 19 million have tested positive to Covid-19 and about 200,000 have died, but that means 18.8 million have recovered. Same applies to the US, where 33.1 million have tested positive and just over 590,000 have died, which means about 32.5 million have recovered.
If the recovery rates were emphasized instead of death rates, would there have been less fear generated in the community? After all, every year most countries go through a flu epidemic where thousands die, and millions recover. We have learned to live with it because the media has not focused on death rates.
There is also another important issue that needs to be addressed on World Press Freedom Day. That is how, civil liberties have been curtailed around the world to fight the pandemic. Forget the Global South, western nations have used ‘bio-security” protocols or laws to muzzle the media that question government policies such as lockdowns, vaccine passports and freedom of assembly.
As mentioned earlier, the very essence of a “free media” is access to a diversity of viewpoints, the media need to facilitate it if it is going to be the “watchdog”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 May 2021]
* The writer is the author of ‘Myth of Free Media and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era’ (Sage 2020).
Photo: Vaccine equity and not vaccine consent should be part of the watchdog model. Credit: WHO / P. Phutpheng