threats to media freedom

Journalists and advocates cannot afford to wait until the COVID-19 crisis slows to address the growing restrictions on media freedom cropping up around the world, media freedom experts said during an ICFJ webinar Thursday. 

Sponsored by ICFJ’s Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum, the webinar included Prof. David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Dr. Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The session was moderated by ICFJ’s Global Director of Research Julie Posetti.

They outlined the following five key threats to media freedom associated with the pandemic around the world:

Kaye pointed out that although international human rights law provides for robust freedom of expression protections, there is still the possibility for States to impose restrictions when it is necessary and proportionate to protect public health. But in a number of regions, he said he is seeing governments pursue restrictions that are either unnecessary or disproportionate. 

Radsch warned that any new regulations and laws introduced to deal with the crisis need to be limited by sunset clauses to prevent them from becoming permanent.

She said that several countries have either “fake news” laws or health laws that can criminalize the spread of information and can even allow for the arrest of journalists. She also said that while online harassment is a perennial problem, it is now taking on a new dimension given that most journalism is happening online due to lockdowns and social distancing. And in some instances, members of the public are retaliating against journalists who are out reporting because they perceive them as health risks, she said.

Here are additional highlight quotes from the session: 

On digital surveillance and protecting sources 

Kaye said journalists should be carefully monitoring whether governments expand “public health surveillance tools” beyond contact tracing and critically important public health interventions. “One of the risks is that governments use this moment to accomplish some objectives that they’ve held for many years.”

For example, such tools could be expanded “to interfere with the relationship between the journalist and her sources. And that’s been something that we’ve seen for many years, a kind of degradation of that ability for journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources. Very often whistleblowers.”

Asked about restrictions on freedom of expression in some countries, Radsch said she hopes they do not deter whistleblowers from speaking out. One concrete thing journalists can do now, she said, is be vigilant about protecting the confidentiality of their sources and communications.

On criminalizing the spread of information

Kaye said that if journalists report on figures that diverge from government claims, States might resort to using tools of criminal or civil defamation.

Radsch: “Journalists are there to report on what is known and to report on what public figures say. So if you’ve got a president or another public figure saying inaccurate information or giving inaccurate figures, there’s a high likelihood that can then get recycled through the media.” 

Radsch: “Prison could amount to a death sentence, with coronavirus, right? You cannot social distance in prison. They don’t have good hygiene. … So not only should we not be criminalizing this, we should be letting all the journalists out of prison.”

On social media platforms’ efforts to combat misinformation

Kaye: “The companies have been pretty aggressive, I think, generally speaking, in a positive way in addressing the kinds of disinformation that can be harmful to people’s health … But I think it’s really early and we do not know the extent to which automation … will result in the taking down of content that is really important for people to see.” 

Radsch said CPJ is writing an open letter, asking social media companies to preserve the content that they are taking down so that NGOs and other researchers “can go back and do the analysis that we really need to do to understand the whole scope of this.”

“If we don’t preserve the data now related to the content and the accounts and how this was taken down, we are losing a huge trove of very important information that is important not only to protecting our human rights, but to potentially addressing the ‘infodemic’ aspect of the pandemic,” she said.

On challenges for freelancers

Radsch: “This is particularly interesting to think about for freelancers the challenge that not having the backing of a news organization or, say, accreditation can pose. Not having a press card means that maybe you can’t get outside and exert your right as one of the groups that is exempt from quarantine measures, for example.”

Here are her tips for freelance journalists:

  • Get a press card for example, from the Frontline Freelance Register (FFR)
  • Join a group like your local Society of Professional Journalists chapter or other freelance groups such as A Culture of Safety Alliance (ACOS)
  • Bring clips with you to show that you have been published
  • If you have been given an assignment, bring that with you
  • Find out whether journalists are exempt from quarantine in the particular locality you’re in so that you understand whether or not you’re potentially violating a regulation
  • Be prepared to address why it is that you’re out there reporting and what you’re doing to keep yourself safe
  • CPJ’s safety resources in as many as 40 languages:

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by Zainab Imam, International Journalists’ Network

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