Press release

Media freedom and independence in times of COVID-19

04/05/2020

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet delivered an uncompromising defense of free, independent fact-based journalism during an online Dialogue on Press Freedom and Tackling Disinformation in the COVID-19 context on Monday. It was the flagship event of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, celebrated annually on 3 May.

 

Other notable participants in the online debate—which was marked by denunciations of regimes which use the COVID-19 pandemic to restrict media freedom and other civil rights—included François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s Foreign Minister, journalist Younes Mujahid, President of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Maria Ressa, investigative journalist from the Philippines, founder of the Rappler news organization, and the Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Christophe Deloire, as well as Monika Bickert, representing Facebook. A number of leaders from the Netherlands, Norway and the European Commission also delivered video messages.

 

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay set the tone of the debate as she welcomed participants saying, “It is particularly important to mark World Press Freedom Day this year during the global COVID-19 pandemic and to keep press freedom on the agenda in the present situation. It takes journalism to communicate the findings of scientists and disseminate real and reliable information and counter fake news that is dangerous to people’s lives and to efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic.”

 

“Unfortunately,” Ms Azoulay added, “in all too many places this is not the case and journalists, particularly female journalists, are prevented from doing their work.” The Director-General went on to “call on governments, major corporations that also have a role to play in the dissemination of information in today’s world, and on members of the public to promote freedom of the press and counter fake news.”

 

Highlighting the gravity of the issue at stake, Secretary-General Guterres quoted UNESCO’s tally of 57 journalists who were killed around the world last year. “Along with the new challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic we are seeing a dangerous outbreak of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories. The antidote lies in verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis. It lies in media freedom and independent reporting. It lies, as UNESCO rightly says, in journalism without fear of favour. This is much more than a slogan, it is a matter of life and death.”

 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet recalled the fact that “under international law restrictions on civil liberties in times of crisis should be demonstrated as necessary, appropriate and proportionate,” and called on the world’s leaders to cease and to condemn all attacks on journalists and on media freedom.

 

While all participants insisted on the crucial importance of journalistic independence and professional fact-checking, veteran investigative journalist Maria Ressa said that the pandemic re-established the need for credible media. “Social media had taken away the gatekeeping role that media had,” argued Ms. Ressa, “but in times like this, journalism and fact checkers’ are more vital than ever. The business of journalism is critically important,” she added pointing to the loss of advertising revenues created by shuttered economies the world over. “We must make sure that the crisis doesn’t kill the media,” she cautioned.

 

“The sector of journalism is now facing a major crisis,” agreed IFJ President Younes Mujahid, “and we believe there is a danger for the profession of journalism as a whole, and this will continue if the economic crisis continues. It is time to take measures to save journalism because we cannot imagine a democratic society without a free press, news agencies, etc.,” he said.

 

Amidst denunciations of the damage caused by fake news on social media, Facebook representative Monika Beckert acknowledged the problem and spoke of her global company’s efforts to identify, correct and sometimes remove misinformation, i.e. factually wrong content, and disinformation, malicious content published with ulterior motives. “There is more that we and other companies can do,” she admitted, adding, “We are trying to get more transparent about our algorithms. We are doing a lot to get reliable information out there proactively, not just in responding to misinformation. We know we have a role to play and we are looking to getting better about it.”

 

Every year on 3 May, the world comes together to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, take stock of freedom of expression around the world, and pay tribute to journalists who have faced attacks or lost their lives in the exercise of their profession. World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 on the Recommendation of UNESCO's General Conference.

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For information about events marking World Press Freedom Day see
https://en.unesco.org/commemorations/worldpressfreedomday.

 

To watch Monday’s debate online:
https://youtu.be/kS6VqwDv3fc

 

Press Contact: Clare O’Hagan: c.o-hagan@unesco.org