UNESCO calls for global support for independent journalism amid funding crisis for media

17/11/2021

The upcoming global report on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development found that COVID-19 delivered a massive blow to already shaky economic foundations of the news media industry.

The alarm was sounded at a live-streamed event at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, which included remarks from UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay and Nobel Prize recipient and leading economist Joseph Stiglitz.

 

PARIS, FRANCE - An existential funding crisis now facing free and independent journalism was the central topic at ‘Journalism Is a Public Good’, the title of an event staged at the 41st session of the UNESCO’s General Conference of its 193 Member States.

Leading media development and press freedom experts warned that without major interventions, societies will face a massive decline in the supply of news as an essential service for informed decision-making and for holding power accountable.

They pinpointed this scenario in relation to a preview of findings of the 2021/2022 Global Report: World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development. The report compiles evidence of the state of media freedom, pluralism, independence and safety of journalists around the world.

The findings illustrate how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing threats facing journalists and media, creating an “extinction event” in some cases.

 “The pandemic has also shown us even more the value of the work of journalists, and the perils they face every day to bring us reliable information in the face of very challenging situations.” said Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of UNESCO, during the discussion.

"Just at the time that we need an independent, credible journalism - a free press - the business model is being undermined,” said Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate economist and professor at Columbia University.

Over the last five years, global advertising revenue for newspapers has been cut in half, according to the UNESCO report. Facebook (recently re-branded as the Meta group) and Google now receive more than 50% of all global digital advertising dollars.

This shift in advertising revenue has forced many newsrooms to reduce staff and, in some cases, close their doors. At the same time, the number of social media users has nearly doubled from 2016 to 2021— enabling more voices and greater access to content, but which has also led to quality journalistic and fact-based content being algorithmically downplayed.

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic spurred daily print newspaper circulation to decline by 13% between 2019 and 2020, compared to a 3% decline the previous year. In a recent global survey of journalists conducted by the International Center for Journalists and cited in the UNESCO report, two-thirds felt less secure in their jobs because of the pandemic, and over one-fifth experienced a salary cut.

The viability of independent media is also threatened by press freedom crackdowns. In the midst of the media’s economic crisis, COVID-19 measures have been used to justify significant press freedom violations in every region of the world, including in 96 out of the 144 countries according to the preview findings of the UNESCO report.  Across 44 countries, at least 57 changes in law related to online speech since 2016 have threatened press freedom, says the report.

The preview findings also show continued impunity for killings of journalist in the past five years, with nine out of ten cases unresolved. It also signals an epidemic of online violence against women journalists, and how Internet platforms do little to take action against the perpetrators.

Addressing these challenges, the principles of supporting a free, pluralistic, and independent media were also recently reinforced in the 2021 Windhoek+30 declaration on information as a public good, which highlights the need to address the media viability crisis.

By raising the issue at UNESCO, the discussion on 17 November served as a forum for its Member States and voices from academia, civil society and the media to draw attention to the need to act against the urgent threats to the future of independent journalism.

Featured speakers included Amanda Lind, Sweden’s Minister for Culture and Democracy; Catalina Botero, former Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and current co-chair of Facebook’s Oversight Board; Antonia Kerle, policy and insights manager at Economist Impact; and Shahir Zahine, the founder and director of the Afghan nonprofit media group Killid.

The event was co-organized by UNESCO and the Government of Sweden.

The highlights of the World Trends Report can be accessed here, and a recording of the livestream can be found here. Further resources from the World Trends Report series are available here.

 

Media contact:

Guilherme Canela g.godoi@unesco.org