Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant: Press Freedom, Pandemics and Why Journalism Is in Dire Need of Support

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Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant: Press Freedom, Pandemics and Why Journalism Is in Dire Need of Support

Neither sunlight nor disinfectant will cure COVID-19 (even if Donald Trump seems to think the opposite).

But as Justice Brandeis famously wrote in 1914, ‘publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases’. One might add that publicity and transparency are also useful when fighting actual diseases, the kind that cause pandemics, for instance. The epidemiologists at the World Health Organization (WHO) would certainly agree. Many months before the first person contracted COVID-19, the WHO warned of epidemics of rumours, or infodemics, as a new risk to health and a challenge to managing epidemics in the 21st century. It described risk communication as an essential response to this intersecting challenge of pandemics and infodemics.

In the process of communicating risk and informing the public in a timely and transparent way, independent professional journalism plays a vital role. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted this circumstance as millions of people under lockdown have been relying on the news media for information on how to navigate the crisis, keep themselves and their communities healthy and evaluate government responses to the emergency. Independent quality journalism that provides the public with reliable, trustworthy information as the basis for public debate and holding those in power accountable is key to functioning, democratic societies on any day, but particularly so during times of crises. Indeed, scholarship has highlighted the need for independent media in the context of public health crises and for protecting the most fundamental human needs. For example, Amartya Sen famously argued that ‘in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press’. And a 2013 study on the media coverage of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa found evidence indicating that the news agenda in more democratic media systems pushes policymakers harder to address HIV/AIDS than in more authoritarian systems.

Not surprisingly, then, many human rights and press freedom organisations were quick to ring the alarm bells on protecting independent media and the safety of journalists during the COVID-19 pandemic, calling on governments to respect international human rights standards on press freedom, freedom of expression and access to information. With an emergency appeal, the European Federation of Journalists, for example, called for journalism and media support while highlighting the fact that independent journalism had already been under pressure worldwide for many years due to various political, legal and economic challenges. The International Press Institute highlighted that states in central and eastern Europe were using the COVID-19 pandemic as a cover for implementing restrictive measures against the press. Members of the European Parliament also chimed in, asking the European Commission to explore the potential for creating an emergency support fund for media.

One common thread running through these appeals for increased media support is a concern over the causes and consequences of widespread mis- and disinformation and the broader phenomenon called information disorder. Independent quality journalism is one of the strongest antidotes against the harmful spread of false information, but it can only succeed if it is equally accessible (paywalls have their disadvantages) and enjoys support from the public. After all, information disorder is not created by malevolent actors alone, it also depends on individual citizens and their information consumption.

Media and Information Literacy (MIL) is therefore an important part of the long-term strategy to prepare people to be resilient in the face of changing information systems and actors intent on exploiting these systems and information consumers. But MIL is also vital for increasing human rights preparedness at societal level. In this context it is important that MIL strategies do not simply focus on teaching people how to interpret information and sources. They should also educate citizens about the important democratic role that the free press and quality journalism play in society in order to rebuild trust in journalists and public service media as a democratic institution. A 2016 report mapping media literacy practices across the EU found that while critical thinking and media use top the list of skills that media literacy projects teach in most EU countries, fewer projects focus on democratic participation and fundamental rights in the context of media literacy. A recent Council of Europe study, however, recognises the connection between MIL and promoting and protecting quality journalism in the digital age and recommends that key MIL stakeholders, and member states in particular, ‘create media literacy programmes that help citizens of all age groups to develop the MIL skills and knowledge that will support quality journalism’.

Another common thread in recent pleas for increased media support is the worry over declining advertising revenues and increased layoffs or salary cuts of (freelance) journalists as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of the news industry still relies on advertising revenues as the basis of its business model, but these revenues have collapsed along with the economy. The pandemic has exacerbated ongoing challenges, but the breakdown of the traditional news business model and the shuttering of newsrooms is not a new phenomenon. Especially local newspapers, who are so important for informing and bringing together communities, have been fighting for survival in the digital age for years and are now experiencing an ‘extinction event’.

As a result, many journalist supporters are calling for inclusion of small newsrooms and freelancers in stimulus packages. However, despite the general acknowledgement of the human rights community (and high-level politicians in Europe) of the need to protect independent journalism during this time, concrete action to support media personnel financially through the current crisis is lacking. For example, Germany is implementing a stimulus package with an unprecedented price tag, but freelance journalists and smaller newsrooms are practically left out. Denmark offers a more positive example where the government is discussing the allocation of around €24 million to save local media. Even though Members of the European Parliament have called for an EU emergency support fund for media, the European Commission has not approved further funds in this area since making available €5,1 million in early March, sponsoring several media freedom projects. While this is better than nothing, considerably more than the current piecemeal approach is needed in support of independent media during this crisis and to ensure that public service journalism can thrive in the future. To use the recommendation of a 2019 Reuters Institute report, what independent professional journalism needs is ‘freedom, funding, and a future’.

Media freedom is a vital building block for democracy and the protection of other human rights. The silver lining of the COVID-19 crisis is that many people are re-discovering the importance of having access to verified, reliable information, as evidenced by an increase in audience interest since the pandemic started. The crisis also highlights, however, the precarious situation of independent journalism in many parts of the world, Europe included. Despite the many recent pleas for help from journalists, media organisations and other press freedom supporters, it remains doubtful whether the current crisis will lead to decisive action at EU and member state level to bolster public service journalism in a meaningful, comprehensive way. Continuing to pay only lip service to the protection and promotion of press freedom and simply supporting media freedom as a side project will make it more difficult for Europe, its citizens and human rights to cope with the next disease, be it social, political or economic.

Wiebke Lamer

Written by Wiebke Lamer

Dr Wiebke Lamer is the Programme Director of the European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation.

Cite as: Lamer, Wiebke. "Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant: Press Freedom, Pandemics and Why Journalism Is in Dire Need of Support", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 3 August 2020, https://gchumanrights.org/preparedness/article-on/sunlight-is-the-best-disinfectant-press-freedom-pandemics-and-why-journalism-is-in-dire-need-of-support.html

 

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