World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the annual event organized by the United Nations in 1993, kicks off a weeklong series of observances. The commemorations will take place amid the ongoing battle against the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought some unfortunate side effects for journalism.
“The pandemic has given rise to a second pandemic of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories” says Antonio Guterres, secretary general, United Nations. “The press provides the antidote: verified, scientific-based news and analysis.”
This week, global advocates for press freedom, free speech and human rights will use the UN event – billed as “Journalism: Without Fear or Favor” – as a platform to promote: the timeless principles of press freedom; underscore the urgent need for reporter’s access to information during the coronavirus pandemic; push back against the constant attacks on the media, and sounds the call for journalist safety, including the hundreds of imprisoned journalists worldwide.
The Overseas Press Club calls attention to four of the most urgent press freedom threats:
COVID-19 adds another threat to the climate of adversity facing journalists. Governments around the world are leveraging COVID-19 to restrict the free flow of information among democratic and autocratic states. The global health crisis has enabled governments “to exercise control over the media on the pretext of preventing the spread of disinformation,” said a report by the International Press Institute. The IPI is based in Vienna and has logged 162 press freedom violations since mid-February.
COVID-19 threatens the lives of imprisoned journalists around the world. A #freethepress campaign has been launched by The Committee to Protect Journalists calling for the unconditional release of the more than 250 journalists in jail, according to its latest global census. Those journalists have no control over their environment and are often denied medical treatment. “Journalism must not carry a death sentence,” said the CPJ.
Journalists around the world are putting their safety at risk to cover the coronavirus story. Supporting the health and welfare of journalists is a foundation of press freedom, especially in pushing back against the impunity of those governments and groups that attack journalists rhetorically or physically. That is in addition to the killings, imprisonments and abductions of journalists, which have reached historic highs in the last two years, according to the ACOS Alliance. These attacks represent a fundamental threat not only to individual news professionals, but to the practice of independent journalism itself.
Democracy and press freedom are both in decline. This is a parallel phenomenon as civil liberties have deteriorated in many countries along with a similar decline in press freedom. Global press freedom fell to its lowest level in 2019, according to the annual Freedom in the World report from Freedom House. Democratically elected leaders, in Hungary and Poland, for example, have silenced critical voices and given support to media outlets offering supportive coverage. Elsewhere, COVID-19 has provided leaders in Turkey and India with a justification for the harassment and arrest of journalists. History has shown, though, that press freedom can make a comeback from long periods of repression. The fundamental human desire for access to fact-based information can never be erased.