With COVID-19, journalism faces new challenges just when the world needs it most, says UNESCO report

New Delhi: In the context of the unprecedented public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, access to verified and accurate information, produced by independent media and fact-checkers, can mean a matter of life and death.

In the run-up to the annual celebration of World Press Freedom Day, UNESCO released a new brief today titled Journalism, press freedom and COVID-19.

It serves as a backgrounder to a live online event of world leaders, convened by UNESCO Director-General Azoulay to mark World Press Freedom Day 2020.

Taking part will be UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, as well as leaders from the technology sector, media, and government.

The discussion will be livecast on Monday, 4 May, on UNESCO’s channels via Facebook Live and YouTube on Monday 4 May from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m (CET).

The brief quotes Director-General Azoulay as saying:

“In a world as interdependent as this crisis has shown ours to be, every threat to or attack on the diversity of the press, the freedom of the press and the safety of journalists concerns us all. Today, I wish to call for a redoubling of our efforts. At this crucial moment and for our future, we need a free press, and journalists need to be able to count on all of us.”

In the brief is an overview of reports and statements made across the UN system, technology companies, the media, and civil society, about the role of free and independent media in countering COVID-19.

It also covers the impact that the crisis has had on journalism.

The brochure points to a dangerous ‘disinfodemic’ that fuels the pandemic, consisting of an onslaught of misinformation and disinformation that has spread as fast as the virus itself. It shows that:

Internet companies are responding to millions of posts of misleading and false information and giving some funds to journalism and fact-checking in order to assist in identifying and debunking false content.
The demand for verified information from news media has soared, with record levels of web traffic. Media have dropped paywalls to provide readers with content on COVID-19 in the name of public interest.
Yet new challenges have emerged, according to the brief:

Restrictions on human rights on the basis of states of emergency sometimes go beyond those permitted by international law. This jeopardises the rights to freedom of expression, access to information and press freedom which are key to combating the disinfodemic.
Besides the danger to physical health, journalists are also being attacked and arrested, and detained, often on the charge of spreading “fake news” or rumours, sometimes used to repress critical reporting.
As advertising revenue has plummeted, the economic impact of COVID-19 has led media organizations to lay off and furlough journalists and stop print operations, with some at risk of extinction.
Yet, amid the crisis, elaborates the brief, there are new opportunities to stand up for free and independent media.

The Journalism, press freedom and COVID-19 brief comes as part of UNESCO’s World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development series, supported by the Multi-Donor Programme for Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists.

Further resources on efforts by UNESCO and partners to defend free expression and access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found in the Resource Center of Responses to COVID-19.