Journalism & the Pandemic: Threats to Media Freedom & Safety During COVID-19

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The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).

As COVID-19 spreads in waves around the world, “a vast array of threats” to journalists and press freedom are also proliferating, said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Unsurprisingly, the press were in the center of the crackdown in China as it tried to control information about this new novel coronavirus,” she said during a webinar hosted by ICFJ and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism this week.

“As soon as the virus started spreading outside of China, so did the crackdown on the press.” 

Radsch, along with Zoe Titus, director of the Namibia Media Trust and Mexican journalism safety expert Javier Garza joined ICFJ Global Research Director Dr. Julie Posetti and Tow Center Director Emily Bell for a panel to identify key risks and discuss practical ways that journalists and newsrooms can respond to the growing threats. 

As countries geared up to fight COVID-19, “part of their mobilization was to crack down on independent journalists, critical reporting, and attempts to report on how the coronavirus was affecting given countries, as well as how the authorities were responding to that,” Radsch said.

Many governments have deployed laws against disinformation to silence reporters, she continued. “These were used to throw journalists in jail for reporting statistics that did not conform with the official version,” she said. “We've seen this in South Africa. But we also saw it in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, which made it illegal for media outlets to transmit or allow the transmission of false information or face fines.”

Titus said she sees a lack of financial sustainability as the biggest threat to journalism. “Despite the fact that COVID-19 has prompted a significant increase in news consumption, it’s basically sounded the death knell for print media especially,”  she said. 

“News businesses have had to accelerate their move to digital. The only problem is that they don't have the business models in place to monetize and sustain those.” She said many newspapers, which she views as central to democracy in Africa, are on the verge of disappearing.  

In Latin America, online attacks and online harassment are on the rise. The Mexican government is conducting “online campaigns against journalists who question [official] figures or who question the government's response to the pandemic,” said Garza.

The panelists identified other threats, including: 

  • Heightened risks for freelancers who are unable to prove their employment 
  • Attacks on journalists even when they identify themselves as press
  • Governments suspending free speech guarantees, banning specific newspapers and restricting online comments

They also discussed how journalism can respond to the threats. 

 

[View past webinars and key quotes]

 

Radsch called for the decriminalization of defamation and of laws that target the work of journalists. “There is an increasing trend towards criminalizing journalism through cyber crime laws, through false news or disinformation laws, [and] through terrorism laws,” she said. 

She added that news outlets need support. “A lot of local media outlets are trying to figure out how to be sustainable,” she said. “Safety and money are related. The ability to secure your newsroom, the ability to make sure that the freelancers you're hiring are safe and know how to keep themselves safe have economic implications.”

The panelists said the pandemic is demonstrating that journalism is a pillar of democracy. Before the global health crisis, the public’s trust in the news was sagging, Garza noted. “Maybe this is an opportunity to reverse that, because a lot of people are seeing the value of news organizations,” he said.

Titus said recent public information campaigns that demonstrate the value of trusted news sources have “endeared the media to the public” in South Africa.

The panelists also mentioned a number of resources and tools to help reporters and newsrooms operate safely, including:

Tools mentioned in this webinar included: 

  • Signal app for secure text communication 
  • Jitsi for video and voice calls

 

The webinar was part of the Journalism and the Pandemic Project, a collaboration between ICFJ and the Tow Center. The Journalism and the Pandemic Project is also mapping the impacts of COVID-19 on journalism worldwide, and it aims to help inform the recovery. Learn more, and take the survey, here. 

[View past webinars and key quotes]

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