From: Alice Taylor
CoE: In a COVID-19 World, States Must Do More to Protect Media Freedom

The Council of Europe has reported on the struggles of media during the COVID-10 pandemic to access verified and timely information on the situation as it unfolds.

Noting their responsibility to provide information to readers, it acknowledges the difficulties many faced, including a limited ability to generate revenue. Restricted access to press conferences, travel restrictions, and prolonged deadlines to responding to freedom of information requests have made the job of journalists even more difficult.

The CoE said that despite the pandemic, there is still a demand for information to be delivered quickly and it’s essential that the media are allowed to continue their work without interference.

“It is important for journalists to move around freely7 and without fear of sanctions in order to collect newsworthy information. Bearing in mind the crucial role of the media in covering public demonstrations,8 including in times of crisis and in a state of emergency, it is also essential to prevent any hindrance to such coverage by raising the awareness of the law enforcement authorities.”

In terms of accessing official information, governments have a duty to ensure freedom of information and to respond to requests for official information quickly and in lne with the law.

“Beyond providing access to information on request, in times of crisis it is important for governments to engage in regular dialogue with media professionals and the wider public and provide information through press conferences, briefings, etc.”

In cases where holding press conferences is not possible, journalists should be able to ask questions through videoconferencing systems.

The pandemic has also underscored the need for media to ensure they practice ethical journalism supported by transparent and independent self-regulatory mechanisms. This includes promoting verified and trusted sources and scrutinising governmental responses to the crisis.

“Ethical and responsible journalism is also an efficient antidote to mis- and disinformation and growing polarisation of public debate.18 It is crucial for media outlets to give priority to information provided by international and national public health authorities, health workers and other frontline responders, and to avoid sensationalist narratives or unverified stories.”

The report also noted with concern, the current financial predicament many media find themselves in. 

“One of the preconditions for media and journalists to be able to fulfil their role is the financial sustainability of the media sector. The long-term weak financial situation of the sector has been exacerbated by the pandemic, resulting in a paradox of growing (digital) news consumption and a further decline in revenue. Support funds are being implemented in some states22, and more strategic after-crisis solutions such as introducing beneficial tax regimes and media development support must be considered.”

The Albanian government did not include media in any of its financial aid packages. Prime Minister Edi Rama said it was not the responsibility of the government to assist journalists and media companies.