By Lisa Vives, Global Information Network
NEW YORK (IDN) – While Americans hotly debate the subject of “fake news,” Africans and others around the world marked a day for reflection on press freedoms in theory and in practice. The theme for this year’s event launched by the UN agency UNESCO was “Journalism without fear or favour”.
The state of journalism in most parts of the world is precarious, according to many media specialists.
The 2020 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), shows that the coming decade will be decisive for the future of journalism, with the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting and amplifying the many crises that threaten the right to freely reported, independent, diverse and reliable information.
In Africa, journalists had more to fear from speaking truth to power. In Swaziland, for example, Swazi journalists were harassed and threated with treason for reporting critically about King Mswati II, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
In Somalia, radio journalist Mohamed Abdiwahab Nuur has been detained since March 7, suspected of ties to Al Shabaab – a charge he denies.
Journalists now face threats of prison for publishing “false and damaging” information in violation of a new state law on COVID-19 and other infectious diseases in Nigeria – a nation which ranks near the bottom of the CPJ’s “Impunity Index”. NJ publisher Sowore Omoyele, founder of the news site Sahara Reporters is still jailed despite his court-ordered release in December.
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day: “At a time when we are mired in worry and uncertainty because of the coronavirus pandemic, free information is essential to helping us face, understand, think about and overcome this crisis.
“This is why the Organization has teamed up with the rest of the United Nations family to fight the ‘infodemic’ of rumors and disinformation which is exacerbating the pandemic and putting lives at risk.”
As much as government repression, media also face extinction in an uphill battle for finances. The New York Times has issued a special appeal to support local news outlets which are barely keeping heads above water. Some 36,000 workers at U.S. news companies have been laid off or furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“As advertising dollars disappear and consumers change their spending habits, a key piece of that journalism — local journalism — is increasingly threatened,” they wrote. “Newspapers near you are at risk. Donate or subscribe to a local news outlet!”
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, UNESCO Director-General Azoulay, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet delivered an uncompromising defense of free, independent fact-based journalism during an online Dialogue on Press Freedom and Tackling Disinformation in the COVID-19 context on May 3. It was the flagship event of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, celebrated annually.
Other notable participants in the online debate—which was marked by denunciations of regimes which use the COVID-19 pandemic to restrict media freedom and other civil rights—included François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s Foreign Minister, journalist Younes Mujahid, President of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Maria Ressa, investigative journalist from the Philippines, founder of the Rappler news organization, and the Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Christophe Deloire, as well as Monika Bickert, representing Facebook. A number of leaders from the Netherlands, Norway and the European Commission also delivered video messages.
Highlighting the gravity of the issue at stake, Secretary-General Guterres quoted UNESCO’s tally of 57 journalists who were killed around the world last year. “Along with the new challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic we are seeing a dangerous outbreak of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories. The antidote lies in verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis. It lies in media freedom and independent reporting. It lies, as UNESCO rightly says, in journalism without fear of favour. This is much more than a slogan; it is a matter of life and death.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet recalled the fact that “under international law restrictions on civil liberties in times of crisis should be demonstrated as necessary, appropriate and proportionate,” and called on the world’s leaders to cease and to condemn all attacks on journalists and on media freedom. [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 May 2020]
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