Protecting freedom of expression and media freedom in times of a pandemic is of vital importance. In almost all European countries people have been living in confinement for almost two months, a situation which has profoundly impacted on our communities, economies, families and daily lives. We have, more than usually, been relying on the media for news and information to help us understand the COVID-19 crisis, ways to protect ourselves and our families and wider implications of the outbreak, as well as to evaluate the responses of our governments and the global community. The crisis intensified the need for people to be able to access reliable news that they can trust, a quest made challenging enough by the digital information overload, indiscriminate use of various communication tools and news sources and the accompanying phenomenon of information disorder. Journalists have responded with resolve to fulfil their enhanced responsibility of informing the public and mitigating health and other risks stemming from the virus.
The Council of Europe’s work on freedom of expression focuses on four major axes – media policy and regulation, the impact of digital technologies on freedom of expression, media and information literacy and the safety of journalists – which, taken as a whole, cultivate a media environment favourable to independent, free, safe and quality journalism. Each of these axes faces major challenges in keeping pace with the profound changes in the media environment brought about by digital technologies.
The shift of media consumption onto online platforms ranging from social media and search platforms to messaging applications coincided with phenomena such as online disinformation, hateful rhetoric and electoral manipulation, resulting in a decline of trust in the media, expertise and democratic institutions. Therefore, regulating the sprawling new media, levelling the playing field for all, established and powerful new actors, and empowering reliable, trustworthy news sources becomes an imperative. A Council of Europe study Media freedom, regulation and trust proposes a systemic approach to tackling information disorder and calls for a proactive attitude so that the new frameworks for media regulation, coregulation and self-regulation promote rather than undermine democracy and human rights and that their standards are properly updated to reflect contemporary challenges.
Algorithmic systems and AI-driven tools play an increasing role in how information is collected, processed and used in today’s society. In the Recommendation on the human rights impacts of algorithmic systems, the Council of Europe calls on States to ensure that they do not breach human rights through their own use, development or procurement of algorithmic systems. In addition, as regulators, States are to establish effective and predictable legislative, regulatory and supervisory frameworks that prevent, detect, prohibit and remedy human rights violations, whether stemming from public or private actors. A further study details the Implications of AI-driven tools in the media for freedom of expression, formulating a number of recommendations to help relevant stakeholders realise the opportunities presented by digital technologies and prevent and mitigate potentially negative consequences.
In the current context of media diversification and segmentation, the study Media literacy for all exemplifies how community media can promote media literacy and how this work can strengthen marginalised communities’ participation in the media environment and public discourse. Another study, Supporting quality journalism through media and information literacy, provides member States media stakeholders and educators a valuable insight into MIL programmes and projects that can highlight the value of quality journalism to individuals of all age groups and backgrounds, and offer exciting starting points for adaptation or further development of MIL initiatives, programmes and projects supporting quality journalism across the continent.
The Council of Europe's overarching approach to the protection of freedom of expression starts and ends with journalists’ safety. This remains one of the key challenges of the media environment, as underscored by the alerts on the Platform for the protection of journalism and safety of journalists. Recommendation CM/Rec(2016)4 on the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists and other media actors provides detailed guidance on the prevention of crimes against journalists, measures of protection, requirements for effective prosecution and guidance on raising awareness for the issue, but its implementation has proved insufficient. As a result, the situation has further degraded in recent years.
Focusing on the gravest threats to journalism and journalists, currently there are 107 journalists in detention and 22 alerts of impunity for murder. Although lives cannot be recuperated, there is hope that joint pan-European efforts can reverse the worrying statistics and bring perpetrators to justice, including, for example, in the still evolving case of the murdered Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. In its policy paper Taking action to protect journalists and other media actors, the Council of Europe urges its member States to put in place National Action Plans to ensure that international standards are implemented in practice.
The challenges of the media environment have assumed new dimensions and become more acute with the COVID-19 outbreak. Seeking to protect their population from the threat, many States adopted measures that inevitably encroach on rights and freedoms integral to a democratic society. While effective responses to the crisis are imperative, the measures taken by States should not undermine Europe’s founding values of democracy, rule of law and human rights. They should also not persist beyond the duration of the crisis.
To that end, the Council of Europe’s Committee of experts on media environment and reform (MSI-REF) has issued a Statement on freedom of expression and information in times of crisis underlining the role of reliable journalism and independent media, as well as unrestricted access to information, in providing accurate and reliable news and information, and countering rumours and disinformation. According to the experts, freedom of expression, media independence and open deliberation, rather than information control, will allow us to surmount the great challenges facing our countries. The Commissioner for Human Rights has also emphasised that “Press freedom must not be undermined by measures to counter disinformation about COVID-19”. A dedicated web-page on Media in times of a health crises was created to group relevant Council of Europe texts and guidance.
- 2020 Annual Report by the partner organisations to the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists: HANDS OFF PRESS FREEDOM: ATTACKS ON MEDIA IN EUROPE MUST NOT BECOME A NEW NORMAL
- Secretary General: Governments must protect essential role of journalists in democracy, especially in times of crisis
- Commissioner for Human Rights: Support a free, independent and safe press
- World Press Freedom Day – 3 May - Statement by David Zalkaliani, President of the Committee of Ministers and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Georgia
- Video "Importance of press freedom in times of pandemics"