COVID-19 and media freedom – guidance based on the Council of Europe standards

- Freedom of expression and information and media freedom are crucial for the functioning of a truly democratic society and continue to be so in times of crisis.[1] The provision of timely information about public health risks is a critical element in crisis response.

- Special attention should be paid to the communication and dissemination of information relating to the virus and its circulation, risks of contamination, number of illnesses/deaths, as well as to those measures which have more remote connection with the policy of social distancing/isolation. Related restrictions on the freedom of expression introduced in some States are potentially worrying.

- Media play a key role, also coupled with increased responsibility, in providing accurate, reliable information to the public, but also in preventing panic and fostering people’s understanding for and cooperation with necessary restriction. Media organisations and journalists should adhere to the highest professional and ethical standards, give priority to authoritative messages regarding the crisis, and refrain from publishing, and thus amplifying, unverified stories.

- Rumours, misinformation and disinformation are more likely to cause harm to the public order and health safety. As exceptional measures required by exceptional circumstances (i.e. to avoid spreading conspiracy theories, false alerts, etc.), some restrictions may be needed and justified. However, States should avoid measures derogating from the guarantees of Article 15 ECHR that are broadly and vaguely worded, lack foreseeability and/or are likely to lead to overcriminalisation. In turn, professional journalists should be careful in verifying information coming from non-official sources before publishing it, and refrain from publishing implausible/sensationalist materials that could cause panic.

- States should regularly and promptly inform the public about the dimensions and implications of the crisis and the governments’ measures, engaging in an open communication that promotes trust and cooperation of every individual. However, the flow of information about the pandemics should not be reduced to official communications. This would lead to censorship and suppression of legitimate concerns.

- Journalists and media, medical professionals, along with civil society activists and members of the general public, should have the right to criticise the authorities and scrutinise their response to the crisis. This is particularly important now, when other checks and balances on the government action are removed or eased, especially under emergency measures or even the state of emergency in some states. The heroic story of Li Wenliang, the Chinese whistle-blower doctor,[2] shows the danger of suppressing free flow of information of vital importance. Likewise, it is unacceptable to use the epidemy as a pretext to silence the political opponents of the current government.

- Finally, there is hardly any justification for prior censorship of certain topics, closure of media outlets or outright blocking of access to on-line communication platforms. Malicious spreading of disinformation may be tackled with ex post targeted sanctions, and with the governmental information campaigns. States should work together with online platforms and the media to prevent the manipulation of public opinion, as well as to give greater prominence to generally trusted sources of news and information, notably those communicated by public health authorities.

- While it is natural to limit physical public gatherings, on-line forms of civic and communal life must not only be preserved but actively supported by the State.

[1]Pertinent guidance may be found in the Council of Europe Guidelines on protecting freedom of expression and information in times of crisis

Full text: Mitigating a global health crisis while maintaining freedom of expression and information

For more general guidance of the Council of Europe on respecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law during the COVID-19 sanitary crisis, please see the following toolkit for member states

Restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom in a state of emergency

As governments around the world are declaring a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, it is of crucial importance to ensure that any exceptional measures introduced do not undermine freedom of expression (Article 10) and other human rights enshrined in the Convention and are “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation” (Article 15).

As the risk of disproportionate interference is especially high during times of crisis, governments shall exercise particular prudence and caution to only introduce measures that constitute “an appropriate response to the state of emergency”.

Under no circumstances shall the crisis situation be used by states to claim excessive powers or to limit freedom of expression. Censorship and information control, attempts on media independence, limitations on public access to information and on public scrutiny over governments’ actions, restrictions on access of journalists to first-hand information sources, enhanced surveillance measures compromising confidentiality of journalistic sources and other forms of interference all carry direct and tremendous risks for the very foundations of democracy. However, quality journalism, informed public debate and cooperation between public authorities and the media could help empower citizens and assist governments in surmounting the unprecedented challenges of the day. The Council of Europe Guidelines on protecting freedom of expression and information in times of crisis, the upcoming Committee Recommendation on promoting a favourable environment for quality journalism in the digital age, as well as other Council of Europe standard-setting documents, notably, the Court’s case-law (see, in particular, Guide on Article 15 of the Convention) shall serve as points of reference for Council of Europe member states in finding ways to contain the COVID-19 pandemic without detriment to freedom of expression and other human rights.