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Crises should not be used to hamper media freedom and freedom of expression.

During the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic people are consuming more news than usual, and consulting traditional media, especially the public broadcasters to obtain the news. Patrick Penninckx, head of information society at the Council of Europe talks assesses the extent of fake news, misinformation and disinformation that we have seen since the beginning of this health crisis.


The quality of information that we are receiving during the coronavirus health crisis varies widely, depending on where we are in Europe and which sources of information we watch, hear or read.  Patrick Penninckx is the head of information society at the Council of Europe.


What’s been the extent of fake news, misinformation, disinformation since the beginning of this coronavirus pandemic?

PP : Well, we have to rely on different sources in order to measure that, we need to rely on cybersecurity agencies, on cybercrime officers, on media regulators, on the media themselves and on the fact-checkers in order to get a complete picture of what is happening. For example, one of the fact-checkers EUvsDISINFO had about 8500 cases signaled to them, 500 related to conspiracy theories. Obviously, that is only a small portion of what is happening because, for example, some of the cybersecurity agencies signaled an increase of 500% of spams related to the Covid crisis.


In terms of freedom of expression, surely one person’s liberty to say something or indeed anything, is another person’s misinformation or even fake news?

PP: Well, not quite so, in the sense that we of course interpret facts differently. The term ‘fake news’ started to be used in such a way that when someone says something we disagree with, it is fake news. But we need to analyze that a little more in depth. That is why we did a study and came up with an information disorder paper where we said there is ‘misinformation’, there is ‘disinformation’, and there is ‘malinformation’. Disinformation would be the term that is probably most linked to what you would call fake news. But basically, misinformation with a level of falseness and a level of intent to harm - that is what we would call disinformation. And as long as we are speaking about the same facts and that we can check those facts, then, there is no issue. We can have different opinions about something, that does not make it fake news.  


What would you say have been some of the more positive media indicators during the pandemic?

PP: If I rely for example on what the British OFCOM said, we see that people use and consume media differently. People consume more news than usual, with a staggering 99% accessing Covid-19 news at least once a day. That is amazing, that is an enormous increase. We also see that people use more traditional media, especially the public broadcasters to get the news. Official sources are not only used but also trusted where the social media really have taken a back seat. Disinformation and confusion persist and are still present, but people are more aware and check other sources more than before, in order to confirm the opinions they have. 


In terms of actors, who should be doing what to keep our media safe? Safe from misinformation, disinformation and to give us information on which we can rely?

PP : There is not only one actor that has this responsibility. We are all in the same boat, and it basically means that not only the media actors but also the states, state officials, governmental officials have an important role to play but the citizens too have a role to play. We need to be more media literate, we need to be more critical about the information that we receive and that we possibly transmit – and that is also our role as citizens, everyone has a say in that, and everyone can help combat disinformation. 


Is there a human rights approach to making sure that we’re all well informed?

PP: Yes, of course. The freedom of expression is part of our European Convention of Human Rights. It is not an absolute right, we also have to see to which extent restrictions may be necessary, but then they have to be proportional, lawful and they have to be restricted in time. That is something that we need to take care of - the crisis situation should not be abused or used to stop and to hamper media freedom and media freedom of expression. 


Our rights, in terms of freedom of expression, as you’ve said, are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.  Do we need more regulation?

PP: In fact, the right to freedom of expression also needs to be tangible and translated in terms of what do we exactly mean by this. Of course, we can leave it to the Court to interpret that, but we also have to positively create a favorable media environment and environment for freedom of expression too. That requires regulation. For example, if we want public broadcasters, we need to make sure that our public broadcasters receive funding and guidance so that we can ensure that they create and receive a certain independence from the official authorities.   

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