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Webinar on the impact of COVID-19 on media freedom

7 May 2021
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As delivered

 

Minister,

President of the Parliamentary Assembly,

Deputy Director-General,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

 

We are at a moment in history when access to reliable information is at a premium.

To know the facts about COVID-19 is to know how to best protect yourself, your loved ones and your broader community.

And a free media is essential to ensure that this information is trusted, reliable and widespread.

There is no substitute for quality, fact-checked journalism.

So, it is both an irony and a tragedy that freedom of information and expression are facing extreme pressure in Europe today:

With traditional media in many Council of Europe member states in decline over recent years –

A decline that has intensified thanks to the very pandemic that has underlined its necessity.

The good news is that this slide is not inevitable: it can be stopped.

But to do that, we need to be clear about the root causes and the remedies required.

So, what are these problems?

Without question, they include the rise of violence and attacks directed towards journalists.

Over recent years, our Platform for the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists has recorded an upward trend in these chilling tactics, which have included murders, and a high level of impunity.

During the pandemic, such incidents have risen in number.

In some countries, the volume of politicians and officials’ anti-media rhetoric has gone up, accusations about the spread of fake news have been levied against journalists, and public hostility has been stoked.

Consequently, media workers have been subject to assaults and to arrests and police hindrance while reporting on protests and demonstrations.

And, on occasion, they have also become the target of demonstrators angered by media coverage of COVID-19.

Over the past year, some national authorities have sought greater control over what the media can report.

Yes, many governments have taken proactive steps to inform the public about coronavirus, running websites, hotlines and regular press conferences with government figures and health experts.

But others have taken measures to restrict journalists’ access to these events, their ability to ask questions, and their freedom to travel.

Delays in processing requests to access for information also became apparent.

And this reduced access to information and places gives cause for concern.

So too does COVID-related disinformation and the measures that have been introduced with the stated aim of countering it.

It is true that fake or distorted news can spread panic and erode trust in institutions.

And equally true that social media platforms, where falsehoods thrive, are often still not doing enough to stem the flow of misinformation.

But responses that criminalise the spread of “disinformation” and direct the removal of material from public view have presented problems of their own.

Non-judicial takedown requests, the blocking of websites, broadcasting bans, the closure of media outlets, the arrest of journalists for their work on the pandemic frontline:

We have seen all of these.

And given the different interpretations that can be applied to fake news, there is a real risk that regulations criminalising it can be abused.

Only assertions that are blatantly false and which pose a clear risk to public health should be banned.

More broadly, we have seen a deepening of the financial crisis and the crisis of trust that has afflicted the media throughout the last decade.

Falling sales and advertising revenue for traditional media were made worse by lockdowns and their economic impact.

This lack of a sustainable business model has hit local and regional media particularly hard, with smaller outlets often bought out or closing altogether.

And yes, research shows that during the pandemic television, radio and press were more trusted sources of news than other outlets, including social media.

But even so, only 38% of people say that they trust news media most of the time.

As budgets are strained, quality falls, and disinformation grows, there is a worrying, general tendency towards “news scepticism” when people most need to have faith in what they hear.

So, what’s to be done?

I have no doubt that this Conference will act as a catalyst for new ideas, and that is to be welcomed.

But this is not a standing start.

The Council of Europe has already developed many tools that can be used by member states to address these issues.

Freedom of expression, information and assembly are guaranteed by the European Court of Human Rights.

And its case law is there to be implemented and executed, fully, swiftly and without exception.

We have a recommendation and implementation guide for member states on the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists:

And a further recommendation on the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries.

Our Tromsø Convention on Access to Official Documents came into force just five months ago recognising a general right of access to official documents held by public authorities, and on which further ratifications will be important.

And our Committee of Ministers’ Declaration on the financial sustainability of quality journalism in the digital age is there to help national authorities too.

It makes clear the importance of introducing beneficial tax regimes and media development support to counter the financial strain in the sector.

Recognising journalism as a public good, carrying-out media and information literacy initiatives to strengthen the public’s critical thinking, and the introduction of fact-checking services are all important too.

These will reinforce quality journalism, and people’s trust in it.

We have also issued a tailor-made response to the specific situation caused by COVID-19.

Last April, I issued a toolkit document to our 47 member states.

Its aim was to support them in taking measures that counter the public health crisis and uphold our standards on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

It included a chapter dedicated specifically to freedom of expression and information, media freedom and access to official information.

And it was followed by an information document some months after, elaborating on these issues in the context of the ongoing crisis.

The current situation is also outlined in a dedicated chapter of my 2021 annual report, A Democratic Renewal for Europe, sent to our member states’ governments today.

And many of these issues will be addressed further at our Conference of Ministers responsible for media and information society when it meets in June.

But I hope that this webinar will provide further food for thought about what member states should do and what further steps might be taken at the international level.

Because there remains a strong public appetite for reliable media, providing accurate information during the current pandemic and in general terms too.

But in the current environment, that won’t just happen.

Rather, we must all play our role in creating the conditions for trust.

And I am grateful to the German Presidency of our Committee of Ministers for providing this opportunity to explore what more we can do.

I wish you every success in your deliberations.