Over 100 press freedom violations in the EU since COVID-19

More than 100 press freedom violations have been registered with the International Press Institute (IPI) since the beginning of March, raising the alarm over the “rapid and significant effect” of the COVID-19 pandemic on media freedom in the EU.

These have been put together in a research paper titled Media Freedom Violations in the EU under COVID-19, which shows how several States have implemented emergency laws and restrictions that challenge the ability of journalists to inform the public and hold those in power to account, the IPI said.

These range from the extreme, an Iranian government-appointed task force issuing an emergency decree to suspend printing, delivery and distribution of newspapers in the country to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, to attempts to completely twist reality.

The most serious violations were registered in central and Eastern Europe, where some governments “have a poor record in protecting media freedoms and risk using the health pandemic to unnecessarily tighten control over the flow of information,” the IPI said.

The monitoring platform also provided a breakdown of the type of media freedom violations – verbal and physical attacks topped the list, followed by the arrest of media workers or charges against them.

The IPI, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, urged governments to recognise the crucial role of independent news media in the coronavirus pandemic.

The research was also shared with European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová and the IPI said it would continue to produce briefings for MEPs over the coming weeks and months.

The free flow of news and information was more essential than ever, ensuring open dialogue and the exchange of vital information: “IPI is therefore closely monitoring press freedom restrictions in this exceptional situation.”

The International Federation of Journalists made a similar appeal on Tuesday as it urged governments not to restrain media activity and organise online press conferences that allowed journalists to ask questions without prior filtering.

It noted that, over the past weeks, some countries such as Ireland, Spain and Slovenia had organised press conferences where journalists were forced to send their questions in advance and were not allowed to ask supplementary questions.

The most recent example in Malta was Prime Minister Robert Abela’s press conference last Friday where journalists were not permitted to ask questions while he lashed out at a non-governmental organisation that requested the court to investigate his actions after migrants drowned at sea.

The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) said that while coronavirus was keeping the world locked down, some governments were using the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on press freedom and access to information.

Adam Foldes, a legal advisor at Transparency International, said that limiting public access to information during a crisis was a profound danger.

“If you look at history, from the 1980s on, be it Chernobyl, or later in China, the contaminated infant milk powder story, information was withheld and it caused even greater damage and more deaths,” he said.

“Ideally these governments should provide, without request, as much information as they can. There can be very narrow restrictions on the ‘right to know’ only… It’s very important to avoid corruption now, be it low quality medical supplies bought from a friend of a minister or the misallocation of funds,” Foldes said.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović also called on governments stop “this counterproductive approach”.

It was of the utmost importance that journalists could work under safe conditions, without fear of being harassed or attacked, according to the recommendations of the Committee of Ministers on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors.

Mijatović said governments were facing unprecedented challenges during this pandemic but it was no excuse to clamp down on the press and restrict people’s access to information.

“I, therefore, urge all Council of Europe Member States to preserve press and media freedom and ensure that measures to combat disinformation are necessary, proportionate and subject to regular oversight, including by parliament and national human rights institutions,” she said.

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