World Press Freedom Day: How COVID-19 is Impacting Press Freedom

World Press Freedom Day 2020

World Press Freedom Day takes place on May 3. According to the UN, it’s an opportunity to:

  • celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
  • assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
  • defend the media from attacks on their independence; and
  • pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

The theme for 2020 is “Journalism Without Fear or Favour.” With a focus on restoring editorial independence, this year’s theme calls on the public to look at things like the legal/policy approaches to editorial independence, efforts to diversify media ownership, and how media companies are handling gender equality in their newsrooms.

UNESCO explains “Journalism Without Fear or Favour” in its concept note: “When journalists are protected by the law, when they can investigate, report and publish freely and professionally without being tied to the specific agendas of powerful elites or interest groups, and without fear of attack, then they can fulfill their democratic and development potential.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The World Press Freedom Conference, originally scheduled for April 22-24, has been rescheduled to October 18-20, 2020, to minimize costs and risks to those attending. It will now be a joint celebration of World Press Freedom Day and the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists (November 2).

There still will be online workshops and debates taking place on May 3, and we wanted to celebrate the day as well. At a time when access to accurate and regular information has never been more essential, press freedom is particularly vital.

Nearly everything is being viewed through a COVID-19 lens. Press freedom is no different.

So what does #WPFD2020 look like?

How COVID-19 Is Impacting Press Freedom Around the World

Unfortunately, administrations around the world are using the COVID-19 outbreak as an excuse to increase restrictions on the media.

The International Press Institute is tracking media freedom violations related to COVID-19, totaling 148 at the time of writing.

As Joel Simon, former head of the Committee to Protect Journalists, recently wrote for Columbia Journalism Review, “…around the world, governments are cracking down on journalists and implementing sweeping restrictions under the guise of combating misinformation and ‘fake news.’”

In Hungary, a recently passed state of emergency law includes punishment of up to five years in prison for anyone who publishes “false” or “distorted” facts – a major cause for concern among journalists working in the country with a not-so-great track record on press freedom.

In Iran, a country that already imposes tight restrictions on newsgathering and information dissemination, newspaper printing has been banned. Iranian authorities said the ban was enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They did not say when it would be lifted.

Unfortunately, instances like these keep occurring, from media censorship in Turkmenistan to the detaining of a freelance journalist in Venezuela. And in Iraq, Reuters’ license to work in the country was suspended after a story disputed the actual number of COVID-19 cases in the country.

But the trouble isn’t just international. Even here in the U.S., we’ve seen several incidents, including:

  • The governor of Florida blocked journalists from attending a coronavirus press conference.
  • In daily COVID-19 briefings, President Trump has called NBC News White House correspondent Peter Alexander a “terrible reporter,” and his response to PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor’s “nasty question” prompted #WeLoveYamiche to trend on Twitter.
  • Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) accused the media of being “giddy with glee” over the pandemic.
  • Liberty University is pursuing criminal charges against a reporter and photographer for allegedly entering the private campus and reporting that it was partially open during the pandemic.

The Upside: Those Supporting the Media and Journalists

Despite all the recent violations of press freedom, we still can find positive and uplifting stories.

One of my favorite stories took place in early March when Reporters Without Borders created a library within Minecraft to house suppressed articles from countries including Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Vietnam. As TechCrunch explains, “The Uncensored Library stands more as a proof of concept that information need not be delivered by traditional means in order to have a potential impact.”

Even in this difficult environment, some outlets are launching new ventures, showing some much-needed optimism for the industry. McClatchy, though dealing with its own financial struggles, is launching a new hyperlocal news website for Longmont, Colo., residents. And Report for America continues placing journalists in local newsrooms.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and its partners also recently launched the bilingual #PRESSential campaign to “inform the public of the critical work done daily by journalists, unite the world in a spirit of gratitude for the press, and celebrate individuals and newsrooms for their diligence in serving their communities.”

#ThankAJourno was also part of the campaign. The public used the hashtag to thank these essential workers.

How to Show Your Support

People also can show their support of press freedom by either subscribing or donating to news outlets. Local news especially is struggling as ad revenues continue to decline across the country. Journalists are being laid off and furloughed and longstanding publishers are closing their doors, some permanently, due to the economic impact of the outbreak.

There also are numerous emergency funds for journalists during this unprecedented time, many which will accept donations. Check out a list at the end of CPJ’s COVID-19 Response page.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020, has been designated #GivingTuesdayNow. Many newsrooms will be adapting it to #GivingNewsday in an effort to attract new subscribers, donors, and financial supporters of local news. Typically held just after Thanksgiving, Giving Tuesday organizers have created this special day due to the unprecedented need caused by COVID-19. Poynter has a list of tips and resources for media outlets looking to get the most out of the day.

Remembering Those We’ve Lost

The journalism community has been greatly impacted by COVID-19 deaths.

Over the past few weeks, members of the media have been paying tribute to the colleagues they’ve lost. Kristen Hare at Poynter has been keeping a regularly updated list of names and remembrances.

How are you celebrating World Press Freedom Day?

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Rocky Parker works in Audience Relations at PR Newswire. Check out her previous posts for Beyond Bylines and connect on LinkedIn. When she’s not working, Rocky typically can be found cooking, binge watching a new show, or playing with her puppy, Hudson.

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