No Lockdown for Press Freedom! Virtual talk illustrates effects of Covid-19 measures across Europe

by Jane Whyatt

 

Defying the restrictions to press freedom imposed by the corona virus pandemic, an online webinar succeeded in amplifying the voices calling for protection for media in the crisis. On the occasion of 2020 World Press Freedom Day, the partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) hold a virtual discussion on how to counter the abusive strategies used by governments to limit press freedom in the current Coronavirus pandemic, organised by ECPMF. Like an isolation orchestra with each musician playing alone in a bedroom or balcony, the event achieved a harmonious consensus: something must be done.

It raised an echo from two MEPs who were also present on the video call, raising hopes that new funds will be provided from the European Union to revive media businesses, protect media workers and support investigative cross-border journalism.

Ramona Strugariu, MEP Renew Europe, was clear:

“Journalists should be the partners of the EU and the governments in countering fake news. But some governments make their truth the official truth. There are very worrying signals. Only nine of 27 EU Member States have good media freedom. The time to act is now. Some EU Commissioners now see how important media freedom is to the European project”

 

This is more than a financial catastrophe. In her intervention, EPP MEP Magdalena Adamowicz from Poland adds: “There is no doubt that we must do more on a legislative level to protect media freedom and the protection of journalists. We do not have the legislative tools for that yet. To establish these is now more essential than ever.”

 

The emergency decrees and special policing introduced to stop the spread of COVID-19 have also damaged the ability of journalists to do their jobs. They are logged at the Corona Watch feature of ECPMF’s Mapping Media freedom website. From Hungary, HVG journalist Márton Gergely, added a grim list of after-effects from the new emergency law that could mean critical journalists get sent to jail for five years if they are found guilty of spreading what they call disinformation. The government is trying to turn journalists into criminals. They try to stress that we are “fake news””, he said.

 

“Spreading panic” is another label slapped onto media workers who question the authorities’ handling of the crisis. This led to the arrest of Nova.rs journalist Ana Lalić in Novi Sad, Serbia. But the outcry that caused forced the Serbian government to retract on some of its restrictions, and criminal charges against Lalić were dropped. She has since been awarded a Freedom of Speech Award by Deutsche Welle. Still, that does not mean that everything is OK now in Serbia. Branko Čečen, Serbian Investigative Center (CINS), made an intervention to the webinar:

“The government started giving press conferences without any journalists at all, only answering written questions sent in by email. […] Hooligans are being given permission to break curfew and attack our buildings.I don’t know who could call Serbia a democracy, let alone a candidate for EU. We journalists are very worried in this situation.”

 

Even within the EU, at its very heart, problems like this persist. Virginia Pérez Alonso, PDLI Spain, told the webinar: We can not go after fake news with the Penal Code. We’re very worried about this. Two weeks ago someone was arrested in Alicante for a joke. This is what happens.” And amongst the questions from the audience came news of fresh violations in France, reported by Pablo Aiquel of the journalists’ trade union CGT-SNJ.

 

Attila Biró, RISE Romania, intervened on the situation in Romania:

“The government used GDPR excuses to avoid answering freedom of information requests on the decree and set up official “news ” website, written by a secret committee. But dozens of journalists signed petitions to put pressure on government to give access to more information.”

One ray of hope came from Meera Selva, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Oxford, who noted:

I really want to pay tribute to all the journalists out there that are still going. The fact that many people are still doing it and doing it in a right way resonates in the public in a good way. There are movements in Romania in Slovakia for example in favour of independent journalists because they know is this is where truth lies.”

 

For the event organiser and co- moderator Nora Wehofsits, Advocacy Officer of ECPMF, this virtual talk was a chance to draw attention to the Europe-wide nature of the problems facing media outlets and independent journalists. “Too many governments, and not only the ‘usual suspects’, are taking advantage of the crisis to suppress critical journalism”. And she is determined to continue upholding the pressure that emergency measures must be fully eliminated again.

 

The video recording of the entire webinar is available to watch free of charge here:

Anyone can report new violations of press and media freedom to the Mapping Media Freedom platform. It covers not only Corona related cases, but all legal, physical, psychological and online attacks, censorship and harassment. And it links directly to practical support and legal assistance for those who are under threat.

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This was a joint event organised by The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), co-funded by the European Commission. Local partner: Saxon State Agency for Civic Education.

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