World Press Freedom Day 2020

World Press Freedom Day 2020

While the role of independent and public media has never been so important, COVID-19 is taking its toll on press freedom around the world.

By Sally-Ann Wilson, CEO PMA

This Sunday, May 3rd our industry in particular marks World Press Freedom Day. It’s a date that always causes the Public Media Alliance (PMA) team to stop, reflect and think about our work and its impact. In recent years it has been a depressing day as we look back over the past twelve months of stories and reports. Public media has been eroded rapidly worldwide.

This year the changes in our world are particularly startling.  The Covid-19 pandemic has affected every corner of the globe. Suddenly and with impacts on life and industry that we could never have imagined. Everything has changed. Fast. Take for instance ABC in Australia. In June last year, they were raided by the Australian Federal Police. Then followed months of grim bushfires that spread throughout Australia threatening and destroying lives and livelihoods in cities as well as the outback. The fires were barely dampened down when Covid-19 reached Australia’s shores. ABC has had almost a solid year of emergency reporting. Their audiences have grown and their work is now widely recognised as being essential to the daily lives of Australians.

On the positive side, the role of public media has never been more important as people turn to media they can trust to provide facts and life-saving information. Talking to our members and academics, we have already seen an upward surge in audience figures for public media. We are also noting wider recognition by the media industry, politicians and the public of the crucial role that public media plays during crises. We’re also witnessing great innovations as journalists and producers are inspired to find new ways to inform, educate and entertain whilst keeping to social distancing and lockdown rules. Independence, fact-checking and accuracy remain central to public media. It’s credibility serves to highlight the harmful myths, mis- and disinformation that are circulating on social media platforms.

Read more: Covid-19 and public media: Adaptation and contingencies 

But the pandemic is also having significant negative impacts on public media. Aside from massive additional expenditure, dramatic cuts to advertising for those with mixed funding models and the psychological impacts of the pandemic on staff, a key role of public media is being able to hold politicians to account. At present this is being compromised as a result of both practical and political factors. The access of journalists to politicians is limited by current lockdown and working situations. Much of that contact is limited to streamed Press Briefings and even some parliaments are working remotely. It is also increasingly obvious that to be effective we need more journalists with a background in science, an issue PMA will be taking forward in the coming months.

Read more: Global Call Out: Media Freedom & COVID-19

The PMA calls on governments worldwide to not use COVID-19 as a reason to curtail media freedom and limit the ability of journalists to hold power to account.

Most seriously, in some countries we are witnessing media freedoms being limited by hurried legislation that by its very nature curbs and stifles a free press. From Hungary and Romania to the Philippines, sweeping, regressive and disproportionate laws criminalising so-called “fake news” have been introduced around the world. There has also been an alarming rise in the number of journalists being attacked and detained while reporting on the pandemic in countries such as Uganda, Zimbabwe and India. Meanwhile leaders such as Trump and Bolsonaro continue to undermine trust in media by ramping up insulting rhetoric against critical outlets.

The pandemic, it seems, has been used by some as an excuse to control the flow of information and avoid scrutiny. It is for this reason that the Public Media Alliance calls on governments worldwide to not use COVID-19 as a reason to curtail media freedom and limit the ability of journalists to hold power to account.

Read more: Governments must not use coronavirus as an excuse to curtail media freedom

Since the outset, PMA has been working with the newly founded Media Freedom Coalition [MFC]. Just recently, we were elected to the MFC’s Advisory Network, working as part of a group of 17 organisations that link with the MFC to highlight cases of concern in terms of infringements of media freedom. This also means we can play our full part in representing the threats to media freedom, not only for individual journalists but also threats to the independence of public media.

At this point it’s difficult to predict what the world will look like on World Press Freedom Day 2021. But PMA is working with new initiatives such as its support for the Global Task Force for Public Media, the PMA Global Call Out and our role in the MFC-Advisory Network to ensure that every effort is made to support and advocate for the essential role that public media plays in democratic society.

Header Image: #WorldPressFreedomDay. Credit: UNESCO