A ‘red flag for democracy’ as media freedom takes a hit


Freedom House

With charges filed against a news editor and a plea for censorship to India’s Supreme Court, activists say the Indian government is using the coronavirus crisis to interfere with press freedom, NPR reports.

With World Press Freedom Day (May 3) approaching, democracy advocates are concerned that governments are exploiting the pandemic to crack down on media freedom.

As cases of COVID-19 continue to spike across the world, news consumption has accelerated at unprecedented rates. Audiences are all too aware of the need for rapid, quality information in this race against time, notes Kate Musgrave, the Assistant Research and Outreach Officer at the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA). @kate_musgrave.

In response, journalists are working around the clock to provide critical updates and combat rumor and misinformation surrounding the pandemic. But they’re starting from behind, she writes. Two recent reports, from Freedom House and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, highlight increasing restrictions on press freedom over the past year, a trend now evident in every region.

Today, reporters globally are fearlessly tracking the spread of COVID-19, in a world where personal protective equipment means masks and gloves instead of Kevlar vests and helmets, notes Mellissa Fung, the author of Under An Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity. They are telling the stories of the stricken, honoring the dead, and providing vital information to the public. Most important, they are debunking misinformation and conspiracy theories, she writes for Project Syndicate. 

Despite recent setbacks, the United States still has the strongest legal free speech protections in the world, and must continue to be a leader against censorship, harassment, and abuse of the media, says a new paper from the nonpartisan Democracy & Human Rights Working Group. it makes several recommendations for the U.S. administration, Congress, and the 2020 presidential candidates for addressing the global and domestic press freedom, including:

  • Restoring respect for press freedom in both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, both in speech and action.
  • Countering efforts to disseminate disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic by broadcasting accurate information about best practices to contain and reduce the spread of the virus.
  • Expanding investments in support of public interest media in the US and globally.
  • Assisting independent media to identify ways to strengthen their financial capability so that they may remain independent.
  • Passing a federal “shield law” to protect the confidentiality of a journalist’s sources.
  • Strengthening the efforts of organizations such as the International Women’s Media Foundation that offer training on how to counter threats and attacks on female journalists.
  • Supporting organizations such as the Journalism Trust Initiative, the International Center for Journalists or Internews, which aim to develop professional journalists and journalism standards both in the U.S. and globally. RTWT

PEN America will mark World Press Freedom Day (May 3) by advocating for journalists worldwide facing repression and sometimes violent reprisals for their reporting. Earlier this month, PEN America launched Local Heroes: Journalists Covering COVID-19 to call attention to the life-saving work local journalists in the U.S. are playing amid the pandemic.

“This year, World Press Freedom Day highlights the theme ‘journalism without fear or favor,’ a distinction that sums up how reporters globally do the hard work of revealing truth and facts even when facing immense danger,” said Summer Lopez, senior director of  free expression programs at PEN America.

China has consistently suppressed information about the coronavirus outbreak; journalists Chen Qiushia and Fang Bin have been missing since February after reporting on their government’s response, PEN adds.

New frameworks for media regulation, co-regulation and self-regulation should promote rather than undermine democracy and human rights and standards should be properly updated to reflect contemporary challenges, according to a Council of Europe study Media freedom, regulation and trust. 

Algorithmic systems and AI-driven tools play an increasing role in how information is collected, processed and used in today’s society. In the Recommendation on the human rights impacts of algorithmic systems, the Council of Europe calls on States to ensure that they do not breach human rights through their own use, development or procurement of algorithmic systems. A further study details the Implications of AI-driven tools in the media for freedom of expression, the Council adds.

Join thousands of others in calling for the release of imprisoned colleagues around the world ahead of World Press Freedom Day this Sunday, English PEN @englishpen tweeted.   #FreeThePress #WPFD2020 #WPFD


The good news, as both Freedom House and V-Dem report, is that resistance is growing, adds CIMA’s Musgrave. Democratic movements and protests in every region show a citizenry eager to have their voices heard. Now, inevitably, those voices are sheltered-in-place, not on the streets—but they are certainly tuning in. In an already difficult environment, media outlets are striving to stay afloat while providing quality information to a world desperately in need of it.


*  The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership.  The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.

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