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COVID-19: 'Pandemic should not be an excuse to muzzle the press', rapporteur warns

Stefan Schennach (Austria, SOC), General Rapporteur on media freedom and the safety of journalists for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), today expressed concern about restrictions on press freedom in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"The current health crisis has severely strained the whole world, including the member States of the Council of Europe. The pandemic has hit our health and economic systems hard, and most of the population have been confined. In these exceptional conditions, the role of the media is particularly important. Information on pandemic developments must be precise and reliable, and it must be disseminated to the public without undue delay. We need the expertise, professionalism and critical thinking of journalists capable of fostering public debate while combating false news, disinformation and the manipulation of opinions, and thus helping to guide people towards responsible behaviour. In the context of today's crisis, freedom of the media and the safety of journalists are of crucial importance," said Mr Schennach.

“However, in a number of our member States, governments are trying to shape media coverage of the health crisis. Under the pretext of wanting to avoid false information which can be harmful to public order, they prevent transparency and gag the critics. Embarrassing questions or demands for accountability sometimes result in fines, police investigations and the expulsion of foreign correspondents," he said.

"Worse still, in some countries, the pandemic has served as a pretext for governments to adopt laws, decrees or decisions that may have a negative impact on media freedom and a restrictive effect on the work of journalists even after the current crisis. Such changes to the legal framework have been made in Hungary, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Armenia and Russia,” added the General Rapporteur.

"The consequences of such an approach could be serious for press freedom. Legislation passed in an emergency context, but without any clause limiting its effectiveness over time, may remain applicable at the discretion of the powers in place. Therefore, I call on the member States to refrain from limiting media freedom in the context of this health crisis. The pandemic should not be an excuse to muzzle the press: journalists must freely carry out their mission of informing the public correctly and without delay about the management and the consequences of the crisis," concluded Mr Schennach.