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Webinar on the impact of Covid-19 on media freedom – 7 May 2021

Video message by the PACE President

Let me start by thanking the organisers and the German Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, for taking on board this very important subject and bringing together so many interesting speakers.

Allow me to reflect on some of the issues discussed.

Starting with a general assessment: the Covid-19 health crisis and its serious negative impact on the various aspects of our life. The media freedom is one of them, but an extremely important one.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, in several of our member States, information has been essential and sometimes vital for the public to be aware of the dangers of the pandemic and safety measures in place. Paradoxically, as shown by the increased number of alerts signalled by the Council of Europe Platform for the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists, threats to those at the forefront of making such information available and accessible to the public - journalists and media outlets, have intensified.

At the start of the crisis, governments in several countries declared state of emergency. A sovereign right in times of crisis. But one which, even in times of national emergency, should make sure that interventions on fundamental freedoms, and special measures taken to combat the sanitary crisis, must meet strict conditions.

They should be temporary, necessary, appropriate and proportionate. And it is precisely in times of crisis that the oversight performed by parliaments, the justice system and the media, are more important than ever for the safeguard of our democracies. Even under exceptional circumstances, the “red lines” must not be crossed.

Member States must fulfil their positive obligation to protect media freedom and the safety of journalists by using all necessary means to end physical and verbal attacks on media professionals.

The reality tells a different story. One in which some governments have used the pandemic as a pretext for adopting emergency legislation restricting fundamental freedoms – including the freedom of information. Others have exploited the crisis to strengthen their hold over communication with the public.

They have been trying to shape media coverage to avoid criticism of their actions on the ground that it undermines public order.

This is worrying, especially in view of the very important role of journalists to keep the public well informed on issues related to the pandemic.

The risk of disinformation has been cited as an excuse to silence media critical of governmental action. Of course, false information has the potential to do considerable harm, particularly in times of crisis like the current pandemic, therefore it must be fought as soon as it emerges, - through fact-checking and media literacy for example. However, the fight against false information must not be used as a pretext to curb or censure the freedom of media.

Some businesses are also using the fight against fake news as a pretext for intimidating media outlets, by initiating legal proceedings against publishers and seeking substantial damages.

One more important aspect: the Covid-19 crisis has seriously affected the economic sustainability of the press and journalists. Even before, the economic model of conventional media was already badly hit by the loss of most advertisers, who had deserted print media and moved online.

Advertising revenues are now dropping even more quickly during the public health crisis, newspaper sales have slumped, and companies are preparing for an economic downturn, leaving journalism endangered on a global scale.

The media have been operating during the pandemic in difficult conditions that considerably impede access to reliable information and increase the risk of spreading information that has not been verified against established standards.

In concluding, I would like to reiterate that the exceptional circumstances arising from the public health crisis must not be used as a pretext by member States to restrict freedom of expression and media freedom.

It is vital to ensure freedom of expression in general and freedom of the media in particular. Let’s not forget that quality information is of vital importance for democratic processes and for effectively fighting the virus and its consequences.