On May 3rd, people both locally and nationally celebrated World Press Freedom Day. On this day, we focus on the importance of media freedom and the protection of journalists. These concepts, even today, should not be taken for granted; many journalists around the world still face threats, harassment, and physical violence. A total of 57 journalists were killed in 2019.
When journalists are attacked, says UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, societies as a whole are also attacked. “No democracy can function without press freedom, which is the cornerstone of trust between people and their institutions,” says Mr. Guterres during his remarks to the Online High-Level Dialogue on Press Freedom and Tackling Disinformation in the COVID-19 Context. The dialogue was organized by UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, and featured journalists, media experts, social media companies and governments from all around the world. On May 3rd, Guterres continues, “we pay tribute to all journalists working under hazardous and difficult conditions around the world.”
This year, however, the freedom of press is facing a new, additional challenge in the form of a global pandemic. Along with the virus, we are seeing a widespread outbreak of misinformation, conspiracy theories, hate speech, and harmful health advice online. More than 40% of those dangerous lies are spread not even by human beings, but by bots – malicious automated programmes disguised as people. Just as in war, said UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay paraphrasing a renown adage, truth is the “first casualty” of the global pandemic.
All the more reason we should encourage fact-based news and analysis and protect free, independent reporting that gathers and delivers it to the public, thus allowing us to make informed decisions. “In a pandemic,” says Guterres, “those decisions can save lives.” Instead, too often, journalists are being targeted for their essential work.
In the last part of his address, Guterres tackles all aspects of social media use during the pandemic. While social media has provided a unique platform for people to connect and to access information, it has also made it easier to spread untruthful information. Guterres praised those social media platforms that are actively fighting misinformation and removing misleading posts from their feeds. Facebook, for example, leverages around 60 fact-checking organizations to monitor its content. “If they tell us something is false, then we label that information … and then we dramatically reduce the distribution of that content,” said Monica Bickert, Facebook’s Vice-President of Content Policy. Everyone who has interacted with false COVID-19 information also gets a notification directing them to the respective fact-checking organization.
Guterres also highlighted important steps taken by the United Nations together with social platforms: “we have launched our own initiative to flood digital spaces with facts and science while countering lies and misinformation of all kinds.” The UN Chief also added that we all, but particularly governments and international organizations, have an obligation to promote facts and scientific approaches. These organizations cannot, however, substitute the role of free media. “I urge governments and leaders of all kinds to do everything in their power to protect journalists and media workers, and to strengthen press freedom, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” concluded Guterres.