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Democracy is in danger, warns leading World Press Freedom panel

Posted on: December 11, 2020 by Mariella Brown

A special report from the Society of Editors gathers the highlights of the World Press Freedom Conference 2020 which took place this week virtually, hosted by the Netherlands and UNESCO.

A gathering of high-profile journalists, politicians, activists and lawyers saw the resolution of 50 countries including the UK and US commit to put into action the framework guiding the issue of the safety of journalists and media workers.

An endowment of seven million euros was announced by Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Block to sustain the framework with aims to support a free press, ensure the safety of journalists – particularly focusing on women journalists – and act to fight against impunity for crimes committed against media professionals.

The two-day conference held this week on December 9 and 10 saw contributions from Rappler editor Maria Ressa, a panel on the safety of journalists with human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, and a closing message from UN Secretary-General Anthony Guterres.

Speaking on the opening panel, Maria Ressa, Editor-in-Chief of Philippines-based Rappler, outlined the daily threats she faces in her role.

Ressa faces an average of 90 threats per hour which she says “all began with attacks on social media”.

The world is “at an existential moment” to do something to ensure that social media platforms act to protect democracy, she told the 3,500 participants of the global conference.

“Lies laced with anger and hate spread further and faster than fact,” she added.

Ressa is currently being defended by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, and faces up to 100 years in prison for charges put against her by the Philippian government which she denies.

Ms Clooney later urged the conference listeners that governments and international bodies “have to raise the cost for those who are silencing the free press”.

Addressing a high-level panel on the safety of journalists and impunity for crimes against media workers, the leading barrister for Doughty Street Chambers said that reforming laws such as sedition and blasphemy are key to protecting journalists.

She added that governments worldwide should act to protect journalists in other countries from prosecution with measures such as travel bans and financial sanction to countries which are targeting a free press.

“Those governments that actually defend freedom of the press, like the Netherlands, can take steps to protect vulnerable journalists and to punish those who abuse them and who abuse the free press.”

Countries should also offer emergency visas to journalists in danger of being persecuted for their work, she added.

“If ten countries gave 50 visas like that, that would cover all the journalists who today we believe are behind bars because of just doing their work,” she said.

“I don’t see why that can’t be done”.

Also speaking on the panel was Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Ms Khan iterated that social media platforms have a responsibility to address the issue of misogyny online.

When national systems are not working then international authorities have an obligation, Khan said, adding that there is no shortage of international rules to hold nations to account who do not adequately address threats to journalists.

However, further resources are needed investigate attacks against journalists, she warned, in order to “make it such that governments cannot turn a blind eye”.

Building on the international resolve to hold governments internationally to account for the protection of a free press, UN Secretary-General Anthony Guterres told listeners in his closing message to the conference:

“COVID-19 has given rise to a second lethal pandemic of misinformation, harmful health advice and wild conspiracy theories. The press can provide the antidote: verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis.

“But since the virus took hold, many media workers have been subjected to increased restrictions and punishments simply for doing their jobs.”

“I call on all governments to protect media workers, fight impunity, and strengthen press freedom”, he declared.

“Journalism without fear or favour is essential to get through the pandemic, and to build a future of peace and human rights for all.”

Other resolutions reached by the conference included an announcement by the BBC of a Trusted News Initiative (TNI) to combat harmful disinformation resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly regarding vaccines.

Jamie Angus, Director of the BBC World Service Group announced the launch of a new initiative which will help TNI members to gain an understanding of the effectiveness of interventions to fight misinformation.

Speaking at the World Press Freedom Conference, Jamie Angus confirmed that the BBC World Service Group will fund new research, led by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism working with First Draft. It will examine the effectiveness of different interventions which seek to educate audiences and prevent the spread of health disinformation.

Jamie Angus said: “The vital role of providing trusted and independent news about public health has helped to save lives during the pandemic. The BBC’s disinformation and health teams are already leading the way in countering dangerous disinformation which puts public health at risk – and this will remain paramount as vaccinations are rolled out globally.

“The research project we launch today, supported by the Trusted News Initiative partners, takes place against this background and will provide a deeper understanding of the interventions that fight misinformation.”

The World Press Freedom Conference can be watched in full here: https://www.wpfc2020-digital.com/