Governments worldwide must work with the media to tackle Covid-19, urges Society

Posted on: March 24, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The Foreign Office should encourage governments worldwide to work with the media and recognise the vital role that journalists across the world must play in order to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, the Society of Editors (SoE) has urged.

In a letter to the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab MP, the Society has encouraged the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, alongside the government, to continue to promote the importance of the news media and for all governments worldwide to recognise the necessity of the news industry’s role in keeping the public informed amid the ongoing covid-19 crisis.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has previously promoted global media freedom to the top of its parliamentary agenda and held a Global Conference for Media Freedom in London in July last year.

In a letter to the Foreign Secretary, Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said: “Freedom of the press is essential in any democratic society and, at this time of national uncertainty, accurate news and information has never been more important. The staggeringly high demand for news and verifiable updates on the covid-19 crisis is unprecedented and newsrooms – both at a national and a regional and local level – continue to work around the clock to keep their audiences informed. We have welcomed your government’s acknowledgement of the vital role that the media must play during this crisis and we were pleased to see the designation last week of all journalists as key workers.  

The Foreign Office’s promotion of media freedom and the UK’s work, alongside Canada, to promote media freedom on a global platform has been a welcome and timely reminder of the role the media plays in a democracy, Murray said. That said, while many governments continue to work with the media during this pandemic, others have chosen to restrict the public’s right to know, Murray warned.  

He added: “While many governments and officials continue to recognise the vital role that journalists can play in this crisis, others have chosen to clamp down on the flow of information and attempt to control the narrative around covid-19. We have also seen knee jerk reactions to unfavourable coverage in some countries and attempts to pass legislation that could have a detrimental effect on the public’s right to know.

“Journalists have a duty to report on behalf of the public without fear or favour. As well as providing news and updates, the media must continue to scrutinise the actions of officials in tackling this virus and journalists worldwide have a duty to question the wisdom behind decisions being made. That is their job.

“It is essential that all countries continue to provide the media with timely and accurate news and information on the virus and that this situation is not used as a pretext by which governments restrict information on behalf of the public. At this time of crisis, the public interest must be placed at the centre of all responses to the pandemic and the media has a crucial role to play.

The Society’s letter comes after it was reported last week that China had effectively expelled journalists from three US newspapers in retaliation for what it said were restrictions on its news outlets in the US. Its foreign ministry ordered reporters from the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal to return media passes within 10 days. The decision has been widely criticised and comes in the wake of an ongoing row between the US and China over the origin of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has also expressed concerns following legislation enacted in South Africa last week that criminalises ‘disinformation’ about the covid-19 pandemic and the government’s response to it. CPJ has said that South Africa’s post-apartheid commitment not to criminalise information has been a beacon for press freedom across Africa, but that the new regulations have the potential to “[…] dim that light opening up the possibility of abuse and limitations on vital information and facts” about the crisis.

The Guardian, meanwhile, reported earlier this week that Brazil’s far-right president had accused the press of purposefully “tricking” citizens about the dangers of coronavirus. So far premier Jair Bolsonaro has resisted strong measures to stop what he has referred to as a “little flu”. He has claimed that a wave of protests, which entered their sixth night on Sunday, are part of a media-backed plot to topple him.

Egypt has also been under fire for revoking the press credentials of a UK journalist working for The Guardian, and strongly criticised The New York Times’ Cairo bureau chief over “bad faith” reporting. Both had questioned the official figures for coronavirus cases in Egypt.

The Council of Europe’s has also urged all European member states to recognise the crucial role of the media. The committee of experts on media environment and reform (MSI-REF) issued a statement on Saturday 20 March stressing the importance of independent journalism.

The statement by the Committee said: “Now, more than ever, we need reliable journalism, resting on the standards of professional ethics, to keep the public informed and to scrutinise the measures taken in response to the global health threat. We need accurate information, including in-depth research by science journalists, to counter rumours and disinformation that could lead to panic.”