Press freedom must not be undermined in Covid-19 battle, says Council of Europe

Posted on: April 3, 2020 by Claire Meadows

Press freedom must not be undermined by measures to counter disinformation about COVID-19, the Council of Europe has today warned.

In a statement released by the Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, the Council has warned that attempts to stop the spread of false information around the virus must not restrict press freedoms. Countries were also using the Covid-19 crisis to clamp down on press freedoms, it warned.

The Society of Editors has also warned that countries must not use the crisis as a pretext for clamping down on the rights of journalists and earlier this week, wrote to the Foreign Office asking what actions the government intends to take in relation to press freedom concerns in Hungary and Turkey.

Mijatović said that in the past weeks, parliaments, governments and local authorities have adopted legislation, decrees or decisions that clearly risk hampering the work of journalists and media actors and restricting the public’s right to receive information.

He said: “Global health problems caused by Covid-19 require effective measures to protect people’s health and lives. This includes combating disinformation that may cause panic and social unrest. Regrettably some governments are using this imperative as a pretext to introduce disproportionate restrictions to press freedom; this is a counterproductive approach that must stop.  Particularly in times of crisis, we need to protect our precious liberties and rights.

Mijatović also highlighted concerns in Hungary and the Russian Federation and said that journalists are “facing a variety of sanctions, including the risk, under new laws, of prison terms of up to five years for spreading “false information”. He also pointed to concerns in Azerbaijan, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and said that in Armenia, a number of newspapers and websites had to delete some information, following the adoption of strict rules prohibiting the publication of information of a medical and epidemiological nature about the virus outbreak which is not fully consistent with official sources.

Mijatović said that access to information was critical during the crisis, that the filtering of information and delays in responses to freedom of information requests had already been observed in some countries and that some journalists had been barred by officials from accessing news and information related to the virus.

He said: “Access to information is also a collateral victim of the measures governments are taking to face the pandemic. However, as indicated in the recent Joint statement by international experts, journalism serves a crucial function during a public health emergency. Despite the fact that timely information is essential for the public to understand the danger and adopt measures at a personal level to protect themselves, the filtering of information and delays in responses to freedom of information requests have been observed in several member states. In the Czech Republic, Serbia and Italy, there have been reports of cases of journalists who were prevented from attending press conferences, obtaining information from health authorities or documenting the operations of law enforcement officials.

It is also of the utmost importance that journalists are able to work under safe conditions Mijatović said and he urged all Council of Europe member states to safeguard press and media freedom.

He added: “In Turkey, several journalists were detained in reprisal for their reporting on COVID-19. In Slovenia, a journalist who filed an information request about the measures adopted by the government to face the pandemic has been the target of a smear campaign by media close to the political party leading the government coalition.

“There is no doubt that governments are facing unprecedented challenges during this pandemic. This cannot however be an excuse to clamp down on the press and thus restrict people’s access to information. Journalists and media actors carry out indispensable work that serves the public good. Their work must be protected, not undermined.”

“I therefore urge all Council of Europe member states to preserve press and media freedom and ensure that measures to combat disinformation are necessary, proportionate and subject to regular oversight, including by Parliament and national human rights institutions. Measures to combat disinformation must never prevent journalists and media actors from carrying out their work or lead to content being unduly blocked on the Internet. Those countries which have introduced restrictions that do not meet these standards must repeal them as a matter of urgency.”