Last week, two journalist were killed in Burkina Faso, just for doing their job. Their deaths are a vivid reminder of the threats that journalists face - and indeed our democratic societies, who rely on a free press. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists often are forced to operate in dangerous conditions. Lockdown measures have also caused a severe economic blow to an already embattled independent media sector, forcing layoffs and closures. With democracy backsliding in many parts of the world, media freedom stands on increasingly shaky ground.
I grew up in a country where at the time the press was not free and I know precisely what costs this entails for public debate and the rights of citizens. I am a big media consumer and rely heavily in my daily work on the information and analysis provided by journalists. Throughout my career, I have come to know and appreciate a large number of journalists working for a wide range of media. I know how difficult their job had already become before the pandemic in many countries, due to the change in business models linked to the Internet and the rise of illiberalism on all continents.
This is the second time we celebrate World Press Freedom Day in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the health crisis, journalists have worked to keep us informed and safe - sometimes at great personal risk. There is now abundant evidence that the pandemic has accelerated the erosion of media freedom and pluralism. According to the V-Dem Institute, two-thirds of all countries around the world imposed new restrictions on media in 2020.
With the world’s attention focused on combating the virus, many governments have taken advantage of the health crisis to escalate censorship, overlook or allow ill-treatment of journalists and impose restrictions to silence free speech. Over the past year, journalists across the world have been intimidated, threatened, fined, jailed, assaulted and even killed for doing their job.
In 2020, 274 journalists, a despicable record number, were imprisoned globally for their work, often without any charges being disclosed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The highest number of journalists has been jailed in China -for the second year in a row, followed by Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders state that media freedom is “totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others, which together represent 73% of the countries evaluated.” This is a very worrying trend.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues also to be accompanied by an “infodemic” - a massive spread of disinformation about the virus and the efforts to combat it. Many actors – state and non-state – have capitalised on people’s fears to advance their political or economic agenda, to the detriment of the global fight against the pandemic. We are closely monitoring and exposing these disinformation campaigns, when they target the EU.
Supporting and protecting independent media has never been more important. For citizens to make an informed choice between different policy options, they need indeed to know precisely about the facts on which to base their choices. If free and accurate information is not available for all, democracy cannot work. That is why we must stand firm for freedom of the press and fight against disinformation.
If we fail to safeguard media freedom and pluralism in Europe and worldwide, we could also lose our best rampart against harmful narratives that seek to undermine our democracies and our unity.
In 2020, the EU reaffirmed its commitment to step up its work in support of open and free media with the adoption of three different action plans calling for strengthened EU actions, both politically and financially – not only within the EU but also in the rest of the world. We also adopted a global human rights sanctions regime last December, which gives us an additional tool to target serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, irrespective of where they occur.
Together, we must denounce all violations of media freedom; call for the unconditional release of imprisoned journalists around the world; and secure the economic survival of independent media. Just as we are joining forces to end this pandemic and fight climate change, we must ensure that future generations continue to enjoy their fundamental right to a free and independent media.