New report Covid-19 and the media: A pandemic of paradoxes

The report covers responses to the infringement of the right to freedom of information, the vast growing problem of misinformation on social media, offline and online safety of journalists and the impact on the viability of public interest media caused by the pandemic with a human-rights based approach and gender-sensitive lens.

The report was presented at UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Conference on 29 April. Both the full report and a four-page abridged version are available for download.

As the pandemic has left some audiences desperate for reliable information to help protect themselves from the virus, and others scouring for sources to counter the lies and censorship coming from their own government, paradoxically, the impacts of COVID-19 have driven demand for independent journalism, even as media businesses suffer. “We are producing more content on less resources”, an IMS-partner states in the report. 

“More than 12 months into the global health crisis COVID-19 continues to be a pandemic of paradoxes for public interest media. With this report IMS document one the one hand a decline in press freedom, on the other a rising demand of trustworthy information. We urge states and the international community to act now, to avoid further decline and safeguard basic rights,” says IMS director Jesper Højberg. 

The report, COVID-19 and the media: A pandemic of the paradoxes, is released to mark World Press Freedom Day, celebrated on May 3, and provides insights into what it terms “a pandemic of paradoxes”. 

  • The pandemic put journalists at the frontline of supplying essential health information to massively expanded audiences in need of reporting they could trust, even as the ensuing collapse in economic activity decimated advertising revenues, leaving public interest media vulnerable to bankruptcy or to takeover by media barons with a political agenda.  
  • Seven in ten journalists have reported hugely increased stress. Yet the top three emotional reactions to the pandemic were positive, including a renewed commitment to the profession.  
  • Physical attacks against journalists were at a relatively low level in 2020, but online violence was at an all-time high, and overwhelmingly targeted at women. 
  • Accurate, reliable, and timely information became a matter of life and death. Yet state officials, i.e. those people with the most reliable information and greatest responsibility to distribute it, were also the most likely source of inaccurate, unreliable information, in many contexts. 

“As well as the immediate need to subsidise public interest media, IMS urges States to recognise and guarantee freedom of information, not only as a fundamental human right in itself, but also as a crucial element of their obligation to fulfil the right to health,” says IMS director Jesper Højberg,  

IMS recommend that States investigate taxation of multinational technology companies to subsidize public interest media, as well as the imposition of targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for crimes against journalists. Further recommendations include countering misinformation by supporting fact-checking as a public good, reforming hate speech laws to enable prosecution of online assault and leveraging the demand for reliable information by training public interest journalists in media and information literacy.   

One day, when we look back at the coronavirus pandemic that paralysed most of the world, I hope we remember all the lives we lost but could have saved. I hope too, that we remember the cost of telling the truth, especially when people’s lives depended on it.  

Benazir Shah, features editor at Geo Television, Pakistan, in the foreword 

Download the full report and/or the abridged version here.