World Press Freedom Day: Protect journalists in war against coronavirus

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020 00:00 |
Media. Photo/Courtesy

Sunday May 3 was  World Press Freedom Day. This year, the day was marked under the dark cloud of the coronavirus pandemic.

The occasion celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom evaluated around the world to defend the media from attack on their independence. 

It is also a day to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession as gatekeepers and watchdog of society, holding leaders to account.

The vital role of journalists in speaking truth to power and steering the direction of public discourse has assumed greater significance in the Covid-19 era, as they continue to dutifully provide verified, scientific fact-based news and analysis to the public and authorities.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres cautions that this universally recognised journalists’ function to humanity is under threat from “a second pandemic of misinformation… from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories.”

Clearly, the fight against moral depravity in the dissemination of information is still alive and well.

Speaking in a video message for World Press Freedom Day, the UN chief called for greater protection of journalists who are providing the “antidote” towards this pandemic of misinformation by helping people make informed decisions.

He said in the current circumstances, such decisions can make the difference between life and death.

As nations and their citizens come to grips with the grave consequences of the deadly virus, journalists have been in the frontline of the war alongside health workers and scientists searching for a cure or vaccine.

Here in Kenya, the media continues to perform an important duty that has helped provide accurate information, galvanise political will and provide checks on balances on indiscretions of government officials regarding service delivery and funds.

Other than attacks under the guise of spreading disinformation, journalists have also suffered from the economic impact of the virus including job losses and pay cuts.

The Committee to Protect Journalists in its World Press Freedom Day message says at a time when journalists could be reporting and helping to stop the spread of Covid-19, many are languishing in prison. There are currently at least 250 imprisoned journalists globally.

Criminalisation of journalism must be condemned and these journalists should be immediately released from prison.

David Kaye, a UN independent human rights expert reports that since the start of the disease outbreak, he has received “alarming accounts” of retaliation against journalists under the guise of spreading disinformation.

Stressing the critical role of a free press during a health crisis, he said independent media has been an essential lever for public information. 

Journalists have uncovered stories of government deception and are helping people everywhere to understand the nature and scope of the pandemic.

Journalists have the singular power of setting the news agenda as part of their gatekeeping function, but this cardinal responsibility is being replaced by a wide variety of producers of information, many of them amateurs, others experts in specific fields.

They include bloggers, freelancers at social media sites and individual citizens with a digital platform or personal connections from which to gain the attention of public officials.

On guard against these self-imposed entrants into the journalism space, we echo the UN chief’s appeal to governments to “protect media workers, and to strengthen and maintain freedom of the press essential for a future of peace, justice and freedom for all.” [email protected]

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