Saving media and democracy in times of crisis
By Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency.
“Our readership is through the roof, but our revenue is plummeting“. I remember this comment from a journalist whom I have spoked to recently. The Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed that we continue relying on news for our safety and that journalists are also in the frontline. They are working in difficult conditions to inform us, sometimes putting their safety at risks to check facts and report. Today more than ever, information can save lives.
On the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day, it is important to underline the role of free and independent media – they are in the DNA of our European democracies.
Journalists play a key role in times of crisis and they bear an important responsibility, but they are also affected by it. Their jobs are made more difficult by lockdowns and reduced transparency, as well as by the loss of advertising revenues. In short : by increased political and economic pressure. The current crisis has only amplified the troubles that were there before.
Working without fear or favour
Journalists should be able to have access to information, to ask questions, to report in safe conditions – also or maybe especially in times of crisis. Their job is to hold us, politicians, into account. Famous French investigative journalist Albert Londres once said: “Our profession is not to please, nor to do harm. It is to dip the pen in the wound“. Our profession, as politicians, is to be accountable to people for our action, and address criticism with facts, not with attacks.
I am appalled by insults against journalists, and the hate often comes from the mouth of politicians. This is unacceptable. Violence online can translate into violence offline. No journalist should die because of his or her job.
I don’t want to visit graves of journalists who died in their line of duty anymore. Talking to the families of Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak were the two most difficult moments of my past mandate as Justice Commissioner.
The safety of journalists is one of the priorities of this Commission – and it should be so for every government. The Commission has recently co-funded a series of projects to map threats and risks to media freedom and pluralism, support investigative journalism, and provide legal assistance to journalists who need it.
Media and journalists are an important part of democracy. Together with civil society, checks and balances, respect of our rights and independent courts they make European democracies very special. This is why we have to kill the virus, not democracy.
And there are those that want to undermine those foundations. For them, the Covid-19 crisis is another opportunity to spread disinformation campaigns and harmful misinformation. We need to fight it by identifying and exposing those negative trends, but also by strengthening our fundaments. But we have to make sure that the cure is not worse than the disease. Measures taken by governments to fight disinformation cannot undermine media freedom and turn into censorship.
Surviving the crises
This crisis will be a hard blow to most of the sectors, to millions of people. Europe, both EU institutions and governments, must prepare a historical recovery package, a new Marshall plan. So far, we have given the Member States tools that they can use to support the media sector and compensate for some part of lost revenue, by state aid for instance.
Denmark and Sweden have proposed aid schemes to support local media and newspapers. Interestingly, these countries are also at the top of the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without borders last week, so I believe their example is worth following.
My priority is to ensure that media and journalists will get the attention they deserve in our recovery. The crisis has confirmed what I heard from many before – media as a sector faces many challenges. The European Union and its governments should really learn this lesson and strengthen media freedom and pluralism. This is not only an important industry sector – without media freedom and pluralism, democracy will not survive.