Conference highlights value of fact-based journalism

World Press Freedom Day Conference
Participants at the conference are urging governments to invest in media and information literacy training to help people recognize, value and defend fact-based journalism. PHOTO: ImageCollab

The World Press Freedom Day Global Conference is being hosted by UNESCO and the government of Namibia in Windhoek from 29 April through 3 May. The award ceremony of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, will honor the winner with $25 000 in recognition of their outstanding contribution to the defense or promotion of press freedom, especially in the face of danger, on 2 May.

Clare O'Hagan, media spokesperson at UNESCO, says journalists and media stakeholders at the conference are calling for urgent measures to counter threats that are weakening independent and local news media around the world, a crisis worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. She says they are putting forward solutions to bolster media viability, push for greater transparency from social media companies and measures to improve the safety of journalists as well as support independent media.

“Participants are urging governments to invest in media and information literacy training to help people recognize, value and defend fact-based journalism as an essential part of information as a public good. Whether exposing corruption, alerting us to conflicts or debunking disinformation on COVID-19, the role of journalists in producing and sharing factual information is essential to all members of society,” says the spokesperson.

Some 40 sessions including discussions on issues currently affecting media viability, transparency of online platforms and ways to strengthen media and information literacy are being held during the conference. Hage Geingob, president of Namibia, Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, senior African government officials and Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the UN (through a video message), will address the conference on 2 May.

Keynotes and interviews with over 250 journalists, media and tech leaders, policymakers and activists are taking place so participants can network, interact with speakers and access podcasts, films and artistic contributions on a conference online platform. Notable speakers include Irene Khan, UN special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Sir Nicholas Clegg, vice-president of Global Affairs and Communications at Facebook and Agnès Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International.

O'Hagan says one of the highlights of the conference are the six regional forums on specific regional aspects of press freedom and ways to tackle current trends and challenges. She says another highlight is the one-on-one dialogue about information as a public good with Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, and Miranda Johnson, deputy executive editor of The Economist.

“In addition, there will be a presentation of key findings from UNESCO’s global study on online violence against women journalists, a research project that assesses the scope and impact of the new frontline of media safety through big data analyses and an in-depth literature review. This study shows that 73% of women journalists surveyed have experienced online violence relating to their work,” says the spokesperson.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a steep rise in attacks on journalists and a weakening in regulations protecting freedom of expression where online violence, often in the form of coordinated misogynistic attacks, goes from hateful language to threats of sexual or physical violence. According to the International Press Institute, countries have reported more than 400 media freedom violations linked to the COVID-19 crisis including restrictions on access to information and excessive regulations against alleged fake news, ostensibly meant to address COVID-19 related disinformation.

O'Hagan says the digital revolution has weakened business models of most independent media and damaged their viability with a loss in revenue in 2020 estimated to be US$30 billion. She says local news 'deserts' are becoming more common as media outlets close, merge or downsize in many parts of the global north and south, while political interest groups take control of struggling media outlets. Due to the COVID-19 disruption, two-thirds of staff and freelance journalists worldwide have suffered pay cuts, lost revenue, job losses, canceled commissions or worsening working conditions, according to a survey by the International Federation of Journalists. Furthermore, a survey by the International Center for Journalists and the Tow Center at Columbia University, found that over 40% of surveyed journalists reported losing more than half their income.

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