Assessing the impact of Covid-19 on journalists’ labour rights in South East Europe and Turkey

Brussels: “At a time when professional journalism is most needed to inform citizens about issues that affect their own safety and health, media in South East Europe and Turkey face difficulties with staying financially afloat, and often fail their workers in providing them favourable working conditions,” said Camille Petit from the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ). “Professional media is not only a matter of ethical reporting, it also depends on the respect of journalists’ labour rights,” she added.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on journalists’ working conditions and the role of journalists’ unions in supporting them, were the main issues discussed during an online webinar organized on 15 October 2020 by EFJ in the framework of the UNESCO EU-funded project ‘Building Trust in Media in South East Europe and Turkey – Phase 2’.

“Media were largely unprepared to cover a pandemic such as the Covid-19 one. Many journalists were sent to report without adequate protective equipment or were sent home to work remotely without adequate digital skills or guidelines. Journalists’ unions and associations adapted very quickly to play – with little resources – an ever more important supporting role in these difficult times,” Petit added, highlighting some of the key problems raised during the discussion.

The online meeting gathered 16 representatives of media organisations from Europe and EU enlargement countries as part of the EFJ Labour Rights Expert Group (LAREG +). It enabled a dialogue to develop concrete action plans, recommendations, and strategies for journalist unions to defend their members’ labour rights, notably in terms of fundraising, recruitment or campaigning.

Several media organisations have conducted surveys among journalists that showed similar trends across the region. “Apart from being insufficiently prepared, many journalists have seen an impact of the pandemic on their salaries and work contracts. Layouts, unpaid overtime work, salary reductions are highlighted as main concerns, as for other journalists’ unions from the region,” said Getoarbë Mulliqi-Bojaj from the Association of Journalists of Kosovo* (References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999)).

Among the media, most badly hit were the print media, whose circulation dropped significantly during the pandemic. “The printing of the biggest and the oldest newspaper in the country was shut down, and everything was turned online. However, many of their journalists were not equipped for online work, which undermined their reporting,” said Rigels Lenja from the Association of Professional Journalists of Albania (APJA). Coupled with the issue of reduction of advertising revenues during the pandemic, highlighted in the UNESCO publication ‘Journalism, Covid-19 and Press freedom’, these problems added more weight to the notion of the era of ‘media extinction.’

The pandemic also undermined the quality reporting and the work of journalists by affecting their right to access to information. “We have seen press conferences being held without the press, who would send the questions in beforehand and often see them unanswered during those conferences,” Tamara Filipovic, from Independent Jouranlists’ Association of Serbia (IJAS), emphasised during the webinar. “We asked journalists their opinions about this practice, the majority of them were unsatisfied.”

In such context, the work of journalists’ unions and media organisations is critical to ensure the viability of independent journalism. The webinar offered an opportunity for them to exchange on best practices and funding opportunities. Offering free legal aids to journalists, online capacity-building on health-related issues or digital skills, were parts of the experiences shared by some of the participants.

Three follow-up online webinars are planned until November 2020 to strengthen the cooperation among these organisations and contribute to better working conditions for journalists in the region. The second webinar is scheduled on 29 October and will focus on the monitoring of the violations and the enforcement of journalists’ labour rights. The third webinar is scheduled on 12 November and will focus on best practices, highligting successful initiatives in the field of labour rights and media freedom in Europe. The Final webinar to take place on 26 November will discuss concrete action plans and recommendations regarding fundraising, recruitment, campaigning in times of COVID 19 and capacity building of journalists’unions.