Now is not the time to mask truth: World Press Freedom Day in times of COVID-19

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, World Press Freedom Day (3 May) served to show that ‘journalism without fear or favour’ could not be more relevant. The public relies on independent, professional and fact-based journalism now more than ever. As highlighted by Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s Director-General: “We can only rise to challenges if we have free, professional, independent journalism”.
Azoulay was supported in this call by political leaders during a high-level online panel convened by her on 4 May and featuring heads of states and government, senior-level UN members and representatives of the media and Internet industry. Moderated by prominent journalist Jorge Ramos, the dialogue included UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne, journalist Maria Ressa from the Philippines, Monica Bickert of Facebook, Christophe Deloire of Reporters without Borders and Younes Mjahed of the International Federation of Journalists.

Streamed on social media platforms in three languages, the high-level online dialogue has been viewed around 85.000 times.

The 2020 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Prize was awarded to investigative journalist Jineth Bedoya from Colombia, who has been reporting on conflict, crime and politics in her home country for more than 20 years. The award was conferred on Bedoya in recognition of her fight against impunity for crimes against journalists and her efforts to combat violence against women.

During the press conference announcing the Prize, Bedoya, also an editor of El Tiempo, described the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano prize as “the Oscar of journalism”. Bedoya stated that receiving the prize was “a huge honour, but above all a great responsibility”.

She reaffirmed her commitment to promote brave and independent journalism in the spirit of Guillermo Cano: “It is important to show courage, not only for our own gratification, but because we can open that door to justice, for not only ourselves, but for all of those thousands of people who need that inspiration and hope.“

A global visibility drive for the Day developed by the creative agency DDB and UNESCO gave prominence to fact-based journalism in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. The ‘FACTS’ media campaign was shared by more than 100 media organizations from around the world, including major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Rappler, France Médias Monde, Inter Press Service, PRISA and Aristegui Noticias, and was featured live on TV and radio.

Several Heads of States, and senior members of government and international organisations, also shared video messages echoing World Press Freedom Day’ key messages. Members of the Group of Friends for the Safety of Journalists at UNESCO marked the Day by releasing a short video in which Ambassadors read out testimonials by journalists who have faced threats in the exercise of their work.

UNESCO also collaborated with various other partners such as Twitter and the international cartoonists network Cartooning for Peace in order to raise awareness about the importance of press freedom in times of COVID-19.

Due to lockdown measures in many countries, all the main WPFD events took place online. Webinars organized by UNESCO highlighted media freedom and safety of journalists in times of COVID-19, and engaged civil society, academia and journalists. The webinars also served as an occasion to launch two UNESCO policy briefs offering critical insights into the fast-growing COVID-19-related disinformation pandemic. UNESCO released a further brief on Journalism, press freedom and COVID-19, as part of the World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development series.

UNESCO also shed light on the advances and challenges in the legal protection of artistic freedom through research on existing practices and measures in its new “Freedom & Creativity: Defending art, defending diversity“ report.

Around the world, UNESCO offices virtually hosted three regional WPFD events (two in Latin America, one in South-East Asia) and 14 national events across all regions. Further scrutinizing press freedom in the current context, a number of events were organized by partners such as the Al-Jazeera Media Network, The New York Times, PEN America, Reporters without Borders and CPJ, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, ARTICLE 19 and the Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression.

The online and broadcast commemorations of World Press Freedom Day took place in lieu of the World Press Freedom Conference which, jointly organized by UNESCO and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, has been postponed to 18-20 October 2020. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, Stef Blok, was, however able to participate virtually during the High-Level Dialogue through a video message praising journalists as essential workers. He stated: “On World Press Freedom Day, to journalists, we say ‘you are here to protect our freedoms. It’s our duty to protect yours’”.