As the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic continues with the number of patients reaching a horrifying 3,660,000 while the death toll was more than 252,500 by 3 pm yesterday, the United Nations (UN) on May 3 marked ‘World Press Freedom Day’ on the theme ‘Journalism without fear or favour’. National and local celebrations took place all over the world, mostly in the form of online debates and workshops because processions and rallies were not possible in view of lockdowns or curfews in most countries.
In a statement, the world body said the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) was launching a global campaign on media and social media channels, with a focus on ‘Journalism without fear or favour’ in an increasingly complex media landscape. Also, from May 4 to 6, there would be several events, including a high-level dialogue on Press Freedom and tackling disinformation in the COVID-19 context, webinars, and online discussions via Facebook Live, YouTube, and Microsoft Teams, among other digital platforms
The sub-themes for this year are the safety of women and male journalists and media workers, independent and professional journalism free from political and commercial influence and gender equality in all aspects of the media.The Press Freedom Day Conference has been held annually since 1993. The global meeting provides an opportunity for journalists, civil society representatives, national authorities, academics and the public to discuss emerging challenges to press freedom and journalists’ safety and to work together on identifying solutions. This year the Netherlands was to be the host. UNESCO and the Netherlands had planned to hold the conference from April 22 to 24 at the World Forum in The Hague. It is now scheduled for October 18 to 20 at the same venue. It will be a joint celebration of World Press Freedom Day and the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.
The decision to postpone the conference has been taken to minimize costs and risks for all involved, in the wake of the World Health Organisation declaring COVID-19 as a global pandemic.
In a message, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says media workers were crucial to helping us make informed decisions. As the world fights the COVID-19 pandemic, those decisions can make the difference between life and death. Mr Guterres has called on governments—and others—to guarantee that journalists could do their jobs throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. As the pandemic spreads, it has also given rise to a second pandemic of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories. The press provides the antidote: verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis. But since the pandemic began, many journalists are being subjected to increased restrictions and punishments, simply for doing their jobs. Temporary constraints on the freedom of movement are essential to beat COVID-19. But they must not be abused as an excuse to crack down on journalists’ ability to do their work, he says.
One of this year’s subthemes is ‘Independent and Professional Journalism free from Political and Commercial Influence’. To what extent do we see this in Sri Lanka? Turning the searchlight inward we need to admit the sharp decline in independent and professional journalism.
Journalism is more than a profession. It is a vocation like the priesthood or medical care. But today we see young people coming into journalism with little or no training. Those who wish to be doctors go through five years of intensive training in medical college, as do engineers, accountants and other professionals. When journalists’ movements applied for membership in the Organisations of Professional Associations (OPA) our application was rejected on the basis that most journalists were not properly trained, and therefore not professionals.
Journalists here need to be trained for years on how to engage in free, fair, balanced and accurate reporting. They need to be trained to check and double-check, or even treble check, reports before they are published. They also need to be trained to go into deeper levels of investigative and pro-active reporting and feature writing where they go in search of news. Journalists must remember they are the voice of the voiceless, and their main role is to highlight the woes and the grievances of the poverty- stricken, oppressed and voiceless people so that the authorities would be compelled to provide solutions. Most of all, journalists need to remember a famous publishers’ definition of news. The American publisher William Randolph Hurst said, “News is something that someone wants suppressed. The rest is advertising.” How much are we indulging in glorified advertising through media conferences, media statements and other publicity stunts of political parties, individuals or groups with vested interests?