World Press Freedom Conference highlights dangerous job of separating ‘truth from lies’ |

The 2020 World Press Freedom Conference, which kicked off on Wednesday, features interactive panels and discussions on issues such as the investigation of journalist murders, online violence against women journalists and the media response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Journalists not only convey vital information during the pandemic, but they also help us distinguish right from wrong, which is fundamental to our social contract,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.

“Yet journalists continue to be targeted, harassed and attacked. In recent years, threats against them have multiplied because they disturb, because they tell the truth. Or, to put it simply, because they do their job.

No ‘press’ without ‘freedom’

Between 2010 and 2019, nearly 900 journalists were killed in the line of duty, according to UNESCO data; crimes that remain largely unpunished. Women journalists have faced harassment, including physical or sexual threats, whether online or in real life, while the pandemic has worsened the already precarious financial situation of the media industry.

There can be no “press” without “freedom”, said Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok, acknowledging how much he relies on the media to keep him informed of what is happening at home and around the world.

Mr Blok said he had spoken earlier on Thursday with young journalists from Ethiopia and Libya “and I could really tell them from the bottom of my heart: we need you. We need you to know what is happening in your country and to do what we need to do as ministers.

Corrosion and contagion

During the first panel, Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, spoke of the “difficult four years” that the American media had to go through to cover the Trump administration.

“He called us ‘the enemy of the people’, he used the term ‘fake news’, which was repeated by 50 presidents, prime ministers and other government officials around the world,” she said.

Although these attacks had what Ms Bumiller described as “a corrosive effect” on the media in the United States, she said the Times had nonetheless recorded record levels of readership and digital subscriptions.

However, Sudanese-born journalist Nima El Badir, CNN’s senior international correspondent in London, feared the “contagion” of populism was still spreading across the world.

“I’m afraid we’re taking our breaths in and exhaling a little too soon,” she said. “The feeling we have is that there is a contagion; that the lessons of populist leadership, of the populist wave – whether in the US, UK or Europe – have been learned very well by leaders around the world.

Democracy in danger

Ms. El Badir referred to the situation in Ethiopia, where a communications blackout has been imposed in the north since the Tigray crisis began a month ago.

“How can President Trump, how Prime Minister Johnson, how any of the many leaders of the European Union talk about lack of access when they themselves would like nothing more than exactly the same thing ? If they could shut us down, they would,” he claimed.

For Maria Ressa, editor-in-chief of the Philippine online news site Rappler, the rise of populism and attacks on journalists have been made possible by technology.

Ms Ressa, who has been arrested nine times, believes people need to consider their sources of information. Social media penetration in the Philippines is high, she said, describing it as “Facebook country”.

“Well, our dystopian present has now hit many democracies around the world, and we have to do something about it,” she warned.

“And that’s to make sure the news gets to you; that the platforms, the social media platforms, because of their business model, that they don’t insidiously manipulate us to tear down democracy.

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