We mark World Press Freedom Day this year in the most unusual of circumstances: a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, crippled economies, and challenged democracies.
We must start by mourning the media workers who have lost their lives due to COVID-19 and paying tribute to the thousands of others who continue to provide vital news and information during this public-health crisis, often at great personal risk.
Now, more than ever, it is critical that people get reliable news about what’s really happening and how best to get through this crisis.
At CWA Canada, we have been working relentlessly to ensure employers protect the health of staff. We have also been fighting to defend our collective agreements so that our members have some financial security, especially those who have been temporarily laid off or had their hours cut.
At the same time, we recognize that employers are struggling to deal with plunging revenues and we have urged the federal government to do even more to provide relief. We also pushed successfully for federal aid for freelancers, temps, contract and other precarious workers.
The current crisis has only exacerbated an already troubling situation with freedom of expression under serious threat around the globe.
In a day and age when billions of people get their news from social media, it is vital that journalists and trusted news sources are protected and encouraged.
There are five main ways in which governments and others attack freedom of the press: violence and intimidation, blocking internet access and communication, internet surveillance, legislation limiting free speech, and online harassment.
So what can we do about it?
We can launch public pressure campaigns. Such campaigns can yield great results. We must call out governments and bad actors to embarrass them into behaving better. We need to rally the public to hold government to account and that requires educating people.
We can use social media against itself. Ironically, we can use social media to educate and rally the public and expand the civic space by sharing information about fake news, disinformation, and hate, while promoting trusted, reliable news sources.
We can impose sanctions against bad actors. It is vital that progressive, responsible governments speak out publicly whenever freedom of expression is under attack, that they pressure offenders diplomatically to do better, and punish the worst offenders through economic sanctions if necessary. And those sanctions should be on specific officials, not just governments. Block key politicians and officials from travelling abroad and seize their foreign assets and see how quickly things change.
We will continue the fight for press freedom in 2020. It’s a fight we can’t afford to lose.
As journalism goes, so goes democracy.