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5th Jun 2020

Coronavirus

Journalism hit hard by corona crisis

  • Over a thousand accredited journalists work in Brussels - but now mostly from home (Photo: EUobserver)

While Europeans might currently feel overwhelmed by news, journalism itself has been hit with a double blow by the coronavirus outbreak.

Journalists themselves are constrained in their movements, with highly-limited access to events, officials, politicians and information.

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Meanwhile, publishing is rapidly losing advertising revenues as companies are bracing themselves for an economic downturn, threatening journalism globally.

Journalists are beginning to get laid off, or forced to take cuts in salaries, while some also come under increasing political pressure.

"Things are going to be very difficult for journalists," Tom Gibson, the lead advocate of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in Brussels told EUobserver. He added that the "role of journalist will be critical" in the pandemic in providing access to reliable, high-quality information.

Gibson said certain elements that already made life in journalism difficult have been compounded by the pandemic, such as being in a weak economic sector, working in isolated conditions and in some cases, like Hungary, being under attack from officials.

"They have an important role as a watchdog, giving citizens information, pushing governments on transparency in terms of measures, commitments they made," Gibson added.

Danish model

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned on Tuesday that "now, it is more important than ever that journalists are able to do their job freely and precisely, so as to counter disinformation and to ensure that our citizens have access to crucial information".

On the ground, the pandemic creates challenges for an already fragile economic model, where newspapers have begun to move away from advertisement to subscription-based revenues. But that migration has been slow and uneven.

The government in Denmark on Wednesday discussed to allocate around €24m to save local media.

"The scheme can compensate for the lost advertising revenue. We have private media, a part of our local democracy, which is losing advertising revenue. There is a danger that it will go beyond our democracy and our common conversation," culture minister Joy Mogensen was quoted as saying by Danish media on Wednesday.

Newspapers are gaining new readers digitally during the pandemic. Even though the World Health Organisation said newspapers are safe to touch, publishers are struggling to make ad revenues.

The Guardian reported that UK newspapers are set to lose €57m, if the outbreak lasts for another three months, in digital revenues as advertisers refuse to place their ads next to stories about the pandemic, deeming it as inappropriate content.

"We understand many marketing budgets are under real pressure now. All we ask is that when you launch your next campaign you check you're not unknowingly blocking trusted news brands from your plans," Tracy De Groose, executive chair of Newsworks, the campaigning body for the UK newspaper industry, wrote.

Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter (which are often filled with dangerous and misleading information about the virus), are not treated the same way by advertisers, the Guardian points out.

The publishing of some local and regional UK newspapers may stop because of the revenue loss thanks to the crisis.

It is a global trend: News Corp, the Rupert Murdoch-controlled publishing group, has suspended the print editions of 60 newspapers in Australia.

Many American news websites' advertising revenues are said to have fallen by as much as 50 percent. Some US publishers have asked for government intervention.

Censorship

But it is not just economic constraints.

Several international press freedom organisations jointly wrote a letter on Tuesday (31 March) to the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, a rights watchdog to help protect the free flow of information.

They highlight, pointing to Hungary, that governments' swift moves to criminalise 'promoting false information' risks being used against journalists who are actually helping public understanding of the crisis and ensuring accountability.

The organisations also worry about "excessive restrictions on media access to government officials, decision makers, medical experts", with many governments reducing or eliminating the physical presence of journalists at press conferences.

They cite the examples of Slovenia and the Czech Republic, which have announced an to end them altogether.

The letter also points out that unchecked and enhanced surveillance, to combat the spread of the virus, "endangers privacy and data rights and journalists' ability to protect sources".

They are also concerned about assaults and online abuse of journalists who question government responses.

The press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has pointed out "censorship is not an internal matter during the pandemic".

"Information-control in a given country can have consequences all over the planet and we are suffering the effects of this today," RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement, noting that two of the epicentres of the infection were China and Iran, where "media have been unable to fulfil their role of informing the public".

RSF has launched a website monitoring the impacts of the pandemic on journalism.

Remote journalism

Some of it is also tangible in Brussels.

The EU Commission has stuck to its midday press conferences, and arranged for questions to be asked remotely, but there are no possibilities for follow-up questions. The same goes for questioning top EU officials publicly.

Some journalists feel like they are operating in a "void", as access to officials has become difficult. Accredited journalists are allowed to move around the Belgian capital despite the lockdown, however.

The International Press Association (API), representing journalists covering European institutions, has been pushing for more access and direct questioning of commission officials, but has so far been rejected for technical reasons.

"We have less opportunity to grill officials," Maria Udrescu, EU correspondent for Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique said, adding that "makes it easier for politicians to avoid uncomfortable questions".

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