Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa - FLIP

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Sunday, 07 June 2020 05:20

Journalism and the Media, an Indispensable Sector in Times of Pandemic

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Timely, truthful, up-to-date, and decentralized information is an essential public asset for dealing with the pandemic with democratic credentials to address the crisis and ensure fundamental rights during isolation. When citizens have quality information, they adopt the measures for their care, and follow the recommendations of the health authorities. Recognizing the vital importance of journalism at this juncture, the Foundation for Press Freedom -FLIP- shares a preliminary balance on the variables affecting a free press in Colombia during the pandemic.

1. Journalists and Press Workers Face Biological Risks.

The National Government, on behalf of the State as a whole, must ensure the exercise of a free and independent press freedom, so that it can disseminate information that contributes to public debate on issues of general interest. It is not enough to declare the telecommunications service as an essential service, if it is not accompanied by concrete measures to:

a. Protect journalists from biological risk. At least 16 reported having approached people who were infected or possibly infected during the exercise of their trade. Four journalists maintained voluntary isolation, and 11 were tested for the diagnosis of Covid-19, but delays of up to 17 days in the delivery of the results were noticed. One of these cases was the one of Paco Lasso, who died on May 7, 2020 after contracting the new coronavirus. FLIP has also had off the record knowledge of positive cases of Covid-19 in workers of a media outlet; a case in which we respect the discretion of the media company in the handling, and in which we especially value the care diligence that has been exercised with respect to that worker and all the people in his/her environment.  

b. Correct Mobility Difficulties for news reporting. According to Decree 749 of 2020, journalists are exempted from mobility restrictions. However, some authorities also require accreditation of this status through qualifications, labor certificates and/or ID cards. This is contrary to article 20 of the Colombian Constitution, which stipulates that the right to report is the head of all individuals in the Colombian territory. In addition, in some cases, to be bound by this exception, it is essential to register on platforms that require access to personal data and georeferencing in real time. This can pose a risk to communicators and their sources.

c. Clarify the conditions for the use of the media to disseminate official information1. Some measures recognize and value the right to inform and be informed, to demand that media disseminate official information. Nonetheless, the lack of clarity about applicable parameters can lead to arbitrariness. Resolution 844 of 2020 provides for the obligation of mass media to disseminate free information on the health situation and the protection measures adopted for the population, in accordance with information provided by the Ministry of Health. The scope of these terms and restricting the media as mere amplifiers of official information, opens the door for State enforcement of content, one of the mechanisms of the propaganda and prior censorship prohibited by the Colombian Constitution.  

d. Have the resources to ensure the sustainability of the sector. As of May 31, there is knowledge of at least 48 cases of journalists and media outlets that have been affected by the health emergency, 32 of them are from the media and reporters who are having an impact in their finances. This situation is most serious in regions that are under the threat of being left without local media and information. The different interpretations of Directive 16 of the Attorney General’s Office of the Nation, implied a reduction of the advertising budget, aggravating the situation; government financial relief has focused on open television and community media, leaving a wide range of media outlets with an specific lack of protection.

2. A Hostile Environment Against Freedom of the Press.

The FLIP has warned on recurring behaviors among local authorities that affect the flow of information. The public denigration of journalistic work and the stigmatization of some reporters and media, undoubtedly has an inhibitory effect. These hostile behaviors against the press seek to silence the voices that criticize the management of the emergency. This limits citizen oversight and participation. The situation in Medellín, Sucre, Cesar and Nariño, where government authorities have not refrained from denigrating opinions against the press, is worrying.

In this regard, it is worth recalling that public authorities and officials must guarantee the right to freedom of the press, and facilitate a public interest debate, even if this means tolerating criticism on their management. Such a debate must not be subject to opinions by official entities, nor to obstructions or censorship, which are expressly prohibited in the Political Constitution, being a damaging tool that limits pluralism, thus the very functioning of democracy in a State.

3. Difficulties in Accessing Information.

Access to public information is not being fully guaranteed, at least for the following reasons:

• The response time to petition rights was extended as a result of the emergency by Decree 491 of 2020.

• Law and order reasons have become a recurring argument for refusing to provide information on the level of contagion.

• The guideline that the only sources authorized to provide this information are the National Institute of Health and the Ministry of Health, limits access to local information.

• The lack of clear rules for the use of digital spaces (Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter) as an official channel for public officers has facilitated arbitrariness, such as not responding to uncomfortable questions, excluding on the basis of discriminatory criteria (editorial line, media size, media type, audience size) and blocking critical comments.

This does not allow an agile flow of information and does not respond to territorial information needs. So, FLIP calls on the Attorney General's Office of the Nation to establish guidelines for the use of platforms and social media, that guarantee access to information, and to also actively exercise the preferential disciplinary power over misconducts for preventing and impeding access to information. 

Finally, FLIP declares a risk of State capture of the public debate, in which the expectation of a simple amplification of the official voice by national and local governments, coupled with an operational reduction of the media due to the financial crisis they are going through, results in a very limited environment of social scrutiny to the public policies under way. FLIP encourages the audience to financially contribute to the media, and invites national and local authorities to assess the right to an informed society as a public interest asset in the pandemic, by enabling measures that effectively address the risk of extinction of the media and the capture of the public debate. 

 

1 Decree 460 of 2020 ordered community radio network to be willing and responsive to information needs in the midst of the emergency in the face of specific issues. More recently, media support was expanded through Resolution 844 of 2020, issued by the Ministry of Health, which extends the health emergency until August 31, 2020, and orders all sound broadcasting stations, television programmers and other mass media, to disseminate freely the information provided by this ministry, in high-audience hours or time slots, on the health situation and protection measures for the population, in accordance with the guidelines of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies.