JHR Executive Director Rachel Pulfer talks misinfo-busting strategies and the need to protect Afghan journalists at Media Freedom Coalition panel

On January 31, the Media Freedom Coalition handed its co-chair position over from the UK and Canada to Canada and the Kingdom of Netherlands with an online panel discussion on the effects of the pandemic on independent journalism. Canada and the UK invited JHR Executive Director Rachel Pulfer to share her views on the topic; she was joined by Free Press Unlimited Director Leon Willems and Thomas Bruning of the Dutch Press Freedom Foundation

UK Ambassador to the Netherlands Joanna Roper CMG, Canadian Ambassador to Netherlands Lisa Helfand, and Netherlands’ Human Rights Ambassador Bahia Tahzib-Lie opened the event with their remarks on the topic.

During the discussion, Rachel Pulfer said that COVID-19 mis- and dis-information has directly led to deaths, and stressed that independent, empowered journalists play a key role in amplifying facts and truth over misinformation. She talked about how JHR’s Global Affairs Canada-funded project Mobilizing Media To Fight COVID-19 is training journalists and social media influencers to safely debunk myths about the virus and vaccines in Africa and the Middle East, even in countries like Tanzania where journalists were banned from using the word ‘COVID’ during the first year of the pandemic and a series of covert workshops had to be organized to train journalists to effectively report on the pandemic.

Rachel Pulfer also called on the Media Freedom Coalition to step up to protect journalists in Afghanistan. She suggested operationalizing the High Level Legal Panel’s earlier proposed idea of an emergency visa infrastructure for endangered journalists. If each member of the coalition made a number of emergency visas available to Afghan journalists under threat from the Taliban, they would have access to a temporary safe haven; this could be paired with some financial support and a networking structure to allow the journalists to continue their important work from other countries. 

“This is not a scenario where we essentially lobotomize a country by removing an entire media sector for long periods,” Rachel emphasized. The goal, instead, is to get them out of harm’s way for the immediate period. She asked each member state of the coalition to consider offering 15-20 emergency visas for at-risk Afghan journalists plus provision for their family members.

At the discussion, Leon Willems and Thomas Bruning also talked in detail about the necessity of regulating social media platforms to combat misinformation during the pandemic and beyond.

Leon Willems said, “We’re in a corporate information space dominated by tech platforms that are not abiding by ethics in information dissemination, that are making money out of hate speech, that are not accountable to public scrutiny, that are not transparent about the ways in which they distribute content. That is a huge, and magnificent, and urgent problem that is at the root cause of the information crisis we are in.”

Thomas Bruning agreed, “Do we really want a world where two or three publishers can rule the information stream of the world? This is dangerous – how independent or democratic can the system be where few companies are responsible for editing decisions at a world level? We really have to view journalism as a public service to protect.”

Leon Willems also stressed on the importance of cross-border collaboration to fight misinformation.

“People are learning from each other very fast when they’re trying to destroy media freedom… We are not working together collectively, learning from each other on the best strategies… By sharing information on how to work effectively to debunk such myths – people in Tanzania have experience with the chloroquine story and people in Cameroon could learn from that. We’re not exploring the potential of national groups, we’re not listening enough to them, we’re not facilitating cross-border learning. This attack on democracy is a global attack and we’re addressing it with country-based antidotes. That is not going to work in the end.”

The Media Freedom Coalition was formed in July 2019 at the Global Conference for Media Freedom co-organized by UK and Canada in London. It represents a partnership of 50 countries working together to advocate for media freedom and safety of journalists and hold to account those who harm journalists for doing their job. For more information, please visit mediafreedomcoalition.org.

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