Press freedom in times of the coronavirus pandemic

04.05.2020, Germany, Bertelsmann

Sonja Schwetje, Editor-in-Chief of news channel NTV and Chairwoman of the Bertelsmann Working Group on Press Freedom, explains why freedom of the press is so important for our democracy, including during the current coronavirus crisis.

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Sonja Schwetje © MGRTLD / Marina Weigl

World Press Freedom Day 2020 comes at a time when we journalists are investigating, producing and publishing under extraordinary conditions. Everyday working life has changed for all of us. As the editor-in-chief of a news channel, my primary objective has been, and remains, to protect our employees, safeguarding their health, first and foremost, but also their ability to do their job. In this respect, protecting press freedom has a very practical dimension these days. To start with, we must ensure that our reporting teams – who for many people are the window on the outside world – are properly equipped, for example with boom microphones that allow them to keep a greater distance from interviewees than the handheld mics they normally use. But we have also had to make structural changes to our broadcasting centre so that those colleagues who absolutely have to be present in the building for broadcasts can stay further apart. There has been tremendous support for this, combined with a recognition that the work our teams do is systemically important. As our audience figures in recent weeks have shown, many new users are placing their trust in us at this time of crisis. This has been gratifying for us and at the same time has strengthened our resolve to carry on fulfilling our responsibility to society, even under difficult circumstances.

The impact that a massive curtailment of press freedom can have is evident, for example, in the lack of transparency concerning the origins and spread of the coronavirus in China. One cannot respect enough the brave journalists and bloggers who, despite government repression, published pictures and information about the situation in Wuhan and other cities back in January and February. Even now, China is ignoring calls for a transparent, scientific investigation that could help to safeguard human lives.

But World Press Freedom Day is also a timely opportunity to highlight the restrictions that exist here in Germany. Members of the Federal Press Conference and the equivalent bodies in the federal states have – quite rightly – criticised the current rules surrounding government press conferences in an open letter to Chancellor Merkel and the state premiers. Of course the videoconferences also serve the  press representatives’ own safety, but needless to say it makes a difference whether journalists can ask questions directly and follow up on them, or – as is currently the norm – the questions are read out by government representatives, and not always in the original wording used by the questioner.

Likewise, the pandemic must not be used as an excuse to curtail authorities’ duty to provide information or to deny reporters access to public places or protagonists. Journalists must be able to form their own picture of what is happening, not least so that they can respond to the disinformation that surrounds COVID-19, some of which is deliberate, some peddled out of ignorance.

Another thing to bear in mind – and one that many users may not always be aware of – is that private media companies are also commercial businesses. High-quality journalism requires investment and entails costs: solid technical training, subsequent training and professional development, staff wages and salaries, technical operations, travel expenses, and much more. All of this has to be recouped, whether through subscriptions, paywalls or advertising. Media companies attach particular importance to their journalistic independence, enabling them to report critically on the government. This is particularly important at times when fundamental rights such as freedom of assembly are restricted. 

It is with good reason that we have a dual system of private and public-service broadcasters, designed to ensure a pluralistic media landscape with sufficient independence from government. In this regard, World Press Freedom Day may also be a good opportunity for users and viewers to realise that commercials and banner ads, a few euros for an ad-free app or a monthly subscription fee are economically necessary to fund independent journalism, allowing everyone to contribute  to ensure we have the widest possible range of information and entertainment at our disposal. That is something we should all be willing to pay a price for.

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