European Federation of Journalists

ARTICLE19 briefing: How to tackle misinformation about COVID-19

Picture credit: Article19.

Professional journalism, ethical journalism, independent media, transparency from those in power, media literacy and the free flow of information are the best antidote to misinformation and conspiracy theories about the spread of COVID-19 across the globe. In that particular context, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) welcomed the policy brief recently issued by ARTICLE19.

“More than ever we need professional journalists in the field. Citizens are counting on them to report on the real impact of the pandemic, to disseminate protective measures and to hold decision-makers accountable. The EFJ asks media owners to refrain from any initiative to reduce wages, rights and protections of media workers,” said EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez.

The EFJ fully supports ARTICLE 19’s briefing on how states, the media and social media companies can help to combat COVID-19 (coronavirus) by committing to transparency, tackling misinformation and promoting authoritative health advice.

“Together with ARTICLE19, we believe that this is not the time for states to take a restrictive approach to freedom of expression and information. We need full transparency and open public discourse about the spread of the virus and the options to combat it,” added Ricardo Gutiérrez.

ARTICLE 19’s briefing outlines several challenges to freedom of expression and information during the current COVID-19 crisis and makes key recommendations for governments, the media and social media companies. Here they are:

To states

  • Governments should proactively disclose information relating to the spread of COVID-19, including the number of cases, geographical distribution, statistics on mortality and recovery, and government policies and response efforts. Public education campaigns, dedicated webpages and social media messaging with up-to-date information about the virus and recommendations on prevention strategies are an important first step. Commitments to transparency and disclosure should be included in all policies and action plans developed in response to the spread of COVID-19.
  • Governments should use freedom of information legislation to facilitate access to public information, including by mandating disclosure of certain types of information and establishing a system for individuals and groups to request information from public bodies. States that currently have freedom of information laws should prioritise implementation and consider amendments to bring those laws in line with current international and regional standards and best practices. Other states should consider adopting freedom of information legislation through an inclusive, participatory process.
  • Public authorities should refrain from reliance on criminal prosecution and other coercive measures as a primary means of combating “hate speech” and misinformation about the spread of COVID-19. Criminal proceedings and custodial sentences should be reserved for the most serious forms of speech-related crimes. Outside cases that fall within this narrow category, authorities should drop charges against all individuals currently facing charges because of their communications regarding the virus, and release from prison those already imprisoned on similar grounds. Moreover, governments should impose a moratorium on the use of repressive legislation in response to communications regarding COVID-19. They should begin steps to reform laws to ensure compliance with international standards relating to the freedom of expression.
  • Public authorities should ensure that they do not spread misinformation, and governments should abandon intentional propaganda or disinformation campaigns.
  • Governments should ensure strong protections for whistleblowers. Many states already have whistleblower protections in freedom of information legislation or standalone laws. Those states should focus on consistent implementation to protect those raising concerns about government misconduct or policy failures relating to COVID-19. Those without dedicated whistleblower legislation should refrain from prosecutions or restrictions on those who release information related to COVID-19 in the public interest.
  • Governments should adopt positive policy measures to combat “hate speech” and intolerance that are consistent with international human rights standards and best practices. Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action offer important guidance in this regard.
  • Governments should take steps to ensure a free, independent and diverse media environment, in particular through clear regulatory frameworks that ensure self-governance and independence for the media and broadcasting sector. States may also consider supporting independent public service media with a clear mandate to serve the public interest, including by reporting on COVID-19 and other public health crises.
  • State authorities should end the harassment of journalists reporting on COVID-19 and official responses to the spread of the virus.
  • Governments should consider measures to promote media and digital literacy, both generally and in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak. This could include incorporating media and digital literacy lessons into school curriculum and engaging with civil society and social media platforms on similar efforts.

To the media

  • Media outlets and journalists should proactively report on disinformation, propaganda and discrimination by state or non-state actors in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak. Accurate reporting by reputable journalistic sources is one of the most powerful tools to push back against misinformation and “hate speech”.
  • Media outlets and journalists should support effective systems of self-regulation, including both national press complaints bodies and ombudsmen or public editors at individual news outlets. Such bodies or officials should help to ensure the right of correction or reply to address inaccurate or discriminatory reporting in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Media outlets and journalists should adhere to the highest ethical standards, including equality principles, when reporting on COVID-19. They should report about COVID-19 accurately and without bias, avoiding stereotyping, and without unnecessarily referring to race or nationality or ethnic origin.

To social media platforms

  • Social media companies should articulate clear and easily understood policies governing misinformation and “hate speech” on their platforms in line with the “human rights by default” approach advocated for by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression. Many companies have refined their content moderation policies in recent years by providing more precise definitions and examples of violating content. They should continue this process, providing further clarity. Moreover, to the extent that social media companies develop policies specific to the COVID-19 outbreak, these policies should likewise be precise and nuanced in line with the standard of legality set out in international human rights law.
  • Social media platforms should ensure minimum due process guarantees when taking adverse action against “hate speech” and misinformation about COVID-19. They should notify users when taking such action, whether by removing content, restricting its reach, or blocking accounts. Demonetisation of content should be done in accordance with clear and transparent procedures, as it constitutes a form of content moderation. In all instances, users should be provided with meaningful opportunities for appeal.
  • Social media companies should ensure full transparency in their engagements with governments concerning misinformation and COVID-19. Such information could be incorporated into periodic transparency reports, which should be complete and comprehensive. Additionally, companies should push back against government requests that violate human rights.
  • Finally, social media platforms should leverage partnerships to combat “hate speech” and misinformation around COVID-19. They should maintain and deepen their engagement with the World Health Organization and health ministries around the world to promote the dissemination of accurate information concerning the virus. Partnerships with third-party fact-checkers are also promising. However, companies should ensure that these types of engagements are carried out in line with international human rights standards. 

More about it on ARTICLE19 website: here.