Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris III
The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovi, recently highlighted the need to protect press and media freedom given that “journalism serves a crucial function during a public health emergency” (3rd April 2020). She expressed regret at the introduction of disproportionate restrictions by some governments since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and called on member states not to sacrifice access to information in the fight against disinformation. As mapped out by Index on Censorship in conjunction with Justice for Journalists, violations of media freedom are taking place around the world including – but not limited to – attacks on journalists, detentions, arrests, restrictions on what may be reported, legislative changes to restrict media freedom.
France and the UK, ranked thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth respectively in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, are not exempt from these risks. Cases have been emerging on both sides of the Channel regarding obstacles to accessing and communicating reliable information about the pandemic. A common cause for concern relates to government transparency, public scrutiny and accountability. Emergency measures regarding the sanitary crisis must of course be temporary and proportionate.
However, the framing used by some politicians and the media alike risks blurring the lines between civic responsibility and unquestioning obedience. In a speech to the Nation given on 16th March, President Macron used the term “war” to describe the sanitary crisis seven times. During a press conference the following day, PM Boris Johnson also compared the pandemic to war, stating “We must act like any wartime government”. If such strong language is simply hyperbole intended to call upon collective efforts to lower viral transmission rates and boost morale, the situation can hardly be compared to the type of restrictive measures imposed during the two world wars. Such an analogy may actually be counterproductive, causing fear rather than a reasoned response. In any case, media freedom continues to play a key role in a health crisis: informing the public about policy choices can be the first step towards accountability.
Like in the UK, news media workers in France are amongst those professionals classed essential, allowing them freedom of movement when conducting public interest reporting about the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the French Presidential Press Association recently accused the Elysée Palace of preventing or interrupting journalistic coverage of President Macron’s official engagements (9th April 2020). The association denounced any interference as wholly unjustified given the public nature of such events and the Elysée’s self-coverage via social networks.
The regional daily newspaper, Le Parisien, also accused the Elysée of manipulating footage of the President’s surprise visit to a hospital in Val-de-Marne on its Twitter page (9th April 2020). Viewers would be forgiven for believing that hospital workers were giving the President a standing ovation for his speech, when in reality they were applauding a trade union representative’s speech, which denounced working conditions in the hospital sector.
Criticism has also been levied at the editorial line of the public television broadcaster, France Télévisions. Although the broadcaster’s official editorial communiqués have frequently referred to the importance of serving the public interest during the viral outbreak, France 2’s eight o’clock news has been criticized by the French National Union of Journalists for a lack of critical perspective. The union pointed to vast amounts of airtime being given to messages from government Ministers and officials, as well as a predominantly moralizing discourse focusing on solidarity and citizens’ responsibilities.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s government has been accused of refusing to be held to account by the press as well as fuelling hostility and distrust towards journalists. When the Daily Mirror and the Guardian revealed that the PM’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown protocol whilst suffering from Covid-19 (22nd May 2020), Number 10 stated “We will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr Cummings from campaigning newspapers”. This refusal to answer the press whilst resorting to undignified attacks on the credibility of journalism is sadly reminiscent of Donald Trump’s cries of fake news in the face of serious public interest reporting.
Newsgathering has also been put at risk in the context of exceptional Scottish legislative measures: The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland expressed concerns when a majority at Holyrood voted in favour of the Coronavirus (Scotland Bill) on 1st April. Amongst the exceptional powers, the newly adopted Act tripled maximum response time for Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from twenty to sixty working days. The Scottish government argued in its policy memorandum that this was necessary in order to “reduce the immediate pressure on authorities”. However, the risk of hindrance to journalistic activity was considerable given that public interest requests already faced difficulties prior to the viral outbreak including undue and/or unexplained delays as well as a shortage of staff to deal with requests. Fortunately, the tripling of response time for FOI requests has since been reversed as opposition parties combined in Mid-May when the Coronavirus (Scotland Bill) (N°2) was being passed.
Despite difficulties such as getting sources to go on record, some news investigations in France and the UK have already demonstrated the essential role the media play in scrutinizing government strategies towards the pandemic. One such investigation by the French online investigative newspaper, Mediapart, has revealed evidence of inconsistences between government statements of reassurance and the reality of shortages in protective face masks (2nd April 2020).
Mediapart has also reported on conflicts of interest within the French government’s two scientific advisory committees tasked with providing strategic advice on how best to deal with the sanitary crisis (31st March 2020). It has thus been revealed that the pharmaceutical industry has spent tens of thousands of euros on committee members’ expertise and various expenses. As yet, the Elysée has not publicly announced any measures to prevent conflicts of interest in this area. This story broke just a week before the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption made a statement about the risk of corruption during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Contrary to the situation in France, the very existence and composition of the UK Government’s scientific advisory group was unknown until a recent leak. The Guardian found that the group had been meeting with government officials since at least February this year but its membership and advice to Ministers had been kept secret until now (24th April 2020). The appointment of the Prime Minister’s chief political advisor, Dominic Cummings, to this committee raises serious questions regarding the independence of its scientific advice.
Such opacity in health policy decision-making processes and communication had already been revealed by The Independent, which found that doctors were being warned not to speak to the media about equipment shortages (30th March 2020). The Doctor’s Association UK immediately pointed to many cases of NHS staff being pressured into silence. Indeed, NHS England confirmed it was seeking to keep media communications under control so as to provide the public with “clear and consistent information”. Yet the objective of clarity was already somewhat comprised given that Health Secretary Matthew Hancock had published a piece about the viral outbreak for The Telegraph, and which was only accessible to subscribers behind a paywall (14th March 2020). The article was only made freely available to all following public outcry on social media.
It is evident from these few examples that there is every reason to be concerned about the freedom of information in times of sanitary crisis both in France and the UK. In the fallout from the pandemic, the working conditions of journalists are already complicated by issues surrounding safety, the current economic climate and job losses. Yet responsible, critical reporting remains as essential as ever if governments are to be held to account. Robust reporting does not equate to politicizing a crisis. On the contrary, the principles of good governance and public health are at stake. Public health policy relies on public trust, which is dependent on transparency, scrutiny and accountability.