Covid-19 and challenges to media viability and to access information

By Nino Japarashvili

Media Viability in Europe amid COVID-19

Media freedom and media pluralism were deteriorating before the outbreak of COVID-19. However, the pandemic has exacerbated the situation. The trends that already existed – increasing number of threats to the safety of journalists, intimidation and pressure in different forms, the abuses of defamation law, as well as challenges facing media in the face of digital transformation – worsened and exposed the media, especially small and local, to major revenue losses. Media environment has been further affected by legal restrictions, which have been laid by governments in the name of the health crisis. Only in 2020, no less than 90 countries worldwide, including some in the EU and its Neighbourhood, have imposed restrictions on media freedoms on the grounds of COVID-19.

Addressing the existing and the newly emerging challenges to media viability in times of COVID-19, various initiatives were launched. Significant policy documents and action plans were adopted on the European level to help the media sector recover from the crisis by facilitating and broadening access to finance and other measures. Other funding opportunities were created by the media industry, as well as leading technology platforms launched new emergency schemes to support media in times of health crisis.

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COVID-19 and Access to Information

Access to information in Europe

In 1766, Sweden was the first country in the world to adopt a law giving individuals the right to access information held by public bodies. It took nearly two centuries before the next such law was adopted in Finland in 1951. The historical and corresponding normative developments of the following decades led to the fact that the number of laws adopted, which specifically guarantee the rights of citizens to access government information, reached 126 worldwide in 2019. Upholding the right to access information has led to major breakthroughs in corruption cases worldwide and demonstrated the change of the course of the events in public lives in many countries.

Covid-19 and transparency around procurement

With COVID-19 vaccines being approved and massively used worldwide, the scale and the complexity of their manufacture, allocation and distribution is unprecedented. The urgency of needs, required flexibility and requested speed of the vaccination process amplifies corruption risks in the health sector.

One of the most vulnerable areas to corruption is public procurement. COVID-19 created a radically new purchasing environment never before experienced by governments and public bodies. States are not only required to purchase with extreme urgency, but also under high uncertainty and within a rapidly changing landscape. Such a unique environment makes the health sector prone to corrupt contracts, nepotism and favouritism, as well as public overspending.

In order to deter the corruption risks and hold governments to account, ensuring transparency in the public procurement cycle is essential. Without critical information about the nature and costs of COVID-19 vaccine contracts, it is virtually impossible for non-governmental organisations, journalists, civil society representatives or citizens to demand accountability.

Unfortunately, there is a disturbing trend. Numerous countries have curtailed the right to access to information under the pretext of responding to the pandemic. This is not only the case under regimes where this right is regularly disregarded, but also in countries where it is both protected by law and usually respected. Ensuring access to information will be key to mitigate these corruption risks in the near future.