Sensationalist media coverage, inadequate protection of privacy and personal data and difficult access to information are among the most frequently reported problems to the press councils in the region of Balkans and Europe during the pandemic. This is one of the main findings of the research conducted by the Council of Media Ethics of of Macedonia (CMEM), in the period July-September, which analyzed the experiences of media self-regulatory bodies - members or associate members of the Alliance of Independent Press Councils in Europe (AIPCE).
CMEM's analysis, which is the first of its kind, was also published by UNESCO.
“We are very happy that our EU-funded project could support the publication of such a survey. At UNESCO we strongly believe that press councils have a critical role to play in defending press freedom and in addressing disinformation. This has proven particularly true in time of crisis. Yet, there are increasing concerns about the impact of the pandemic and the related media financial crisis on the future of these councils. We hope this survey can raise awareness on the need to ensure their financial sustainability,"
Adeline Hulin, Project Coordinator at UNESCO Brussels said.
Press councils in this period often received complaints about media coverage containing conspiracy theories: "Coronavirus is a project, it is not incurable, we have a 'cure'!" The virus was patented in 2015.” Clickbait headlines such as "Coronavirus cannot survive", "Coronavirus drug starts selling tomorrow" are part of the journalistic articles filed to the Bosnian Press Council.
With the spread of the pandemic, concerns about privacy have grown around data protection in media reporting. Cases in which these principles were violated have very often been reported to press councils in different countries. Cases of this kind were reported to the Press Council in Ireland when certain newspapers published names of people infected with Covid-19, which caused negative pubic reactions.
"However, the newspapers were very careful and identified only those who agreed to it. There may always be an argument in the public interest, but identifying individuals is a hasty step,"
Peter Feeney from the Irish Press Council said.
In some countries, there have been reactions to the publication of photographs by medics. Such an example is registered in the self-regulatory body in the UK, IPSO. The reaction refers to photographers who were stationed in front of the entrance of a very famous hospital, waiting for the arrival of ambulances, in an attempt to take photos while the patients were being taken down. The health staff themselves pointed out that in conditions when they are under extreme pressure and go through very difficult times, such behavior is offensive.
“For us, as a self-regulatory body, it was an interesting question about what are the rights of medical workers in these circumstances, because under normal circumstances we would explain that they are in focus of the public and are presented in a professional light, and that is not in the domain of the private”
IPSO's representative said.
Access to information was another key problem faced by media and journalists during the pandemic. The experiences shared confirm that health institutions and authorities
in certain countries restricted the flow of information, as well as the access of journalists to the locations, selected what could be published or limited questions of public interest from journalists. Some institutions in certain states have banned the presence or selected which media will be invited, thus limiting access to information, both for media and citizens.
To deal with these new situations in a complex time, keeping in mind that in some countries the corona crisis coincided with the holding of elections, cooperation and partnership with the civil sector, the media and their associations, with institutions and citizens, proved to be a powerful mechanism for press councils. Multisectoral cooperation among all parties concerned is in line with some of the key recommendations of international organizations for the protection of freedom of expression and information in times of crisis.