1 Key challenges to freedom of expression | #mediadev | DW | 17.11.2021
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COVID-19 and the global media sector

1 Key challenges to freedom of expression

​​​​​​​Governments across the globe have used the pandemic as a pretext to restrict press freedom.

A reporter holding a photo camera wearing a helmet with the word press on it and a face mask is surrounded by protesters holding signs with written anti-coup slogans

Coverage of an anti-coup protest in Myanmar in 2021

New restrictions for the media and the use of digital technology in the attempt to contain the coronavirus have violated fundamental rights in many places. Authoritarian rule and digital surveillance put the safety of media and journalists in jeopardy.

The pandemic has aggravated the ongoing worrisome trend towards a decline of media freedom on a global scale, illustrated most drastically by the spike in cases of repression against journalists. This is happening in a context of rising digital authoritarianism in many countries around the world, with increasingly rigid fronts leading to strong polarization in the public sphere.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of attacks on journalists have been documented, including intimidation, arrests, and physical assaults. In just the first six months of 2020, the press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) registered violations of media freedom in 90 states. Between mid-March and mid-May 2020, RSF listed three times more attacks on journalists in sub-Saharan Africa than in the same period of the previous year.

At the end of 2020, RSF reported that more than 130 journalists worldwide had been arbitrarily detained in connection with their coverage of the pandemic—most just for a few hours, but many for days or even weeks.

Portrait of Michelle Bachelet

"Journalists are playing an indispensable role in our response to this pandemic, but unlike the grave threats posed to other essential workers, the threats media workers face are entirely avoidable. Protecting journalists from harassment, threats, detention or censorship helps keep us all safe." - Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in 2020

Since the beginning of the pandemic, global Internet freedom has continuously declined. In at least 13 countries, governments resorted to Internet shutdowns or blocked individual online services. Ongoing Internet shutdowns were not lifted—despite urgent and repeated calls from human rights advocates.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, many states have also stepped up their surveillance of citizens in the name of health protection. Governments have collected personal data to enforce quarantine regulations, travel restrictions, or distancing rules—often in disproportionate scope and insufficiently protected against unauthorized access. As a result of such measures, journalists have become more vulnerable to digital threats and attacks.


Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, millions of people around the globe have seen their right to freedom of opinion and expression impeded, if not seriously violated. To counter this trend, actors in international cooperation contexts, such as governments, donors, and civil society organizations, should:

  • Encourage governments to stick to their commitments to guarantee freedom of expression, access to information, and the right to privacy, as laid out, for instance, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Covenant on Civil Liberties.
  • Promote the achievement of Goal 16 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions—especially with regard to goal 16.10 (ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms).
  • Support initiatives advocating the security of media workers and fighting impunity for crimes against journalists; for example the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, and effective export restrictions of surveillance technology.
  • Support media professionals in the use of digital technologies pertaining to aspects of personal safety, in line with a holistic security concept which includes not only digital security but also physical and psychosocial safety.

This page is part of the article "COVID-19 and the global media sector. Developments and ways forward" on #mediadev:

Main article

     1 Key challenges to freedom of expression

2 Professional journalism and media viability

3 Media and information literacy and digital inclusion

4 Conclusion and outlook


You can also download the discussion paper as pdf.

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