H.E. Dr. May Chidiac, former Minister of State for Administrative Reform, Lebanon
Dr. Chidiac is the Founder and President of the May Chidiac Foundation and former journalist at the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. In 2005, she was attacked by a car bomb, causing her to lose her left leg and arm. After ten months and numerous surgeries and rehabilitation, she returned to the TV screen in a primetime political talk show called “Bi Kol Joraa”, or “With Audacity". Throughout her career, Dr. Chidiac has received numerous international awards and prizes. For example, in 2006 she won the UNESCO Award, which highlighted her outstanding work as a media personality. Dr. Chidiac is currently Head of the GROUND-0 Beirut Relief Committee created after the Beirut Port explosion.
Good evening to everyone,
Let me begin by expressing how honored I am to be part of this prestigious webinar “Opportunity and Hope at a Time of Global Crisis: Interdependence, Mutual Prosperity and Universal Values” and I thank Universal Peace Federation for the opportunity to be here today to discuss the role of news media in the global Covid-19 crisis. As you may know, this unfortunate pandemic has rendered us completely powerless and does not differentiate between gender, race, religion or nationality; it has reached families, friends and unfortunately myself.
As you may all know, after I returned from France in March, I had some symptoms similar to coronavirus. I immediately moved into home quarantine. I underwent medical examinations at the Hotel Dieu hospital to identify the reason behind the symptoms, and after the results of the tests came out, I was asked to head to hospital for treatment after my infection with the virus was confirmed. Thankfully, my condition wasn’t as critical as that of others who were contaminated with the virus. Nevertheless, the journey was painful and tiring, and we are hoping to find a cure or a vaccine to lessen the deaths and infections and have citizens of the world act responsibly and be aware of the major crisis this pandemic has put us in.
Before we start this webinar, we would like to commemorate the awful event that befell the city of Beirut on August 4th of last month. The capital lies half destroyed due to Ammonium Nitrate that was irresponsibly stored at the port, causing nearly two hundred deaths, thousands of injured and 300,000 displaced. Up until now, we do not know who caused this tragedy, whilst calling out for an international investigation to know who the culprit behind it was.
The Media in Times of Crisis
Freedom of expression, media independence and open deliberation, rather than information control, are the core principles of a functioning democracy, as citizens must productively participate in the decisions that shape their lives.
Our media has never been more needed than in times like these. In times of crisis and grave uncertainty, the public turns to sources they can trust — sources that strive at all times to report the news accurately and fairly, with sharp analysis and the kind of insight you cannot get anywhere else.
Media is indeed essential to the health of a democracy for at least two reasons:
- First, it ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices, rather than acting out of a lack of information or misinformation.
- Second, it serves as a “checking function” by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them
There is a robust link between media development and government responsiveness. Therefore, a country, despite its wealth, cannot function without independent media. The press must tell the truth to power and must be supported to do so.
What is the role of local journalism/the media?
Trustworthiness of digital news sources was at the heart of the discussion, but amid a "deluge of information" regarding the novel coronavirus, an large number of people were struggling to identify brands they can trust. A world without local journalists means a world without important life-saving information.
Accurate information saves lives. In times of crises, news media, data journalism, fact checkers and investigative reporting shed light, whereas disinformation, spreads fear and a chain of bad decisions. In fulfilling their role, journalists around the world have to cope with unprecedented professional challenges ranging from switching to health-coverage for those who had no previous specialization, to ensuring their own health safety, while seeking to counter the spread of misinformation in what has been defined the first ‘disinfodemic’.
A lot of misinformation surrounded the news of vaccines; some media outlet spread rumors of a medication that could work and treat malaria. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on 17 June 2020 that the hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) arm of the Solidarity Trial to find an effective COVID-19 treatment was being stopped. Dr. Didier Raoult has highlighted that the medication could be used to treat the COVID and had said that it is “probably the least expensive and simplest way to treat the coronavirus”. President Trump has defended the idea and proclaimed that he has taken the medication already as a preventive measure. Some other doctors have gone against the idea of adopting this medication and we are faced with the fact-checking phenomenon, where it has become a bilateral argument.
Personally, I was treated by it and I saw the results, and so the worldwide media has adopted both news, and the world is faced with these two scenarios. Thus, media outlets show that their information is credible, regard the World health organization as a credible source, and show readers that their information could be trusted. Thus, media outlets are lost; which source is more reliable?! Which information is more accurate?! How to show that their information is the credible one? Should they adopt the World health organization as a unique credible source and show readers that their information could be trusted because it is based on WHO reports…. Personally, I am still confused and this confusion is widespread and global, if I may say so.
However, it is important that trusted media sources don’t just ignore misinformation, but attempt to counter it. This can be done by thinking about who their audience might trust, bringing in credible experts, showing empathy with those affected, using appropriate language, and thoroughly and carefully explaining terminology, for example, what does a ‘community case’ mean?
As such, the New York Times published a vaccine tracker to clear away any fake news regarding the vaccine for the Covid-19. According to this article, last updated on September 10, vaccines typically require years of research and testing before reaching the clinic, but scientists are racing to produce a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine by next year. This kind of news outbreak could cause two different scenarios, and the media is invited to stand on solid ground and disperse the latest updates over the vaccine development to halt any sort of panic and mistrust in the scientific arena. The importance of the media industry, in this case, is to lessen the anxiety that had grown inside the citizens of the world that is completely mortified by this pandemic, while feeling powerless in every sense of the word.
In Lebanon: The case of the Media in Lebanon shows the following
Lebanon’s news media have traditionally reflected the country’s confessional politics and sectarian societal composition. With the media being entangled in national politics and international influence peddling, journalists are often required to act like political activists. At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in the country, coverage of the pandemic followed typically partisan lines. For a short period during March and April, the normal politicization of the issue was briefly set aside before a return to business as usual in May.
Knowing that journalism is a mission, some institutions have chosen not to halt their activities in the face of the pandemic and chose to continue in Hybrid form. To highlight the political crisis in Lebanon, we should include how the media is partaking of roles of the Government. In the midst of the pandemic and with the rise in the number of the cases, the Lebanese government did not declare a state of emergency and declared that businesses should remain open. Thus, the MTV, an independent Lebanese news channel, declared a state of emergency, encouraging people to take the precautions and stay at home as the Government is absent. This decision created a backlash from the Lebanese Government, as they criticized MTV for encouraging people to do what they want, as we live in a jungle and it is only the Government’s prerogative to declare a State of Emergency, not a news channel.
However, if the government had reacted professionally from the beginning, we would have avoided such a confrontation with the media. Shortly afterwards, and for the sake of avoiding criticism, the government began announcing indiscriminately the closure of various sectors, which had negative repercussions on the economic situation already suffering from regression.
In our own Foundation, the MCF-Media Institute, and to cope with the situation, we have chosen to continue our conferences like the Free Connected Minds e-conference, in such a format, merging in person participation from our MCF studio with virtual broadcasting on Zoom. It consists of having a small number of audiences in the studio and the others online and with that ensuring the transfer and continuity of our conferences and the safety of everyone.
Because we believe in the importance of the media and reporting, and how difficult it is to be a reporter in times of crisis, the May Chidiac Foundation-Media Institute has chosen to give an award to journalist Stefania Battistini, who covered the Covid crisis in Milan, not forgetting Mrs. Chao Deng who brought the virus to our attention during her work in Wuhan, where she was arrested for covering the hospital scandal. This pandemic is seeing some of the most wide-ranging restrictions on individual freedoms in peacetime. I therefore urge all states to ensure that any measures taken to tackle Covid-19 and that infringe on fundamental rights are necessary, proportionate, temporary and limited to solving the immediate health crisis.
With the novel coronavirus exacerbating already dire socio-economic conditions in Lebanon, journalists there find themselves facing double the work. Many of the protesters are ignoring measures aimed at guarding against the spread of the coronavirus. Reporters are caught in the middle.
Furthermore, a spate of prosecutions where the state uses articles in the Penal Code, Military Justice Code, and Publications Law to silence criticism of politicians since the outbreak of nationwide protests on October 17, 2019 against activists and journalists critical of government policies and corruption is threatening free speech and opinion in Lebanon. The administrative and judicial decisions over the past four years contribute to a deteriorating environment for freedom of expression, but self-censorship poses an equally large threat.
What are the issues and challenges that the media might face?
The crisis caused by the novel Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the media worldwide and so disseminating information amidst crisis, specifically with a pandemic that has challenged us all, and highlighting the severity of the situation in its local or international coverage has put reporters all over the world in critical situations that in some cases prevent them from diffusing the news. The first aspect of the challenge that reporters face is the physical one, where journalists are face to face on the ground with their tools to broadcast the news and are putting their lives at risk with the possibility of contamination.
In this context we are lessening the risks of having people getting infected and depending on platforms such as twitter live coverage with specific hashtags that would trend beyond the cyber world and have more people interact with the news, live Instagram and Facebook stories. Despite the confinement, reporters and journalists have made sure to disseminate news coverage by any means necessary.
In the beginning of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in China, the “fake news” phenomenon caused people to be faced with major doubts over the subject and lessen their orientation regarding the issue, which caused the infection rate to skyrocket in its early stages in Milan, Paris and the United States. The media has rightfully taken upon itself the obligation to report the facts, including communication between health authorities and travel advice, in its own form, in order to provide awareness of the global pandemic.
In another aspect, the news outlets have lost views and basic coverage due to the pandemic restrictions, meaning that having to be in close contact with others is prohibited.
Emergency COVID-19 measures must not be used to roll back media freedom:
The free flow of independent news is more essential than ever in this situation, both in informing the public on vital measures to contain the virus, as well as in maintaining an open dialogue and debate on the adequacy of those measures, which is essential for winning the necessary public trust for them. Governments worldwide need to recognize the crucial role of independent news media in the coronavirus pandemic and to ensure that emergency measures to tackle the disease are not used as a pretext to censor news and information on- and off-line or implement regressive regulations against media freedom.
What are the alternatives of Media Coverage in times of Economic and Health Crisis?
Digitizing the media is a necessity amidst the unfortunate circumstances and, by lessening the risks of journalists and reporters on the ground, innovation was key to make sure that news is effectively disseminated amongst the public. Social media platforms are taking on the responsibility to halt any spread of fake news that would put the lives of the user at risk, such as Instagram as an example that announced that it would include Covid-19 related posts and stories in a recommendation section published by WHO.
We need to highlight the technological and technical advancement demonstrated in times of crisis to avoid human contact and reduce the risk of infection. With this being said, media institutions had taken the opportunity to use satellite and drone usage to facilitate the broadcast and fasten the process of news circulation.
Against the soaring demand for verified information, independent media have risen to the challenge
This crisis has brought to the forefront the importance of the media and of access to verified information. Free and independent media serve as a key source of credible and lifesaving information, and they help people by detecting and debunking the lies of the “disinfodemic”. Many media online have dropped their “paywalls” and provided coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic free of charge, in the name of public interest.
Amid the crisis, there are new opportunities to stand up for journalism
The crisis sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic may have a long-term impact on access to information and press freedom around the world. It could lead to more restrictions and danger to journalists, and the suppression of the rights of the press to impart information and the rights of people to seek and receive information. Yet this moment also offers an opportunity to recognize journalism as an essential element of our lives and livelihoods, and as a moment for strengthening news media now and in the years to come. During these difficult times, concerned stakeholders can stand up for (1) human rights: Efforts to fight the disinfodemic should respect international standards for human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy. Any new restrictions must be necessary and proportionate, in law and time bound. (2) access and accessibility: Reliable, life-saving information should be made available through proactive disclosure by governments.
Engagement and empowerment: Outstanding reportage on the crisis can educate and inform, promote solutions and peace, and stimulate citizen participation and governmental accountability.
Transparency: Transparency and statistics are needed by technology companies about their fight against the disinfodemic, and their decisions on content should respect international human rights standards.
Solidarity: In support of the news industry, media organizations should be offered support:
- By technology companies - through donations, sharing of advertising revenue,
- By governments - through inclusion in economic rescue packages, tax relief, subsidies, donations, or stimulus packages,
- Guarantees of editorial independence and a plurality of media must be part of the package.
Multilateral and multi-stakeholder cooperation: Combining forces within and between countries is vital in the face of the pandemic and the disinfodemic. Fragmented efforts will not be enough.
Global Monitoring: Research co-operation should be reinforced in all regions of the world to more fully track the impact of Covid-19 responses on press freedom
Journalism is there to shed light on what is usually kept in the dark, to challenge postulates from those given or seeking power, to inform the citizens about whether the management of our common resources is good or bad, or in more precise words: to empower through information.
IPI has published a list of measurements that governments can do to enable journalists to have calculated and transparent information, by which the governments are advised to give the journalists complete access to information in the health crisis. Following that, security insurances should be given, allowing reporters and journalists to visit the location they are in without suffering any collateral damage or being a target of any kind to physical or virtual predators, not forgetting that they are required to allow them freedom of movement and access to decision makers, health care professionals and others combating the pandemic for better cooperation. These measures should also include the fact that no emergency powers or regulations are used to restrict journalists or reporters in anyway whatsoever, and they also need to ensure that government representatives and health experts are provided space and time on the airwaves to inform the citizens, while protecting journalists’ right to scrutinize, and where necessary, criticize decisions. And finally, halt any punishment and intimidation procedures used on the media, and specifically critical media, when they’re shedding light on unorthodox situations.
The purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments. Maintaining and safeguarding the freedom of expression in societies is their main goal and their essential need.