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Press freedom needed vs COVID-19, says Amal Clooney

Facts are needed in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, and to get the truth you need press freedom, says Amal Clooney. Image credit: IBM Think Digital
Facts are needed in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, and to get the truth you need press freedom, says Amal Clooney. Image credit: IBM Think Digital

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation. Unfortunately, governments are also using the crisis as an excuse to intensify the assault on press freedom, continuing the global trend toward authoritarianism.

A barrister who specializes in international law and human rights, Clooney was one of the speakers at IBM’s Think Digital conference. The conference does not just focus on technology solutions. It also takes a look at the impact of digital transformation and the COVID-19 pandemic on society.

Silence is deadly

“Unfortunately, in the COVID era the threat to journalists has only increased. Authoritarian governments have capitalized on the moment to take even more draconian measures to suppress the truth. And this virus shows that it is not only lethal to democratic rule. This can also be deadly to individuals,” Amal Clooney said.

Clooney said in the session that the global health and human rights crises share many similarities. She offered three messages for combating both.

The first is that silence is deadly.

“As the Washington Post’s tagline says, democracy dies in darkness. And if you silence the press, it gets very dark and very quiet. Because of this, I have focused in my legal practice on defending journalists who are prosecuted simply for doing their job. One of the cases I’m working on is the trial of a Filipino American journalist, Maria Ressa, who is a CNN anchor in Asia and went on to set up her own news site,” Clooney said.

Facts a matter of life and death

Clooney pointed out that suppressing the truth cost the life of Li Wenliang and hid the COVID-19 outbreak from the world, with disastrous results. The Chinese ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital had already warned his colleagues on December 30 about a possible outbreak. The Wuhan police summoned and admonished him on January 3, however, for “making false comments on the Internet”. He later contracted COVID-19 after returning to work and died on Feb. 7 at age 33.

Now, more than ever, press freedom is needed. Journalists need to be able to do their jobs and get the facts to the public. As UNESCO stated in its FACTS global media campaign to commemorate World Press Freedom on May 3:

“Today, citizens are on lockdown, eager for news like never before. And more than ever, the news must be fact-checked, verified. Because disinformation spreads as fast as the virus itself, and journalists are on the frontline in the fight against the distortion of truth.”

Call for global cooperation

Author and Think Digital host Mark Jeffries interviewing Amal Clooney after her session.
Author and Think Digital host Mark Jeffries interviewing Amal Clooney after her session.

“My second message is that global problems need global solutions. The virus we are dealing with spreads through people in every city and corner of the globe. Meaning we are all part of the problem. But our interconnected world is also part of the solution. We need to share data to better understand how the disease is spread. We need to purchase protective equipment produced abroad. To bring together the best scientific minds. To produce reliable tests, treatments, and, hopefully, vaccines,” she said.

One of the things that has made the COVID-19 pandemic even harder to address is that in the past few years, the world has seen the breakdown of international cooperation.

As historian and author Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out, humanity is lacking leadership in the fight against COVID-19, with the US abdicating its traditional role.

“Such global cooperation should be led, not subverted by the United States,” Clooney said.

World needs engaged citizens

Lastly, Clooney reminded people that we all have a part to play.

In the face of a global pandemic that has turned our lives upside down seemingly overnight, it is easy to feel helpless.

“The scale of the problem makes us think that surely there is nothing we can do. But this pandemic has shown us that each of us can play our part. That it’s not just cooperation between governments that is needed, but also engaged citizens in every community. People all over the world are stepping up in new and creative ways to support each other in the fight against a lethal enemy,” she said.

Clooney cited how all over the globe, individuals, businesses, and nonprofits have all been responding to the crisis and supporting frontliners.

“So let’s use this time of forced separation to begin a new era of togetherness. Where we feel an empathy for one another, regardless of color, gender, sexuality, geography, or creed. Where the best talent in the world can be pulled together. Where public-private partnerships are a model for positive change. Where we all feel engaged.

“A Canadian Supreme Court judge once said that what matters is not what you stand for, but what you stand up for. We are confronting an invisible enemy that has been the greatest health crisis of our lifetime. Like the human rights crisis, no individual or government can solve it alone. But when we look back at this moment in years to come, when our children ask us, ‘What did you do?’ We should say that we stood up for one another and that each of us played our part,” she said.

What do you stand up for?

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