World Press Freedom Day: libraries supporting intellectual freedom during the pandemic and beyond

May 3rd marks the annual World Press Freedom Day, and this year’s dedicated campaign launched by UNESCO focuses on the theme “journalism without fear or favour”. This day puts the spotlight on challenges to press freedom and independence, safety of journalists, and gender equality in media. For libraries, these issues are of course deeply connected to their core mission and values of access to information and intellectual freedom.

Where does news media stand in 2020?

On World Press Freedom Day 2020, journalism and news media are facing new and remerging challenges, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. A recent statement by the Council of Europe, for example, highlights that some legislative initiatives against disinformation can have significant and disproportionate impacts on press freedom and people’s right to receive information. The International Press Institute points out the different challenges that have emerged or intensified: from increasing restrictions on ‘fake’ news, to limits on journalists’ access to information, financial or accreditation challenges, and more.

On a larger scale, the newly released 2020 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RWB) highlights the key pressures that impact the future of free, independent and diverse journalism. These include: geopolitical and economic crises, the evolution of digital informational ecosystems where journalism and advertising, political, economic and editorial materials coexist and compete, and hostility and mistrust towards journalists.

The good news is that the overall global indicator does register a small overall improvement of press freedom in the world since last year. That being said, the RWB report emphasises that the coming decade will have a profound impact on the future of freedom of information and media.

 What is the role of libraries?

Naturally, there is a significant degree of affinity between journalistic and library values – as a 2019 Nieman Foundation Report points out, both fundamentally work to inform and empower communities. This can work as a powerful starting point for collaboration – so can libraries help address some of the key challenges the RWB report outlined?

The economic crisis: hybrid models and partnerships

One of the big impacts of the economic crisis in news media is arguably the financial sustainability challenges that local news faces. One possible solution to this challenge that is being discussed over the last few years is providing support to local newsrooms, for example by providing space in such public facilities as libraries or post offices – or even libraries delivering local news directly.

While this is still an emerging idea, libraries and local news organisations continue to explore ways to cooperate. Some collaborations are a continuous arrangement – like a grassroots local online news organisation NOWCastSA housed inside the San Antonio’s Central Library in the United States. As a Nieman report points out, this partnership also allowed them to team up and carry out joint events, and to highlight some of the library’s programming in NOWCastSA’s reporting.

Some initiatives have even evolved to adapt to the difficult COVID situation. For example, in New York, an independent news outlet THE CITY launched a joint project with the Brooklyn Public Library called “The Open Newsroom”. Already in 2019, they had started hosted public meetings in library branches to identify key neighbourhood concerns and see how the local news can be more collaborative and better serve the needs of the community. Now, in the face of the pandemic, the plans for a second round of meetings have been adjusted, and the public meetings will be organised filly online, allowing the project to continue!

Tackling the crisis of trust and technology

If a lack of trust and confidence in news and media – especially in the hyper-dense online environment – is one of the pressing challenges to journalism, media literacy can definitely be an important part of the solution.

A draft Council of Europe study on “Supporting Quality Journalism through Media and Information Literacy” identified five main models of MIL activities; and libraries and community media play a key role in the “training model”. Reports drawing on Swedish and Finnish approaches to MIL, for example, also show how libraries can be actively engaged in delivering MIL training to their communities.

Partnerships in the area are also common: for example, NewsGuard – a company developing “nutritional labels” for popular news sites to mark how correct the information is – has a partnership program for libraries in Europe and the US.

Advocacy: together for Intellectual Freedom

Naturally, libraries and library institutions are often actively engaged in promoting and standing up for Intellectual Freedom. The Canadian Federation of Library Association, the Canadian Urban Libraries Council, and several library associations, for example, recently celebrated the Freedom to Read week, a campaign focusing on promoting freedom of expression, freedom to read and report the news. Such library initiatives clearly show the significant overlap between libraries’ Intellectual Freedom values and the freedom of press.

Drawing on library expertise – news media digitisation and preservation

Even though perhaps less relevant for current day-to-day journalism but rather for historic records, libraries can also help preserve the news that has been published. News archiving and preservation in the digital age can be a challenge: a recent Columbia Journalism Review report, for instance, points out that many news agencies they had interviewed don’t see the value in preserving their output, or do not have established preservation policies and practices.

This is also a prospective area for collaboration. The University of Missouri Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and University Libraries, for example, have received a grant for a joint project to explore ways to preserve today’s digital news. They plan to set up visits with US and European news agencies to see how their policies, equipment and operations impact their preservation processes.

Another example is a web archive launched by several Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation librarians,  aimed at preserving some specific areas of at-risk online news web content. These are a few examples of how libraries can help make sure the valuable work of journalists is preserved.

Similarly, libraries have been clear in underlining that applications of the principle of the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ should respect press freedom. In a recent joint statement with the International Council on Archives, IFLA stressed also that broader privacy legislation should not lead to the deletion of news articles in collections, and so their non-availability for future generations.

All these and other areas show the connection between libraries and journalism – and their shared values. World Press Freedom Day is the opportunity for us to celebrate intellectual freedom, freedom of expression and access to information – and see what can be done to uphold these.

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