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"Peace Talks" - Experts Discuss Media’s Role in Pandemic

UK-2020-06-09-Experts Discuss Media’s Role in Pandemic

Vienna, Austria—Leading media professionals were among the speakers at a Peace Talk hosted by the International Media Association for Peace (IMAP).

More than 200 people attended the webinar, which was held on June 9, 2020, on the theme "Assessing the Role of News Media in the Global COVID-19 Crisis."

The International Media Association for Peace (IMAP), a project of UPF, was launched in February 2020 in South Korea at the World Summit 2020 held by UPF. The co-sponsors were The Washington Times newspaper from the United States, Segye Ilbo daily newspaper from South Korea, and Sekai Nippo newspaper from Japan.

The panelists were:

Mrs. Cheryl Wetzstein, a senior adviser to IMAP and a former national reporter and special sections manager at The Washington Times, United States.

Mr. Humphrey Hawksley, an author and former correspondent and Asia bureau chief for the British Broadcasting Corporation, United Kingdom.

Mr. Willy Fautré, director and editor in chief of the non-governmental organization Human Rights Without Frontiers, Belgium.

Dr. Rubina Möhring, president of the Austrian branch of the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders.

The moderator was Mr. Peter Zoehrer, the coordinator of IMAP for Europe and the Middle East.

The concluding remarks were made by Mr. Jacques Marion, the president of UPF for Europe and the Middle East.

Mrs. Cheryl Wetzstein, a senior advisor to IMAP, explained about the establishment and background of the new association. IMAP was launched on the foundation of the World Media Association, which was renowned for its international conferences on topics such as media ethics and the mission of the media. The association organized many fact-finding tours for journalists worldwide, particularly in trouble spots. Mrs. Wetzstein explained that IMAP’s mission today is to provide leadership and networking opportunities for media practitioners and to address the current crises in leadership, media credibility, media ethics, and upheavals in the media world. IMAP supports the development of a responsible, trustworthy and independent media industry that is accessible to all, she said. It aims to assist the news media in shining a light on dialogue, collaboration and conflict resolution.

Mrs. Wetzstein reflected on the media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, using the core missions of the media as her markers.

The media are supposed to gather eyewitness information, she said. However, with COVID-19, human relationships were virtually shut down, which seriously hampered the work of journalists. Covering breaking news stories was a challenge.

The media are supposed to verify information to ensure that the most accurate news is reported, she said. During the lockdown, however, contacting experts to get independent information was difficult. Moreover, very few reporters had ever covered a pandemic or had sufficient medical knowledge to verify information. This sometimes led to confusion.

As an example, Mrs. Wetzstein recalled the prediction made by US public officials that, without medication, between 1 million and 2 million Americans would die within three months. She said that she never believed that prediction, nor did she know anyone else who believed it. And yet, that prediction was one of the main reasons the United States was shut down.

The media are supposed to make sense of complex streams of information and to keep their stories accurate, she said. A hallmark of media is brilliant investigative reporting, she said. However, even the experts on whom the media depended did not understand the COVID-19 virus for a long time.

Mr. Humphrey Hawksley quoted the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens: “Always wandering here and there, seeing many little things which, because they interest me, I think may be of interest to others.” The role of the media has changed beyond recognition since Dickens’ days, he said, but the media still tell stories and focus on things we may not know but should, or simply are of interest.

Mr. Hawksley said so much confusion exists about COVID-19. Moreover, the news outlets have become increasingly polarized. People want to believe them, but scientists and universities appear to be competing, while political leaders are plucking out what best suits their policies.

Mr. Hawksley then explained where news is obtained. Citizen journalism is gaining momentum, with first news injections coming from mobile telephones.

Much news also comes from amateur blogs, or blogs that have become mainstream. People may follow the blogs they agree with, or whose worldview makes them feel good.

Next there are the daily newsletters issued by, among others, think tanks, universities, and NGOs.

Mr. Hawksley said that even before the pandemic, the media had become polarized, divided, slanted and political because of Brexit. To make things worse, there is rivalry among television channels. The BBC World Service, Voice of America, RT Russia Today, the China Global Television Network, and Al Jazeera all bring news seen from different angles.

COVID-19 is an apolitical global enemy, Mr. Hawksley said. One would expect media of different views to share much more common ground to counter this problem. However, this has not come true in the United Kingdom. COVID-19 has become a battleground with attacks on the current populist government of Boris Johnson. This is expected to continue, he said, once Brexit is again in the spotlight. Also Sino-US tensions have flared up.

Mr. Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, explained that the NGO for many years has been covering violations around the world of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights regarding freedom of religious belief, as well as any form of discrimination, intolerance or even hostility against specific religious groups.

Mr. Fautré said that his organization was surprised to see that, as a result of the pandemic, a number of religious groups were scapegoated by some prominent media and also politicians. Three cases were investigated by Human Rights Without Frontiers: one in South Korea and two in France. Scapegoating never emerges from a vacuum, he said, comparing it to a smoldering fire that can flare up at any moment. This was what happened to the groups that were investigated. They all had fallen victim to hostility and defamation campaigns.

He focused on the case of the Christian Open Door Church in the French city of Mulhouse, which from February 17 to 21 held its annual international gathering of fasting and prayer. About 2,000 Christians from France and neighboring countries attended. The event was held before restrictive measures had been enacted by the authorities. French President Emmanuel Macron was even in the same city on February 18, shaking hands at a public meeting. Only a few days later, doctors were sent a first official letter by the government saying that COVID-19 was dangerous.

A few days after the church gathering in Mulhouse, about 20 participants became ill and tested positive for the virus. This was the first visible cluster in France, but it was never investigated how and when the virus had reached the religious gathering. Later it was calculated that about 30 people who had attended the gathering died.

Only in the beginning of March were gatherings of several thousand people forbidden. But four weeks after the gathering of the church, the media stigmatization of the church started, when Ms. Josiane Chevalier, the prefect of the Great East and Lower Rhine district, declared on the radio that “the pandemic started from an Evangelical gathering which took place in the Upper Rhine [district], with more than 3,000 people and no respect for the restrictive measures.” This baseless accusation, Mr. Fautré said, was repeated again and again in Ms. Chevalier’s contacts with the media. Subsequently, the stigmatization of the church was taken over and even amplified by the French media.

This was reminiscent, Mr. Fautré said, of the state-driven warning campaigns and defamation activities of anti-cult associations over the last three decades, which have been denounced scores of times by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

There was no public word of compassion for believers who were victimized twice, first by the virus and second by the public stigmatization and scapegoating, Mr. Fautré said. Freedom of religion is on very shaky ground in France, he said.

Dr. Rubina Möhring, a representative of Reporters Without Borders, spoke about the situation of the media and journalists at the time of the coronavirus and what may be the consequences for human rights in general. She reminded us that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees press freedom, freedom of information, opinion, etc. There is no democracy without press freedom and freedom of information, she said. On the other hand, governments and politicians who minimize press freedom or freedom of information are more or less autocratic and far from living liberal democracy. Autocratic politicians shun critical media, she said, and want people to believe them rather than the media.

Especially in times of pandemics, sometimes even democratic governments try to control the flow of information. This results in a lack of credibility in the quality media and a growing interest in fake or alternative news, or conspiracy theories, which is not entirely without danger. We may come to a point, she said, where nobody knows anymore what is true or not.

On the other side, politicians, even in so-called traditional democracies, try to manipulate people, she said, as was very obvious during the first weeks of the coronavirus crisis in Austria, when the government turned the public television channel into a state television channel.

Dr. Möhring said that the more we are taken hostage by the coronavirus, the more we have to fight for freedom of information and press. She quoted Mr. Harlem Désir, the OSCE representative for freedom of the press, who on the occasion of this year’s World Press Freedom Day said, “Let journalists do their jobs unhindered, ensure them access of information, and support those media that are financially struggling.” Financially speaking, the pandemic has hit the media hard, Dr. Möhring said. The coronavirus has made it difficult for freelance journalists to make ends meet, and fewer journalists can do time-consuming investigative journalism, which affects the quality of information. The media, therefore, should be supported by the government without being influenced by it, Dr. Möhring said.

Dr. Möhring gave another quote from Mr. Désir’s speech: “As the world finds itself in the midst of a global pandemic, the necessity of a free media is even more wise and crucial than ever. … To combat false information … cannot be achieved by limiting media freedom. … Rumors are best checked by ensuring access to pluralistic and independent sources of information, rather than by censorship.”

In conclusion, Dr. Möhring reminded us that since the French Revolution and the time of the Enlightenment, the media have been considered the fourth pillar in society, in democracy. The media should be a mirror for politicians to show both what is right and what is wrong, she said. Critical journalism is not negative but positive. Sometimes, she said, politicians cannot accept this.

In the subsequent question and answer session, the question was put as to why no one had spoken about the World Health Organization.

Dr. Möhring said she views the WHO quite positively and feels it should be listened to.

Mr. Hawksley compared the WHO to a lightning rod. As soon as the WHO is mentioned, society becomes polarized. The WHO is one of these institutions which 50 years ago would have trusted and followed without question. It is now being ripped apart by the social and other media on each side.

Mr. Fautré added that the WHO has become a battlefield between the United States and China for many reasons, but in particular for its image. What has not been put on the radar, he added, is that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, is a goodwill ambassador for the WHO. He thinks this sheds an interesting light on the way China, and President Xi in particular, are supporting the WHO.

Mr. Jacques Marion, president of UPF for Europe and the Middle East, gave the final remarks.

After World War II the Cold War was fought more through the media than by military means, he said, which raises the question of whether and how the power of the media can be used for peacebuilding.

UPF co-founder Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon, in creating the World Media Association in 1978, said: “My ultimate goal is to achieve lasting peace. This goal is far more likely to be accomplished by the work of the media than by military people.”

Two years earlier, after leading a large peace rally in Washington, D.C., to mark the US bicentennial, Dr. Moon announced his intention to hold a peace rally in Moscow. As he was an opponent of communism, many doubted his words, but in April 1990 his prediction did come true. Dr. and Mrs. Moon were welcomed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the Kremlin. Although many factors were involved, it was mostly because of the media, and not least because of The Washington Times, a newspaper founded by Dr. Moon in 1982, that this encounter was possible, Mr. Marion said.

In 1990 the UPF founders were invited, along with prominent world leaders, to a World Media Conference in Moscow jointly held by the Soviet news agency Novosti Press and the World Media Association. This conference helped to open doors for UPF and affiliated organizations to work in the former Soviet Union, work that is still going on today.

In 1989, Dr. Moon launched the Segye Ilbo newspaper, whose main purpose was to contribute to peace and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Two years later, the UPF founders were invited by Kim Il Sung to North Korea. Their meeting helped to open a new era of cooperation, Mr. Marion said. Since then, the Segye Ilbo has been at the forefront of efforts to peacefully reunite the Korean Peninsula.

At the UPF World Summit in February of this year, The Washington Times and Segye Ilbo were the main organizers of the media conference that launched IMAP.

Mr. Marion said he sincerely hopes that, just as the World Media Association helped to bring cooperation and understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, IMAP can build bridges between China and the United States, while remaining a voice for truth and the conscience of society.

A recording of the webinar can be found on the Peace Newsroom Channel at:

or on the UPF Europe and Middle East Vimeo Channel at:

or on the UPF Europe and Middle East YouTube Channel at:

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