Language selection


Global Conference for Media Freedom: Summary of regional consultations in South Asia


COVID‑19 and media freedom

COVID‑19 has generated a variety of constraints on journalists’ ability to access information at a critical moment for regional democracies. Multiple participants noted that lockdowns have restricted their access to critical areas, detracting from reporting on important issues. Government ministries have issued directives discouraging communicating with journalists, and some participants described occasions on which they were denied access to data and information. In other cases, government diversion of scarce public resources to the COVID‑19 response has generated significant delays in legally protected access-to-information processes. One participant mentioned the example of authorities charging or fining journalists for not wearing masks correctly or otherwise violating COVID‑19 protocols.

Politically, COVID‑19 has dominated discourse, detracting from scrutiny of other important political issues. The result is that governments continue to take important decisions with reduced coverage and analysis. One participant noted that support from the international community for media freedom has diminished since the pandemic as the international community has focused its resources on COVID‑19 response.

Digital technology and media freedom

Traditional media outlets—newsprint, radio and broadcast television—remain an important source of information across South Asia, more so than in North American and European media markets. That said, consistent with broader global trends, digital media is rapidly eroding the consumer base and revenue models of these traditional outlets. Social media platforms that provide free content, much of which was described as pirated from traditional media sources, are without accountability siphoning related revenue streams (both subscribers and advertisers) away from those sources. Facebook and Google were cited in particular for reproducing the content of mainstream media and extracting undue profit by pocketing ad revenues, and no mechanisms are currently in place to discourage or penalize these practices. One participant argued for laws and regulations to hold social media companies accountable but warned that these same laws should not be used to further suppress access and media freedom.

‘Weaponization’ of the law

Despite legal guarantees of media freedom, many participants described their legal systems as sources of threats rather than protection. In multiple countries in the region, governments and other powerful stakeholders have “weaponized” a multitude of laws—often obscure and unrelated to journalism—to intimidate and compromise journalists and media organizations. Weaponized laws include not only the well-publicized sedition and national security ones but also seemingly innocuous legal mechanisms. The increase in legal actions against journalists means that they often expend time and resources fighting charges in court instead of doing their jobs. Participants also described an increase in censorship, both state and self-imposed.

The harmful effects of a rapidly proliferating and unregulated digital environment may extend to traditional media organizations and their staff and, more broadly, to the healthy functioning of democracy. Some participants lamented that while social media can be a valuable democratizing tool, it has often been used instead for “trolling” and spreading disinformation.

Democratic backsliding exacerbates trends

Participants from some countries expressed concerns over the erosion of democratic institutions and freedom of expression resulting from the rise of high-profile and charismatic populist leaders. The marginalization of legislatures as checks on executives allows these populist leaders to propagate powerful state narratives without meaningful political challenge, which places independent media in the vulnerable position of being increasingly isolated as a counterbalance to government rhetoric.

The role of the international community

One journalist expressed disappointment in the reluctance of the international community to speak out on media freedom and in what was described as a “deafening silence” on crackdowns on journalists and free speech. It was argued that developed countries are hesitant to jeopardize trade deals and economic relations by taking stands on human rights and protecting minorities. However, another participant noted that the role of the international community is not necessarily to intervene but rather to create “safe spaces” for journalists to explore and address their challenges.

Participant recommendations

Participants recommended several actions to increase media freedom in the South Asia region:

Report a problem on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, please contact us.

Date Modified: