COVID-19, the global pandemic that almost blotted out plans and activities in different sectors in 2020 really tested the strength and capacity of IFEX, the global network that promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, according to its Executive Director, Annie Game. IFEX advocates for the free expression rights of all, including media workers, citizen journalists, activists, artists, scholars.
Ms Annie Game, the Executive Director of IFEX, recounting the challenges of 2020 as COVID-19 raged around the globe, hinted that the body promptly reached out to member organisations to ascertain how they were coping in terms of their tasks of promoting the rights of media workers, citizen journalists, activists and scholars. She added that IFEX fostered network solidarity, supported members in their transition to new working realities, and promoted financial sustainability at a time when it was most needed.
She disclosed that in June 2020,IFEX took a step further by inviting members to reflect on their experiences, both personal and professional, living and working during the global health crisis, and share those reflections back with the network. She said IFEX called the project: “In our own words: IFEX voices from the pandemic.”
She said further that IFEX reached out to all of its members early on and decided to document some of their experiences – the contextualized challenges they were facing, the strategic solutions they were coming up with.
Annie said: “Forty-two responses later, we had a snapshot of the impact the pandemic was having on this vibrant, diverse, and resilient network and the people in it, as well as – by extension – on civil society in general. It provided timely information to help us better understand and support each other through the on-going pandemic.”
One thing was evident, she stated, addingit was the determination of IFEX to keep the network vibrant and overcome the many challenges while still remaining focused on the task of ensuring that focus did not shift from the right to information that it provided grants to members working on pandemic-focused initiatives. It also provided support to the timely and essential right to information work of several members in sub-Saharan Africa.
She said: “The pandemic forced us all to re-examine our priorities, recalibrate our paths, and draw on our experience, and to be creative and effective in our response. Listening to the members as they grappled with the challenges they faced provided us with the insight, analysis and direction on how best to direct our efforts and find ways to engage and support them in their important work.”
“We didn’t take our eyes off the ball. In our op-ed, we reinforced the powerful message we heard from members: that the work of promoting and defending human rights must never flageven as we address this crisis.
“Whether defending critical voices and the right to protest in Cambodia and Cuba, pushing back against crackdowns in Belarus and Turkey, mobilising to release human rights defenders from jail in Egypt, continuing to support efforts made in the investigation of the murder of Daphne CaruanaGalizia, defending the rights of women journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador,or providing emergency support to high-risk or detained journalists during Uganda’s election season – pandemic or no pandemic, the IFEX network delivered.”
She said the pandemic remains disruptive and unpredictable, and somewhat destabilizing for even those with best-laid plans like IFEX. She said IFEX however, ended the year feeling confident that it can apply what it learned, given that the network has shown that they can be resilient and safe, without sacrificing either their ideals or their voices.
As 2021 dawned, it became clear that the network was able to surmount the challenges and chart the way forward. According her, the precept remains clear – “Be Safe, Not Silent,” because from what the network saw of IFEX members, silence is never an option.
Interestingly, while the pandemic presented new problems and challenges, it also created new opportunities to advance the right to information – even to build awareness and new allies. IFEX provided support to its members as they shared their concerns and made specific recommendations to governments in their local or regional contexts, or internationally. Issues they raised included data collection and surveillance and privacy concerns around contact-tracing apps, the online censorship of vital news, as well as the spread of threats to information integrity in an expanding “infodemic”.
One focal area; the right to information (RTI) remains one of IFEX’s four pillars in its 2020-2024 strategy plan. It is envisaged that the next five years would usher in a smooth transition towards a greater focus on promoting and defending open, safe, and equitable access to information, its circulation and its integrity, both online and offline.
Another issue of key importance remains concerns about how the spread of COVID-19 brought a surge in misinformation and disinformation, and, in some countries, government censorship, which underscored the issue of Right To Information.
According to Annie, “These conversations helped inform our decision to focus even more than we had envisaged on RTI as a strategic goal in the five years of our new Strategic Plan. Recognizing its vital importance to public health, and responding to member’s concerns and perspectives, IFEX redirected resources accordingly to find critical needs, designing relevant and impactful responses in its communications and network building work.”
Some of the tasks undertaken by IFEX to promote open, safe and equitable access to information, its circulation and integrity, both online and offline, in 2020 include: the First International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) on September 28 and World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) which took on an entirely new look against the backdrop of COVID-19.