Focusing on the right to information in times of crisis, this year’s International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) foregrounds the fact that access to reliable and trustworthy information has become a matter more urgent than ever due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The global pandemic has not only accentuated the crucial role played by reliable information when it comes to preventing the spread and attempting to remedy the array of effects that this pandemic has on individuals and whole societies. It has also brought to our attention the potentially deadly consequences of the ‘disinfodemic’ – or torrent of disinformation that has accompanied the pandemic.
UNESCO, which is the United Nation’s lead agency on the subject of disinformation, warns that there is currently “barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from the origin of the coronavirus, through to unproven prevention and ‘cures’, and encompassing responses by governments, companies, celebrities and others”. 
A newly released UN Broadband Commission and UNESCO report authored by Centre for Freedom of the Media researchers Kalina Bontcheva, Julie Posetti and Diana Maynard shows that the pollution of the digital information environment is extensive. There is a risk that citizens come to “feel overwhelmed by the flood of content they are exposed to online, and [that] they can come to rely on spurious sources that appeal to their biases and reinforce their pre-existing beliefs or identities”.
In the wake of these developments citizens run the risk not only of being “uninformed” but ”becom[ing] actively disinformed, or indirectly misinformed” about matters directly influencing their health and lives.
On the UN level initiatives have been taken to counter the spread of disinformation, in particular during the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020 over 130 United Nations member countries and official observers called on all states to take steps to combat disinformation.
It was emphasised that “responses should be based on Freedom of Expression, Freedom of the Press, and the promotion of Media and Information Literacy, as well as the crucial need for access to free, reliable, trustworthy, factual, multilingual, targeted, accurate, clear and science-based information.” 
Critically, fact and evidence-based journalism has been identified as a vital tool in the fight against disinformation and it has been highlighted that responses to curb disinformation must not “restrict or risk acts of journalism such as reporting, publishing, and confidentiality of source communications” nor ”limit the right of access to public interest information”. 
Acts unduly limiting journalistic reporting should in fact be understood to directly endanger the public’s right to know “what is going on” in a way that I have described elsewhere as ”transparently homologous with the world”.  Such acts of constraint directly hamper the formation of a well-informed citizenry as a basic democratic requirement ensuring that people are able to effectively participate in and influence matters that concern them.
It is news journalism’s commitment to a professional ideal of truthfulness grounded in standards of accuracy, sincerity and objective reporting that instils journalism with the capacity to serve as a counterforce to information that distorts reality. This does not mean that journalistic representations of reality are never flawed nor does it mean that journalism itself should not be exposed to rigorous examination and critical debate. What the fundamental commitment of news journalism to the truth and methodological transparency signals however is that journalism holds a deserved warrant as a trusted and accountable source of information in service of the public.
Understanding the ways in news journalism performs a public service alongside the challenges journalism faces in trying to respond to the public’s right to know is at the heart of the research that we are conducting at the Centre for Freedom of the Media. This research agenda has been developed as a means to support the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal Target 16.10, which calls on States to “Ensure public access to information”.
One of my research priorities as UNESCO Chair in Media Freedom, Journalism Safety and the Issue of Impunity, together with Sara Torsner, is examining the relationship between the safe undertaking of journalism and a media and information literate citizenry.
While Media and Information Literacy (MIL) is often referred to as a tool for citizens to critically evaluate media messages, the starting point for our research is that it needs to be acknowledged that MIL should also facilitate a broader understanding of what journalism is for – i.e. its societal role and importance.
This requires understanding the particular nature of journalistic information and the role it plays in supporting the communicative foundation of collective democratic life by for instance: inclusively speaking to all members of society and not to particular interests; by providing citizens with reliable information that can be used to challenge existing political, social, economic and cultural ‘truths’ without destroying the moral and social fabric of society; and, by enabling citizens to establish a stronger sense of common meaning, mutual understanding and belonging to a community. 
Citizens bestowed with “literacy skills” to understand how journalism can serve such democratic outcomes via a distinct form of trustworthiness are more likely to be able to exercise critical discernment with regards to the polarising and divisive intent behind and harmful impact of disinformation. In this way, a media and information literate citizenry is also more likely to be able to navigate the information disorder while remaining resilient to false information and propaganda. Such a citizenry is also more likely to understand how the media can be mobilised and weaponised for different purposes (e.g. politically/discriminatory). Importantly, a media and information literate citizenry would also be able to understand the value and importance of safeguarding the capacity of journalism to serve the public’s right to know.
 Countering disinformation while respecting universal access to information and freedom of expression: https://events.unesco.org/event?id=1922822079&lang=1033
 Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation While Respecting Freedom of Expression. Broadband Commission research report on ‘Freedom of Expression and Addressing Disinformation on the Internet’: https://www.broadbandcommission.org/Documents/working-groups/FoE_Disinfo_Report.pdf
 Harrison (2019) The Civil Power of the News, London: Palgrave.
 Harrison (2019) Public Service Journalism. Oxford Research Encyclopedias: https://oxfordre.com/communication/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228613-e-867