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Side-event in Geneva for the freedom of the press and freedom of expression
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

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UN General Assembly 2020

1 September 2020

President Sommaruga,
Distinguished members of the press,
Colleagues, Friends,

It is an honour and a pleasure to be speaking at this event.

Freedom of the media is essential to enable democratic, free and participative societies. Journalism enriches our understanding of every kind of political, economic and social issue; delivers crucial – and, in the context of this pandemic, life-saving – information; and helps keep governance, at every level, transparent and accountable.

The safety of journalists, and their ability to pursue investigations and disseminate information without censorship or threats, is a key element for the realization of the Agenda for Sustainable Development. Indeed, the SDGs explicitly require fulfillment of the right to freedom of information and other fundamental human rights.

But journalists around the world face censorship, surveillance, repression, intimidation and physical attacks. Often these appear to be perpetrated by organised crime, armed groups or other private actors, including businesses – but they may also be instigated or condoned by government officials.  Women journalists are often at greater risk of being targeted, including through threats of sexual violence and online hate campaigns. And these crimes against journalists, including cases of murder, are frequently addressed by inadequate investigations and prosecutions. 

As the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, told members of the Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents, ACANU, last year, "In just over a decade, more than a thousand journalists have been killed while carrying out their indispensable work. And nine out of ten cases are unresolved, with no one held accountable... (while) many thousands more have been attacked, harassed, detained or imprisoned on spurious charges, without due process."

In many situations of armed conflict, the intentional targeting of journalists, by both States and armed groups, is growing increasingly alarming. As when journalists are targeted in the context of protests and criticism, these attacks are intended to silence all of civil society, and this is of deep concern.

Additionally, legislation, including on counter-terrorism, national security, lèse-majesté and sedition, as well as vague prohibitions on the dissemination of “falsehoods” and “fake news”, are being used in many parts of the world to deter and crack down on independent reporting.

And in recent months, these trends of censorship; repression; threats and attacks; and impunity have been intensifying in the context of the global pandemic. In several countries, increasing politicisation of the pandemic, and efforts to blame its effects on political opponents, have led to threats, arrests and smear campaigns against journalists who maintain fact-based information about the spread of COVID-19 and the adequacy of measures to prevent it.

Some Governments appear to have seized on this public health crisis as an excuse for much wider – and unjustifiable – crackdowns on criticism and dissent. These measures include  shutting down media offices, closing websites, Internet shutdowns and other forms of censorship, and the arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists in dangerous and crowded detention centres. These practices disproportionately restrict the enjoyment of freedom of the media and contravene international law. 

We need to be very clear that these actions harm public health; harm development; harm human rights and democracy  – and benefit only the narrow and short-term interests of a few individuals who want to be shielded from review.

People cannot effectively diminish their risk of becoming infected when they are denied accurate information, or when the government's actions or disinformation undermines trust in official statements.

Access to accurate and reliable information is a human right, and it forms the foundation for many other fundamental rights. It is crucial to people's capacity to participate in decisions that affect their lives, and to maintaining the responsiveness, accountability and transparency of government.

No journalist or media worker should becriminalized or harassed because of their reporting. Every arrest, and every attack against journalists, sends a message across society: the search for truth, and the rights to be informed, to express oneself and to participate are not protected by the authorities.

It is our shared responsibility to reverse these worrying trends.  The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity aims to create a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers, with a view to strengthening peace, democracy and development worldwide. It includes many practical recommendations – and it is essential that States and other stakeholders act on these commitments they have made.
 I am convinced we can advance a vision of journalism as a space of freedom and rights, for the benefit of all.

I am here to honor the courage of those who, despite attacks, continue to investigate and report critically without fear.

My Office and the United Nations will continue to stand up for their rights.