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Global Conference for Media Freedom

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
16 November 2020

Greetings to all of you, and thank you for inviting me to open this second Global Conference for Media Freedom.

It is vital, for all our societies, that we take a stand on this crucial issue.

The freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media – in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – is crucial to enabling the exercise of all other human rights.

Sound, independent media, empowered to investigate issues and cite critical views, are key to ensuring that governance and institutions are transparent and accountable. They serve as watchdogs and early warning systems for the full range of potential dysfunctions. And by investigating and conveying reliable information, both 'real life' and digital media contribute to a culture of democratic practice, empowering people to make better choices, including in the context of elections. We cannot participate fully in decision-making, or in democracy, if we are inadequately informed about events.

Like censorship, misinformation can kill. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has highlighted the “dangerous epidemic of misinformation” around COVID-19. The antidote to that epidemic is objective and trusted investigative and fact-checking work by independent medial. But far too often, we receive reports of officials using the "fake news" label to undercut criticism and legitimate reporting – weaponising it to intimidate journalists and undermine the credibility of the media. Human rights guidance is particularly important to ensure that "fake news" laws do not become a tool for silencing critical voices

Excellencies,

Despite the demonstrable value of media freedoms in times of crisis, journalists and media workers have in numerous countries been subjected to acts of intimidation, killings, violence, arbitrary detentions and prosecutions simply for doing their work. Men and women in clearly marked PRESS jackets, engaged in covering demonstrations and clashes, have been attacked, apparently deliberately, by police. Even in some countries with a long legacy of respect for media freedom, reporters have been targeted for online harassment, including by top political leaders, and emergency powers and exceptional measures have been misused to justify censorship and excessive restriction of the movement of media workers.

As the former Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression recently reported, in multiple countries, "some efforts to combat the ... pandemic may be failing to meet the standards of legality, necessity and proportionality". His report to the 44th session of the Human Rights Council on Disease pandemics and the freedom of opinion and expression highlights five areas of concern.  These are access to information held by the authorities; access to the Internet; the existence and protection of independent media, and respect for their work; strong efforts to identify and combat disinformation; and a principled approach to public health surveillance.

In 2020, our field presences and other sources have noted serious allegations of violations of media freedoms in a very wide number of countries.

Excellencies,

In the context of the pandemic, we have also seen attacks against health workers who have discussed their experiences on social media. This is just one aspect of the disturbing climate regarding the right to freedom of expression online.

I welcome your planned discussion about online freedom of expression and the targeting of journalists, as well as the use of technologies enabled by artificial intelligence to amplify disinformation across the Internet. As with every business, social media companies have a responsibility to ensure their operations do not harm human rights.

And as the Human Rights Council has repeatedly affirmed, people's human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and information, are the same online as offline, and must be equally protected.

Attacks against journalists and media workers do not only violate their human rights as individuals; they undermine the foundation of fair and democratic societies. The Secretary-General's spokesman recently declared that "When media workers are targeted, societies as a whole pay a price." Journalists around the world have put their lives at risk since the onset of the pandemic to provide people with accurate information - and as with health workers and other essential workers, we owe them gratitude and respect.

This conference is an opportunity to give media workers the visibility they deserve, and to commit to concrete actions on the ground to push back against harassment or attacks. The Global Conference for Media Freedom has delivered a Pledge on Media Freedom, established a high-level panel of legal experts and set up the Global Media Defence Fund. It is time to further strengthen our support for independent journalism, everywhere.

Thank you for standing up for human rights