Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
I am pleased to address this webinar on access to information and the safety of journalists in times of crisis.
First of all, I hope you and your loved ones are well during this very difficult moment.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge our societies, our governments and ourselves, disrupting the lives of billions of people on the planet.
We are now at a complicated period, with some countries reopening after lockdowns, and others with infection and death rates still soaring. Subsequent waves of COVID-19 are likely to occur in different places at different times – and with different degrees of severity.
Indeed, while the virus itself does not discriminate, its uneven impacts have laid bare the social and economic inequalities on which it feeds.
The overall impact on lives and economies is clearly catastrophic, with the poorest and most marginalized – those people suffering the biggest human rights deficits -- being affected worst of all.
It is essential that the response efforts reach all, as well as information about them.
In fact, the pandemic has also laid bare the fundamental importance of freedom of expression and of free, independent and plural journalism in times of crisis.
Access to accurate and reliable information provides the population with the necessary resources to understand, participate and follow the guidelines of health authorities, fosters trust in the public institutions and increases transparency and accountability.
We must not forget: freedom of expression, like other human rights, is a crucial component of public health. Participation builds greater trust in the authorities and better compliance with measures to restrict contagion.
It is clear that access to information and a free, uncensored and unhindered media make democratic societies equipped to effectively respond to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is people’s right to count on accurate information about the pandemic. However, we have often witnessed attacks on the vital role of journalists and media workers, including through the withdrawal of media licenses, censorship, penalization of information, expulsion or internet shutdowns.
Sadly, throughout the world we are seeing journalists being harassed, others arbitrarily detained, and disproportionate measures restricting their capacity to carry out their vital work.
As of 2 June, the International Press Institute counted 233 media freedom violations around the world. Those include verbal and physical attacks and 86 journalists arrested or charged for reports critical of State responses to the pandemic or for simply questioning the accuracy of official numbers of cases and deaths related to COVID-19. The actual number of media violations and arrests is probably far higher.
We are also seeing vaguely formulated legislation to combat alleged "misinformation" or “fake news” being employed against journalists. These measures – at times allegedly taken to address a crisis – can constitute an attack on media freedom and on people’s right to information.
Also worrisome are cases of journalists covering issues of public concern, such as the health crisis and government responses to COVID-19, as well as the social and economic impact of the pandemic, being denigrated and intimidated by political leaders and their supporters.
This discourse increases the risk of violence against journalists, undermines public trust and may lead to self-censorship.
Social media is adding fuel to the fire. Women journalists and media workers in particular, face sexual and gender-based threats, intimidation and harassment, both online and offline.
Free and independent journalism should be supported everywhere to ensure the production of verified information serving the public interest and holding the authorities and other actors accountable.
Criticism is not a crime.
As I mentioned before, the work of journalists also helps build public confidence in public policies, including for measures taken to contain COVID-19 and address socio-economic effects.
And it is also thanks to journalists that we are able to see the human faces of the pandemic and the recovery.
To continue to be able to do their vital work, news media institutions should have access to financial assistance programmes offered by governments in response to the pandemic. I welcome measures taken by some States to grant financial aid to television channels with a national coverage with the view of guaranteeing this essential service in the current crisis.
I equally welcome reports from various countries on the eligibility of freelance journalists for unemployment benefits and financial aid.
As we know, the COVID-19 crisis has also been accompanied by an “infodemic” of misinformation that harms the health response. It also fuels hate speech directed at various groups, including migrants, minorities, and LGBTI people.
Journalists and the media have an important oversight role. Investigative journalists, news media and fact-checkingorganisationsare working to address false information and to keep the public informed with facts and official guidance issued by authorities.
Indeed, in the face of the challenges posed by COVID-19 for instance, the work of journalists and the media is vital. Access to accurate information is not only a right; it saves lives.
So, I call upon the Human Rights Council, the international community and all of you to work with my Office defending the right to access to information, supporting and strengthening the media, and ending impunity for attacks against journalists. This is essential for us to build back better as we recover from the pandemic.