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World Press Freedom Day 2020
“Drawing lessons from COVID19: Towards a consistent framework to promote free and reliable information”


Online event organized by UN Group of Friends for the Protection of Journalists and RSF

Keynote speech by Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

6 May 2020, 10.30 – 12.00 AM NY Time

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made more evident than ever the fundamental importance of freedom of expression and free, independent and plural journalism to peaceful, inclusive and sustainable societies.

Access to information is crucial to foster trust in public institutions among people. It increases transparency and accountability for public action and is necessary for people to exercise their right to participate in decision-making processes and to ensure inclusive and people-centred responses to policy challenges.

Journalists and the media have a particularly vital role in the context of COVID-19, as investigation, effective access to reliable information and unfettered dissemination of findings regarding the virus can literally be a matter of life or death for people as they make their individual and collective health-related decisions.

The UN Secretary-General's Policy Brief on Human Rights and COVID-19 emphasizes that human rights and placing people at the centre of responses, result in better outcomes in beating the pandemic and in addressing entrenched inequalities and structural shortcomings in health care systems.  Issued in the context of his Call to Action for Human Rights, it highlights governments' accountability to the people they seek to protect, which includes the responsibility of the State to guarantee freedom of expression, including freedom of the press.

Over the past few weeks, our Office has issued guidance for states on how to address the COVID-19 pandemic in a manner that is effective and respectful of human rights.  We have stressed that when exceptional measures are taken in this context, they must be in line with international standards requiring that restrictions of rights be necessary, proportionate and have a legitimate purpose.

Since the start of the pandemic, OHCHR has monitored the situation of journalists and media freedom in all regions of the world.

We have seen positive examples in the approach taken by some governments:  In Georgia, for instance, when declaring a state of emergency across the country on 21 March, the authorities underlined that freedom of expression could not be restricted.   

Unfortunately, in far too many places, the vital work of journalists and media workers reporting on COVID-19 is hindered. Some are harassed, others are arbitrarily arrested and detained on the basis of vaguely formulated measures alleged to combat "misinformation" or "fake news", or in other cases for alleged breaches of anti-terrorism laws. We have recorded cases of prosecution of journalists for doing their work and informing the public. Alarmed by restrictive measures imposed by several States against the independent media and the arrest and intimidation of journalists, High Commissioner Bachelet issued a statement on 24 April in which she emphasised that journalists play an indispensable role in our response to the pandemic and that protecting journalists from harassment, threats, detention or censorship helps keep us all safe. 

In some countries, after the pandemic started, we have observed the weakening of mechanisms and measures previously put in place to protect journalists. In Mexico, police forces that were implementing protection measures have been prioritising other issues, such as the security of hospitals and other strategic facilities. In response, OHCHR has stepped up its remote monitoring of human rights violations and provided technical advice to the protection mechanisms. Our colleagues in the field have also engaged in advocacy and shared information with the diplomatic corps regarding attacks on journalist and human rights defenders.

All journalists and the media around the world that keep doing their work, braving intimidations and restrictive governmental measures while facing risks to their own health, need our support. In Mali, our field office has been engaging with media professionals and civil society to understand the threats faced by journalists, including the health risks. We have seen reports that daily newspapers were compelled to only publish twice a week as journalists lacked the protective equipment needed to allow them to work safely.

The role of journalists is particularly important as we are exposed to a wave of misinformation, which makes it difficult to identify accurate medical and public guidance, hampers an effective public health response, and generates confusion and distrust. Unfounded medical advice and false information may even seriously undermine the health of people. The sharing of certain texts, videos and audios may have the effect of furthering the spread of COVID-19 and of adding fuel to discrimination and racism. In this regard, our Office has reinforced its efforts to monitor and combat hate speech.

The United Nations and governments, at times in cooperation with social media companies and journalists, have begun to counter the spread of misinformation in relation to the pandemic by exposing rumours, myths and other falsehoods and by providing reliable and science-based information.

While efforts must be deployed to address misinformation, they should never result in censorship of critical reporting. This would not only be a disproportionate restriction of freedom of expression, but in fact be totally counter-productive, as the role of news and investigative journalists is crucial to expose false information and keep the public informed based on critical analysis and facts from doctors, scientists and internationally recognised institutions, as well as with official guidance issued by authorities.

To conclude, I would like to pay tribute to those journalists and media workers who from the onset of the crisis have put their well-being or lives at risk to provide us with timely and accurate information and in doing so, are helping to protect lives. They have also brought a human face to this fight. Through their eyes, we have seen families mourning their loved ones in isolation, but also patients fighting the virus and survivors emerging from intensive care units. Thanks to their reporting, we have heard the voices of nurses and doctors and understood the essential role of the shop assistant and the bus driver.

Let us join forces to defend media freedom and the journalists without which we will not succeed in beating the current pandemic.

Thank you.