3 May 2019

Africa: UN Expert - States Must Act to Ensure Safety of Journalists, Independence of Media, Plurality of Voices

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye, issues the following statement:

"World Press Freedom Day was established over a quarter-century ago to reaffirm the centrality of a free, independent, and pluralistic press to democratic societies and the enjoyment of human rights. Every year it is marked as a celebration of the media, and we should continue to do that. But celebration in insufficient. Autocrats and demagogues too often denigrate the press, with dire consequences for safety, for democracy, and for the public's right to know. Today, more than ever, we need not just generic celebrations but concrete steps to improve press freedom worldwide.

The past year has highlighted just how much insecure governments, those that fear the truth, "shoot the messenger" rather than grapple with the message. Saudi Arabia's murder of Jamal Khashogghi has resulted in virtual impunity for those who conceived, planned, and carried it out. The Philippines continues to harass Maria Ressa and Rappler, the independent news outlet she founded and leads. Myanmar has forced two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, to pay with their freedom for their investigative reporting that uncovered evidence of military complicity in the killings and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya. Dozens of journalists (if not more) remain behind bars in Turkey, and basic rights to seek, receive and impart information hardly exist in China. To date, Malta has failed to hold accountable those responsible for the assassination of Daphne Galizia Caruanza, and the crisis of threat and impunity remains critical in Mexico. Sadly, this is representative only, for many other dire situations could be identified.

In this environment of threat, we continue to hear politicians, so fearful of criticism and investigation, denigrate the press as enemies. We see governments shutting down the internet and blocking online media to protect themselves from the sunlight of reporting. We read of investigations and prosecutions of journalists and their sources for blowing the whistle or exposing wrongdoing. We learn of government surveillance of journalists across borders. We observe waves of disinformation, including in broadcast media, and the struggle of social media companies to deal with it - and yet also the proposal and adoption of legislation to fight "fake news" but in fact designed to limit criticism.

There are occasional bright spots: the decriminalisation of defamation in places like Liberia and Rwanda, the reaffirmation of press freedom by the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, the removal of restrictions on press freedom in places like Ethiopia and Ecuador, the support for concrete steps by governmental friends of journalism. Philanthropic organizations have devoted themselves to supporting independent media, while many media outlets have shown renewed commitment to investigation in the face of threats. Those bright spots are, however, too few and often tenuous in their sustainability.

States must move beyond words, beyond resolutions, and take immediate and sustainable action to ensure safety of journalists, the independence of the media, the plurality of voices. That is the challenge for the coming year: translating celebration into action, stigmatising and penalising those that attack journalism, and devoting resources to the great project of media freedom."

Africa

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