Tag: media freedom

Covid-19 emergency laws spell disaster for press freedom

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By Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

Covid-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March, since then it has been used as a pretext by governments to put constitutional guarantees on hold. Now that relative calm appears to be in prospect, it is imperative that these exceptional measures be lifted.

Faced with the unprecedented epidemic, many governments have targeted those whose job is to inform the public. Emboldened by the emergency, the spread of repression has been translated into a substantial armoury of laws, regulations and emergency measures. Attacks on press freedom and special regulations have proliferated on all five continents. They cover a range of restrictive procedures, from minor obstacles to custodial prison sentences.

“The coronavirus health crisis has aggravated all other crises and has had a particular impact on journalism and the right to information,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “The worst regimes have resorted to all means at their disposal to crack down even harder and, when these prove insufficient, they have brought in new ones using the excuse of an emergency or exceptional circumstances. It is now time to put an end to such exceptional measures urgently and to unshackle information!”

Some countries, such as Honduras, took steps straightaway to limit freedom of expression, others (Brazil) to curb access to information or its publication, although some have since been rolled back, as is the case in Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán brought in emergency coronavirus legislation allowing him to rule by decree for an indefinite period and setting a sentence of five years’ imprisonment for publishing false information. The law is due to be repealed around 20 June.

In El Salvador, Thailand and Armenia, curbs on journalists’ movements, the imposition of a curfew and of tracking mechanisms were causes of concern and were ultimately scrapped. Some governments, such as Namibia, used the opportunity to restrict attendance at press conferences.

Elsewhere, access to information was strictly controlled. Bangladesh’s Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, the country’s only medical school, published a memo to teachers, doctors and staff banning them from speaking to the media on any health matter without prior permission. The memo said they must refrain from tarnishing the image of the government and universities.

In Greece, the health ministry published a decision on 13 April banning hospital staff from talking to the media and Greek journalists were required to have government permission before reporting inside hospitals.

Public service media organizations have often come under intense government pressure. In Japan, an emergency law (repealed on 25 May) added the public broadcaster NHK to a list of institutions to which the government is able to give “instructions”. In Ukraine, pressure on public service news providers took a more insidious turn when the public broadcaster PBC was stripped of a quarter of its budget.

Most frequently, legislative measures have been taken on grounds of the emergency allowing outright censorship of alarming or disturbing information. In Cambodia, the government gave itself the legal power to ban the publication of “any information that could cause unrest, fear or disorder”. In Vanuatu, any information about Covid-19 must be officially approved before publication.

Most governments yielded to the temptation, using a variety of repressive measures according to the democratic traditions and the rule of law in each country, of making official channels the only credible and authoritative sources of information.

In India, Egypt, Botswana and Somalia, for example, only government statements on the subject may be published. In Eswatini, using printed and electronic media to obtain information about Covid-19 is banned without prior the permission of the health ministry.

Alongside these repressive measures, the arsenal of sanctions has been hugely expanded. The weapons of repression against individual journalists as well as news organizations have been greatly strengthened in many countries: seizures and publication bans (Kyrgyzstan), heavy fines (up to 25,000 euros in Russia) and deterrent prison sentences (up to six months in South Africa, 18 months in Indonesia, five years in Botswana and Algeria and up to 20 years in Zimbabwe).

In Liberia, the justice authorities have threatened to close down or seize any news organization that publishes what they consider to be false information. In Romania, the government’s crisis unit leapt into action, closing down 12 news websites. In Myanmar, 221 sites were closed, including news sites aimed particularly at the country’s ethnic minorities.

Apart from this tidal wave of obstacles and sanctions, one of the most worrying aspects of the Covid-19 crisis has undoubtedly been the pernicious use by governments of the notion of disinformation and “fake news”.

In Ethiopia, the definition of misinformation is so broad that it gives the authorities the discretionary power to declare any piece of information false. In Bolivia, 37 “political actors” have been convicted in summary proceedings of “disinformation and destabilization”.

In Russia, the definition of disinformation and the damage it is alleged to cause are the unique preserve of judges. On 21 April, the supreme court extended this to social media, and even to individual conversations. In Egypt, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation has asked that ordinary citizens report the publication of “fake news” about Covid-19. The implementation of these emergency laws often shows a broad acceptance of the idea of fake news. They are also used to deter criticism and muzzle the opposition.

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- June 17, 2020

RSF complains to UN about coronavirus press freedom violations

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By Reporters Without Borders

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has written to two United Nations special rapporteurs asking them to formally condemn governments that have violated the right to information in connection with the coronavirus epidemic, thereby putting public health and lives in danger both in their own countries and the rest of the world.

Sent on 13 April to the special rapporteur on the right to health, the Lithuanian Dainius Pūras, and to the special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the American David Kaye, the letter asks them to condemn governments that have either used the epidemic as grounds for violating the right to information or have done so in spite of it.

The facts reported in the letter have been gathered by a new RSF tool called Tracker-19 in reference not only to Covid-19 but also article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This RSF tool aims to evaluate the Covid-19 pandemic’s consequences for journalism, documenting state censorship and deliberate disinformation, and their impact on the right to reliable news and information. It also offers recommendations on how to defend journalism during the pandemic.

The letter lists cases of censorship, arbitrary detention, harassment or violence against journalists, and disturbing legislative development in a total of 38 countries. The list is not exhaustive.

The Brazilian and US president have staged ferocious verbal attacks on journalists. Reporters have been arrested in Algeria, Jordan and Zimbabwe. An Orwellian law has imposed an “information police state” in Hungary. Cambodia’s prime minister has used the Covid-19 crisis to bolster his authority. And in China, the suppression of journalism allowed the epidemic to spread in Wuhan, and then to the rest of the world. RSF is also very concerned about journalists in Turkey and Saudi Arabia who, despite the epidemic, are still detained in prisons where they are very vulnerable to the virus.

RSF asks the special rapporteurs to issue not just a warning but also an “urgent appeal” to each country where press freedom violations jeopardizing the right to health have been observed. The aim to is to obtain concrete measures, such as the release of imprisoned journalists.

Attached to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, the special rapporteurs are tasked with examining, monitoring, advising and publicly reporting on human rights issues under “special procedure” mechanisms. If violations are confirmed, the rapporteurs can denounce them and ask the governments concerned to address them. What they have observed can also be included in their public reports to the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly.

David Kaye, Harlem Désir (the OSCE representative on freedom of the media) and Edison Lanza (the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur for freedom of expression) issued a joint statement about the Covid-19 pandemic on 19 March, stressing the importance of truthful information by governments, protecting the work of journalists, and combatting disinformation.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet voiced concern on 9 April about the measures taken by some countries to restrict press freedom and freedom of expression and, in particular, about censorship of criticism on the grounds of combatting disinformation.

RSF’s letter also calls on the special rapporteurs to publicly proclaim that the right to information is “inherent” to the right to health, that the former is an essential component of the latter, that they are necessarily and closely linked and inseparable. Recognizing the right to information as inherent to the right to health would extend the former’s scope , especially when safeguarding public health is at issue, and would help to combat both disinformation and arbitrary restrictions on information more effectively.

Enshrining an intrinsic link between the right to information and the right to health would mean that all arbitrary restrictions of the first would also be violations of the second. The balance between the two rights would thereby be assured, and would prevent the protection of public health being used as a pretext for censorship or disinformation.

The preamble of the International Declaration on Information and Democracy, approved by a commission of 25 prominent persons from 18 countries, says: “Knowledge is necessary for human beings to develop their biological, psychological, social, political and economic capacities.”

On the basis of this Declaration, 35 countries have joined an Information and Democracy Partnership that recognizes the right to reliable information and says: “Information can be regarded as reliable insofar as its collection, processing and dissemination are free, independent, diverse and based on cross-checking of various sources, in a pluralistic media landscape where the facts can give rise to a diversity of interpretation and viewpoints.”

“The coronavirus epidemic requires respect for the principles of press freedom and the right to information,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “As the Declaration on Information and Democracy says, ‘the right to information consists of the freedom to seek, receive and access reliable information.’ Violating this right endangers the health and even the lives of human beings. We call on the UN’s institutions to publicly denounce governments that violate this right.”

Source: ref.org