UN voices alarm at media crackdowns amid pandemic

Some countries are using virus crisis to ‘restrict information and stifle criticism’. (AP pic)

GENEVA: The UN rights chief on Friday criticised countries using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to arrest journalists and restrict information, insisting free media is vital in fighting the pandemic.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, lamented that some countries were using the pandemic as “a pretext to restrict information and stifle criticism”.

“This is no time to blame the messenger,” she said.

“A free media is always essential, but we have never depended on it more than we do during this pandemic, when so many people are isolated and fearing for their health and livelihoods,” Bachelet said.

“Credible, accurate reporting is a lifeline for all of us.”

She pointed to data from the International Press Institute about more than 130 alleged media violations since the outbreak began in China late last year.

Those include more than 50 reported instances of restrictions being slapped on access to information, censorship, as well as excessive regulation of misinformation.

In addition, nearly 40 journalists have reportedly been arrested or charged around the world for criticising countries’ pandemic responses or for simply questioning the accuracy of the official numbers of cases and deaths.

“The actual number of media violations and arrests is probably far higher,” the statement said.

The UN rights office also pointed to reports of journalists disappearing after publishing coverage critical of the Covid-19 response, while a number of news outlets have been closed by authorities over their reporting.

Worrying trend

And it noted that comments by some political leaders “created a hostile environment” for journalists’ safety and their ability to do their work.

Rights office spokesman Rupert Colville pointed to, among others, US President Donald Trump, who has been known to make direct attacks on journalists during his press briefings.

“That’s a worrying trend, when you’re talking about mainstream, serious media organisations under fire,” Colville said during a virtual press briefing.

Bachelet insisted in her statement on the vital role of media in allowing people to participate in decision-making that affects their lives.

“Rather than threatening journalists or stifling criticism, states should encourage healthy debate concerning the pandemic and its consequences,” she said.

Bachelet also echoed concerns raised by UN chief Antonio Guterres about a “dangerous epidemic of misinformation” around the pandemic, which has “generated confusion and more ill-health”, and hailed the work done by independent media to fact-check claims and provide clarity.

“Journalists are playing an indispensable role in our response to this pandemic, but unlike the grave threats posed to other essential workers, the threats media workers face are entirely avoidable,” she said.

“Protecting journalists from harassment, threats, detention or censorship helps keep us all safe.”