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UN expert urges governments to protect journalists

World Press Freedom Day – Wednesday 3 May 2017

UN expert urges governments to end “demonization” of critical media and protect journalists

GENEVA (2 May 2017) – Speaking ahead of World Press Freedom Day, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor freedom of the media and the safety of journalists globally, releases the following statement:

“On World Press Freedom Day, the world recognizes the role that free media plays in democratic society. Yet on every day of the year, including World Press Freedom Day, those who practise journalism face censorship, criminalization, harassment and, all too often, physical attacks and murder. Governments must act to secure press freedom, release detained journalists and end the public demonization of critical media.

There is no doubt that journalists themselves have work to maintain or build trust within their own societies. In some regions, the expansive and decentralized nature of contemporary media, with its heavy economic reliance on advertising, spectacle, and items whose main purpose is to attract attention to a website, has forced media outlets to take risks that do not always pay off.

In others areas, media concentration and state domination of the media crowd out independent reporting. Independent journalists everywhere must confront intentionally misleading and deceitful stories (such as “fake news” and disinformation), and are forced to devote dwindling resources to correcting the record and providing access to accurate information.

The work of journalism as a public watchdog over government has become ever more difficult, but ever more important, in our digital age.

On this World Press Freedom Day, while recognizing the hard work that remains for journalists and publishers to strengthen their essential role in providing everyone with access to information, it is far more important to direct attention to those governments and political leaders who work incessantly to undermine not only the practice of journalism but the right everyone enjoys under international human rights law to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and through any media.

All too many leaders see journalism as the enemy, reporters as rogue actors, users of Twitter as terrorists, and bloggers as blasphemers.

Government harassment of the media is a global crisis. In this crisis, I call on all governments to take steps to protect and promote independent journalism. Specifically, I call on those in positions of authority to:

Release all who are held in detention for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Hundreds of journalists are held in prisons around the world today, but nobody should be detained for this reason.

Repeal legislation manifestly inconsistent with freedom of expression. All too many States legislate in ways that directly undermine journalism and the freedom of expression. They should be repealing laws that, among other things, criminalize defamation, particularly laws that penalize the insult of government authorities or lèse majesté; enable the investigation or prosecution of those who report on terrorism; and criminalize the reporting of “false news” or the “propagation of rumours”.

Take action to investigate and hold accountable all those responsible for attacks on journalists. This past year has seen repeated attacks on journalists, leaving many dead or injured. Often terrorist groups carry out such attacks to silence opposition, secularists or atheists. Too often threats are not met with effective protection by law enforcement or, in their aftermath, genuine investigation and prosecution. States need to make accountability a priority.

Resist the temptation to order critical websites to take down content or otherwise block information sources online. States are increasingly blocking websites, ordering platforms to take down content, and, in some circumstances, ordering the shutdown of network services. While expression that incites violence may be subject to prohibition, and restrictions may be imposed where necessary and proportionate to protect legitimate interests, such restrictions often fail these basic tests. Takedowns and shutdowns typically interfere with the freedom of the media and deny individuals worldwide access to information in the public interest.

Avoid surveillance of journalists. Governments have been expanding their legal authority and technical capacity to collect information on journalists and their sources. Such surveillance has severe costs in democratic societies, adversely affecting freedom of expression, and threatening sources and whistleblowers concerned about accountability.

Cease the public demonization of critical media. Political leaders increasingly describe reporters and others who collect and share information in degrading terms. The whipping up of hatred against the media may serve short-term ambitions of the powerful, but it will have a long-term deleterious impact on the right to information and the democratic process.”

END

Mr. David Kaye (USA) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression August 2014 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. As Special Rapporteur, Mr. Kaye is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Mr. Kaye’s report to the UN General Assembly in October 2016 highlighted a range of threats to freedom of expression worldwide.

Mr. Kaye’s October 2015 report on the protection of sources and whistleblowers.


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