Sat 25 June 2022:
Media freedom and the safety of journalists have dangerously declined around the world with grave negative effects on human rights, democracy and global development, a UN expert said Friday.
“In a climate of surging authoritarianism and backsliding of democracies, populist leaders have actively sought to demonize and discredit independent journalists,” Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression told the Human Rights Council.
“Many governments have introduced restrictions on freedom of expression contravening international law,” she said.
In a report presented to the Council, Khan examined opportunities, challenges and threats to media in the digital age.
She focused on online and offline attacks and killing journalists with impunity, criminalization of journalism and legal and judicial harassment of journalists.
Khan spoke about the erosion of independence, freedom, pluralism and viability of the media by state and corporate actors, including digital companies, without naming any.
“Silencing journalists by killing them is the most egregious form of censorship,” said Khan.
She urged the Council to consider measures to address impunity, including an international task force on preventing, investigating and prosecuting attacks against journalists.
“The age-old practice of using the law to suppress reporting has been revived with a new ferocity in the digital age,” she said.
She noted the increased use of criminal legislation and “fake news” laws in recent years to suppress freedom of expression online and prosecute and punish journalists with heavy fines and harsh imprisonment.
Her report highlights digital technology as enabling groundbreaking journalism and creating new threats.
Threats include online gender-based attacks against female journalists, targeted digital surveillance of journalists and orchestrated online disinformation campaigns.
Other threats were the role of digital platforms as gatekeepers controlling the availability, accessibility, diversity and dissemination of news with no accountability and little transparency.
“The overriding problem is not of gaps in international law but the failures of compliance and implementation, rooted in the lack of political will,” said Khan.
The expert’s report recommends urgent and concrete action by states, international organizations and companies.
These are needed to address the multiple, complex, and often interconnected physical, legal and digital threats holistically in line with international human rights law, she said.
“Without concrete action backed by political will, the prognosis for media freedom and the safety of journalists is grim,” said Khan.
“Independent, free and pluralistic news media is crucial for democracy, accountability and transparency and should be nurtured by states and the international community as a public good,” she said.
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