COVID-19: Providing cover for media clampdown

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, says several countries are using the Coronavirus pandemic as excuse to restrict press freedom.

Speaking to newsmen in Geneva on Friday, Bachelet said she was alarmed by reports of clampdowns by governments in many parts of the world.

She warned that the situation was impeding the free flow information needed to defeat the disease.

“Some states have used the outbreak of the new Coronavirus as a pretext to restrict information and stifle criticism.

“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,” she said.

According to the International Press Institute, there have been no fewer than 130 alleged violations of basic press freedom since the outbreak of COVID-19 in December.

These include 50 reported instances of “restrictions on access to information, censorship and excessive regulation of misinformation”.

The institute said nearly 40 journalists had reportedly been either arrested or charged in the Asia-Pacific, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Africa in connection to the pandemic.

Specifically, it said the arrests were over stories critical of government responses to the pandemic or for questions on the accuracy of official numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

“And the actual number of media violations and arrests is probably far higher,’’ the body said.

Noting that “credible, accurate reporting is a lifeline for all of us,’’ the UN human rights chief said this was no time to blame the messenger.

She stated that some political leaders were creating a hostile environment that threatened the safety of media workers and their ability to do their job.

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

“People have a right to participate in decision-making that affects their lives, and an independent media is a vital medium for this.

“Being open and transparent, and involving those affected in decision-making, builds public trust.

“It helps ensure that people participate in measures designed to protect their own health and that of the wider population and increases accountability,’’ Bachelet added.

She commended independent media journalists, whose fact-checking in providing truth and clarity amid the “dangerous epidemic of misinformation” surrounding the pandemic.

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