UNHCR reaffirms importance of independent journalism in new resolution

October 8, 2020 – During its 45th session, this year, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) adopted a resolution on the state of the media, crimes against journalists and press freedom throughout the world. The resolution which can be found here, put forward by 60 countries, and adopted by the council without a vote, urges political leaders to refrain from disparaging, threatening and intimidating the media. Amongst other issues, the resolution specifically mentions the misogynist and discriminatory language that are used towards women journalists to undermine the credibility of their work. 

The resolution specifically points to public officials and state officials, directly urging them to curtail their own expression towards the media, that includes threats and discriminatory and misogynist language. It also mentions the denial of visas and work permits to foreign journalists by governments, urging them to do better. 

It also condemns the impunity that exists for violent crimes against journalists. The resolution also mentions increased surveillance and other cyber attacks on journalists including “state sponsored hacking.” It reaffirms a journalist’s rights, in this day and age, to have access and be able to use technology that grants them and their sources anonymity and protection. 

This is important to notice, since many countries including Pakistan are making access to tools like VPNs that allow for some level of protection when using the internet difficult to access. In addition to this, there have also been reports of the government acquiring technology from Sandvine, that would allow it to monitor and inspect all internet traffic. This can be a serious security risk for journalists and their sources, especially in the absence of any legal protection.

Earlier this year women journalists in the country spoke up about the online abuse they face which not only included derogatory language but also rape threats. They also spoke of hacking attempts made on their social media accounts, and of their private and personal pictures and videos being used on social media to question their morality and discredit their work. 

The resolution also specifically mentions these problems that women journalists have faced both offline and online. It expresses alarm at “gender based discrimination, including sexual and gender based violence, threats,  including threat of rape, intimidation, harassment, online gender based harassment and abuse, including blackmailing with private content.” 

It condemns the impunity of crimes against journalists and calls upon member states to do better to protect them by ending impunity, having transparent policies and halting the use of surveillance technology. It also specifically calls upon states to ensure the protection of women journalists by asking states, “To take measures to prevent sexual harassment and other forms of sexual and gender based violence, including threats, threats of rape, intimidation and harassment against women journalists.”

The statement reaffirms the basic principle of a free press and independent journalism.

The past few years have seen press freedom decline globally. Not only have authoritarian regimes like Egypt imprisoned journalists for their work, they have also been under attack in a democracy such as the United States. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF),  the state of press freedom has fallen by 12 percent since the index was first started in 2013.

Amel Ghani is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy and leads special initiatives on media development, digital rights, privacy online and Media and Information Literacy (MIL).

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