Global perspective Human stories

Threats to media workers’ freedom ‘growing by the day’, UN chief warns

A video journalist covers a news event.
Unsplash/Jovaughn Stephens
A video journalist covers a news event.

Threats to media workers’ freedom ‘growing by the day’, UN chief warns

Human Rights

Journalists and media workers are facing “increasing politicization” of their work and threats to their freedom to simply do their jobs, that are “growing by the day”, said the UN chief, marking World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday.

The day shines a spotlight on the essential work they do, bringing those in power to account, with transparency, “often at great person risk”, said Secretary-General António Guterres, in a video message.

Tweet URL

Frontlines of crises

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many media workers have been on the frontlines, providing accurate, science-based reporting to inform decision-makers and save lives”, he said.

“At the same time, journalists who cover climate, biodiversity and pollution have succeeded in bringing global attention to this triple planetary crisis.”

But the threats to their freedom to go about their reporting and story-telling fairly and accurately, are multiplying daily.

“From global health to the climate crisis, corruption, and human rights abuses, they face increased politicization of their work and attempts to silence them from many sides.

“Digital technology has democratized access to information. But it has also created serious challenges.”

Feeding on outrage, lies

The UN chief noted that many social media platforms make their money not through increasing access to fact-based reporting, but on boosting engagement, “which often means provoking outrage, and spreading lies.”

“Media workers in war zones are threatened not only by bombs and bullets, but by the weapons of falsification and disinformation that accompany modern warfare. They may be attacked as the enemy, accused of espionage, detained, or killed, simply for doing their jobs.”

Mr. Guterres said that digital technology, was also making censorship easier for authoritarian governments and others, seeking to suppress the truth, with many journalists and editors facing the prospect of their work being taken offline on a daily basis.

Women at ‘particular risk’

Digital technology is also creating new “channels for oppression and abuse”, with women journalists “at particular risk” of online harassment and violence. 

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, has found that nearly three-quarters of women respondents, had experienced online violence. Hacking and illegal surveillance also prevent journalists from doing their jobs.

“The methods and tools change, but the goal of discrediting the media and covering up the truth remains the same as ever”, said the UN chief, leading to citizens who live in societies without free media, being “manipulated in horrifying ways.”

No democracy

“Without freedom of the press, there are no real democratic societies. Without freedom of the press, there is no freedom”, he said.

Ten years ago, the UN established a Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, to protect media workers and end impunity for crimes committed against them, and the UN is continuing to fight to protect their rights.

UN Chief on World Press Freedom Day

This year’s World Press Freedom Day Global Conference, began on Monday, and will run until 5 May in Punta Del Este, Uruguay, built around the theme Journalism under Digital Siege.

Participants will discuss the impact of the digital era on freedom of expression, the safety of journalists, access to information and privacy. World Press Freedom Day events will reunite relevant stakeholders such as policymakers, journalists, media representatives, activists, cybersecurity managers and legal experts to explore these issues and develop concrete solutions to address the threats posed to press freedom and privacy in the digital age.

Journalists must continue to 'expose atrocities'

Speaking on Tuesday, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet has paid tribute to courageous journalists who continue to risk their lives for their work.

Many reporters have “little choice but to work amidst ever-increasing harassment, intimidation, surveillance and risk to their lives and livelihoods”, Ms. Bachelet insisted, at a ceremony in Geneva:

“They do so for the sake of all of us. So that we have access to free, accurate and independent information. So that we can live in just and peaceful societies", she added. "Their work helps build the foundation for some of the fundamental human rights we should all enjoy: freedom of opinion, information and expression.”

It is crucial that journalists continue to expose atrocities, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted, her comments following her condemnation of deadly communal violence in Sudan’s Darfur, and reported summary executions of civilians in Bucha in Ukraine.

Despite the crucial role of journalists in society, Ms. Bachelet warned that they continue face “grave threat(s)”, even in supposedly safe and democratic places, before noting that 293 media professionals were killed worldwide last year.


Supporting the Plan of Action

Three heads of UN entities have also underlined the “paramount importance” of ensuring journalists can work freely, independently and safety.

The Presidents of the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, and the General Conference of the UN’s educational agency, UNESCO, issued a statement recalling how their respective bodies have adopted numerous resolutions, declarations and commitments on the issue.

In marking the 10th anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, they applauded Governments who have made the issue a priority, whether at home or abroad.   They also highlighted the significant contribution of civil society organizations that are committed to advancing media freedom and safety.

“Still, too many challenges prevail, including high levels of impunity for crimes against journalists, a rise in the number of journalists detained and an increased legal harassment against them, online violence, the use of surveillance tools to hinder the journalist’s work, increased attacks on women journalists, and the rise of killings in non-conflict environments,” they said.

As countries strive to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, the UN officials underscored how freedom of expression, press freedom and access to information contribute to all other rights, such as quality education, the eradication of poverty, and access to justice and health care.

“This is why, as we look forward to 10 more years of progress in defending the safety of journalists, freedom of expression, and access to information for all, we call on Member States, the UN system, regional bodies, civil society, the judiciary and all concerned actors to join forces in furthering the objectives of the UN Plan of Action,” they said.