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Countering threats of violence and crimes against journalists to protect freedom of expression for all: Commemorating the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists 2021

A global network of major news organizations, press freedom organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), activists, and journalists is working together to safeguard everyone’s right to free expression. However, journalists’ capacity to conduct their work is being harmed by violence, intimidation, harassment, and censorship. Vigils are being organized to honor journalists who have been slain in the line of duty and to raise awareness about the value of freedom of expression. Media organizations, journalists, press freedom organizations, human rights organizations, media outlets, students, activists, and others are working to reveal the truth, protect the right to free expression, expose wrongdoings, and effect change.

Ending impunity for crimes against journalists is one of the most critical challenges in ensuring that all citizens have access to information and freedom of expression. Unfortunately, in nations where the press is still not free, impunity for crimes against journalists is one of the most dangerous situations for journalists. The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Resolution A/HRC/RES/16/11 highlights impunity for atrocities against journalists.

The UN Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution, calling on states to take concrete steps to end impunity for crimes committed against journalists, media workers and associated personnel. The non-binding resolution requires states to act to put an end to impunity for crimes committed against journalists by investigating and prosecuting perpetrators, and ensure effective protection mechanisms are in place to ensure justice and accountability.

Journalists are critical to the functioning of democracies all around the world. Their work ensures that citizens are kept up to date on matters that impact them. Unfortunately, many journalists are killed or imprisoned as a result of their profession. In addition to existing obstacles, the COVID-19 pandemic has frequently resulted in the imposition of new legal limits on journalist safety and public access to information. Journalists’ safety, particularly their physical well-being, has been jeopardized. For executing their jobs, many have been beaten, wrongfully arrested, and in the worst-case circumstances, tortured to death.

In Uganda for example, Rumanzi, a reporter and operations manager at Freedom Radio was in April 2020 slapped in the face by the Resident District Commissioner without explanation and was forced into a waiting vehicle where he was taken to an unknown destination outside Kabale town. He was further beaten for what they called negative coverage of the government. He was also accused of giving voice to the opposition politician Kizza Besigye who appeared on his show. Arinaitwe Emmanuel Kajungu of Radio Ankole was hospitalized following an assault by security personnel on his way from work.

In Nigeria, the president’s office decimated the number of journalists accredited to cover press conferences. By restricting the free movement and operation of journalists, some governments are withholding up to date, relevant, and independent information on COVID-19 from the public. Other countries suffer from poor information infrastructures where, despite good intentions, news from independent media, or even information from the government, does not reach high-risk groups. 

During the pandemic, numerous countries around the world have imposed restrictions on press freedom. Many lawmakers introduced laws that, in various forms, criminalized the dissemination of knowledge about the epidemic or the potential impact of such information. Others enacted laws restricting journalists’ freedom of movement or access to specified venues and events. The adoption of emergency laws by 107 countries in response to the epidemic aided the passage of such stringent legislation. Governments can use such legislation to impose restrictions by decree.

To create an environment where people have access to information, it is vital to safeguard the safety of journalists. Journalists should be able to carry out their societal job of informing the public in a safe environment.The ability to respond effectively to health and other emergencies, such as the Covid-19 outbreak, requires a free press. People need access to crucial information in order to prevent infections or safely care for loved ones who have been affected by the deadly virus, and the media is critical in this regard.

A free press is also critical in bringing to light the resources allocated to combat the pandemic in order to ensure that they are used responsibly. It should be remembered that funds intended to combat the Covid-19 outbreak were misused in various nations. Transparency promises made under the IMF and World Bank’s Covid-19 reaction support have yet to be executed. As vital as this is, we have observed an increase in attacks and restrictions on media freedom in Africa during the covid-19 outbreak, restricting people’s access to accurate and important information.

We urge that journalists’ safety and security during health crises is vital for public access to information and effective response, although curfews and other control measures have put them in danger. During pandemics and curfews, we should deem journalists essential workers, while UNESCO and other stakeholders should increase their monitoring and reporting of journalist safety and security during the covid-19 pandemic. 

During the current crisis, independent, and pluralistic media are critical in informing the public. Everyone has the right to understandable, accessible, timely, and accurate information about the extent and severity of the COVID-19 hazard to their health, so they can follow evidence-based advice on how to be safe. The ability to obtain information can mean the difference between life and death.

We must end impunity for all crimes against journalists.