In times when public authorities make decisions that affect public health, civil liberties, and people’s prosperity, respecting the public’s right to access information on these decisions is vital.
Under international human rights laws, governments have the obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information. Ensuring that reliable information is accessible in various formats and that all citizens have access to the Internet, is crucial if governments are to protect public interest.
Furthermore, free, independent, plural, and diverse media have proven to be indispensable allies of governments and public authorities in informing the public, and in enabling individuals to develop opinions, make informed decisions, and take appropriate steps to protect themselves and their communities.
On 4 June 2020, Austria, Canada, and the Netherlands, in partnership with the RightOn initiative and co-sponsored by core group members related to the resolutions on the Freedom of Expression and the Safety of Journalists, held a web chat titled ‘Access to Information and the safety of journalists in times of crisis’.
The panellists for the occasion were Ms Michelle Bachelet (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), Ms Agnes Callamard (UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions), Ms Fatou Jagne Senghore (Director, West Africa, Article 19), Ms Barbara Trionfi (Executive Director, International Press Institute (IPI)), Mr David Kaye (UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression), and Mr Christophe Deloire (Secretary General and Executive Director, Reporters Without Borders).
The discussion was moderated by Ms Leslie E. Norton (Permanent Representative of Canada to the UN). Mr Robert Muller (Deputy Permanent Representative of Austria to the UN), and Ms Monique Van Daalen (Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the UN) delivered the opening and closing statements.
Criticism is not a crime
Speaking on the impacts of COVID-19, Bachelet noted that the crisis has shed light on the fundamental importance of freedom of expression, and free and independent journalism in times of crisis. She noted that access to timely and reliable information, which is a crucial component of public health, provides the population with resources to understand, participate, and follow guidelines of health authorities. In addition, access to information fosters trust in public institutions and increases transparency and accountability.
Even though criticism is not a crime and the public has the right to counter inaccurate information about the pandemic, we have come to witness attacks against journalists through practices such as censorship, withdrawal of licences, and Internet shutdowns. Bachelet added that the role of journalists has been crucial, and that their work allowed us to see the human side of the pandemic and our recovery from it.
The role of governments
The discussants also touched upon the role of governments. Kaye noted that COVID-19 exposed, in a very painful way, the connection between the freedom of expression and the public interest, which further accentuated the need for robust legislation on the freedom of expression.
Citing health information censorship and inabilities to report on government responses and the nature of the pandemic, he added that journalists faced restrictions by being considered non-essential workers.
Kaye also touched upon the issue of disinformation which, in a number of cases, has been criminalised, and in turn sometimes led to self-censorship and individuals being less willing to share important information about what they were seeing and experiencing in their communities.
Social distancing and confinement have placed additional pressure on government officials working on access to information, who then are not always in a position to respond to freedom of information requests.
The safety of journalists
Questions regarding the investigation and protection of journalists was tackled by Callamard. She pointed out that international and regional organisations need to use all the tools at their disposal to pressure governments to investigate killings and attacks on journalists. This would ultimately help expose the maze of corruption within a particular society.
Callamard said that we need to avoid the politicisation of investigations, and that an independent mechanism is necessary for providing technical and legal assistance to investigators and national authorities. Moreover, emblematic investigations and the delivery of accountability (supported by strong political messages of the international community and heads of state) would send a clear message that no one can get away with violence against journalists.
Consensus on the access to information
Referring to the need of establishing consensus on access to information, Senghore noted that this is particularly important in Africa to ensure that citizens trust government institutions and do not contest decision-making processes. She stressed that this is important for effective crisis management, given that the population is already in distress.
At a time when confinement measures are widespread, she also reflected on the need to provide access to timely and accurate information in rural and underprivileged areas through platforms that best correspond to their situation, and that will allow them to best understand the scope and implications such measures will have on their daily lives.
Raising the question of digital challenges, Deloire noted that even though social networks and platforms have played a positive role in combating the so-called COVID-19 ‘infodemic’, they also brought harm to journalism. It is therefore necessary to begin the regulation of these platforms. He also shared his reflections on the ‘access to information’ concept, which in itself can be problematic since it can also refer to access to rumours and manipulative content, which in turn weakens the objective of access to timely and reliable information.
Monitoring access to information and the safety of journalists
Discussing IPI’s work on the access to information and the safety of journalists during COVID-19, Trionfi emphasised that the IPI has been active from the very beginning of COVID-19, and that it became clear to them that governments were going to take advantage of the pandemic to impose restrictions on disseminating information that is in the public interest, and to try to control messages.
She highlighted that we have seen such action being taken by different governments, both democratic and less democratic, worldwide. She added that the IPI has records on 335 various violations against media workers, including arrests and detentions, which they will continue to monitor. Trionfi pointed out that journalists should be, at the very least, able to exercise their rights as much as they did before the crisis, if not more.