UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Friday said she was alarmed by restrictive measures imposed by several States against the independent media, as well as the arrest and intimidation of journalists, saying the free flow information was vital in fighting COVID-19.
"Some States have used the outbreak of the new coronavirus as a pretext to restrict information and stifle criticism," Bachelet said.
She said a free media is always essential, but they have never depended on it more than they do during this pandemic, when so many people are isolated and fearing for their health and livelihoods. "Credible, accurate reporting is a lifeline for all of us."
The UN human rights chief also noted that some political leaders had directed statements towards journalists and media workers that created a hostile environment for their safety and their ability to do their work, according to a statement issued from Geneva.
According to the International Press Institute there have been over 130 alleged media violations since the start of the outbreak, including more than 50 reported instances of restrictions on access to information, censorship and excessive regulation of misinformation.
It reported that nearly 40 journalists have been arrested or charged in the Asia-Pacific, Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Africa for reports critical of the State response to the pandemic or for simply questioning the accuracy of official numbers of cases and deaths related to COVID-19.
The actual number of media violations and arrests is probably far higher.
There have also been reports of journalists disappearing after publishing coverage critical of the COVID-19 response, and several news outlets have been closed by the authorities over their reporting.
"This is no time to blame the messenger. 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," Bachelet said.
"Being open and transparent, and involving those affected in decision-making builds public trust and helps ensure that people participate in measures designed to protect their own health and that of the wider population and increases accountability."
Additionally, independent media provide medical professionals and relevant experts a platform to speak freely and share information with each other and the public, she said.
The UN's human rights chief echoed concerns raised by the Secretary-General about the "dangerous epidemic of misinformation" around the pandemic which generated confusion and more ill-health, and paid tribute to the journalists working in the independent media whose fact-checking provided truth and clarity.
"Journalists are playing an indispensable role in our response to this pandemic, but unlike the grave threats posed to other essential workers, the threats media workers face are entirely avoidable. Protecting journalists from harassment, threats, detention or censorship helps keep us all safe," Bachelet said.