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“Let's protect media freedom!” proclaim in Geneva Swiss President and High Commissioner for Human Rights

UNO SCHWEIZ MENSCHENRECHTSRAT GENF Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga, left, sitting next to Serge Michel, center, moderator, and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Chilean Michelle Bachelet, right, delivers her statement, during a panel titled "Journalists at risk - Let's protect media freedom!", at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, September 1, 2020. (KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

The Swiss Confederation and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights organised a side-event to the General assembly on press freedom on 1 September 2020 : “Journalists at risk - Let's protect media freedom!” . The situation in the world is indeed worrying : according to the UN Secretary-general in just over a decade over a thousand journalists have been killed and 90 % of such cases stay unresolved, with no one held accountable.

How bad is the situation ?

  • According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 1382 journalists have been killed since 1992, of which 17 only this year.
  • In 2019, 248 journalists were jailed according to the same institution.

  • 64 journalists went missing in 2020 according to CPJ.

  • About 74 % of the world’s countries present a “problematic”, “difficult” or “very serious” press freedom situation according to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

What are the event’s takeaways ?

  • Attending reporters as well as decision-makers raised the issue of fear and intimidation leading sometimes to self-censorship among journalists. In a poignant testimony, Syrian reporter Maher Akraa spoke about the threats for his life in Syria and then his detention by Turkish border police officers. Even in Geneva, within the walls of the Palais des Nations he received threats against himself and his family.

“When there is a bomb attack, you know you will die, when you’re arrested, you don’t know what will happen to you”

  • Jamil Chade, Brazilian Journalist, was alarmed by his country’s press being under constant attacks led by the President Jair Bolsonaro himself. «I'd Like to Punch You in the Mouth**.**» the head of state said to one journalist. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, he made 53 attacks in the first two quarters of 2020.

“It is a method, not an outburst of rage due to one question” said Chade.

  • Patrick Chapatte, Swiss press cartoonist and founding-member of Cartooning for peace, remarked how attacks against press professionals and freedom of expression in general are increasingly present in the west and not only in developing countries.

  • President Sommaruga stressed the importance of a strong and independent judiciary as a prerequisite for a free press.

  • Luisa Ballin, Vice president of the Press Emblem Campaign (APEC), outlined how journalists were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. “It is over 300 journalists that died of COVID.” She explains this number by the nature of journalistic work, which largely consists in meeting people.

  • Chapatte again outlined a “new form of censorship” related to political correctness and the rise of cancel-culture. He explained that while it was States, which used to limit their citizen’s freedom of speech, it is currently often limited by impulses from within society itself. One cartoon at the New York Times provoked so much online negative reaction the newspaper struggled handling the outraged.

“They dealt damage control, apologized and killed the problem by killing the cartoonists. That’s how I lost my job for a cartoon I didn’t do”

What is done ?

  • During the Human Rights Council’s last session, the Netherlands, Canada, Fiji, Sweden,  Brazil and Namibia championed a resolution on the security of journalists.

  • In July 2019 was formed the media freedom coalition, presided over by the UK and Canada. It is a partnership of 37 countries working together for the advocacy of media freedom and safety of journalists as well as to hold to account those who harm journalists for doing their job.

  • In December 2020 will take place the UNESCO World press freedom conference in the Netherlands with the theme “Journalism without fear or favour”.

And what should be done ?

The initiative of Switzerland and the OHCHR has been widely welcomed. Luisa Ballin proposed to follow-up on this conference at future events. She said APEC stands for the adoption of an international convention on the security of journalists.

“Twitter is a place for fury, not for debate” remarked Chapatte. He calls upon institutions, states, companies and NGOs to build networks and push back violent personal attacks happening on social media.

As for now, Maher Akraa can only thank his fiancée for staying supportive.

“She is scared everyday because I am a journalist”


The event was moderated by Serge Michel, editorial director of Geneva Solutions.

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