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UN Rights Chief: Media Clampdowns Endanger Efforts to Tackle COVID-19

FILE - AFP photographer Alfredo Estrella wears a face mask as he works during the coronavirus pandemic, in Mexico City, Mexico, April 8, 2020.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, says attempts by several governments to muzzle a free press are endangering peoples’ health and hampering efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic.

Bachelet said in a statement Friday that leaders in some states are using the pandemic as a pretext to stifle criticism of their regimes.

She said journalists are being intimidated or arrested, while others are threatened with loss of livelihoods to prevent them from reporting the truth, especially about COVID-19.

The High Commissioner’s spokesman, Rupert Colville, said getting out the truth is vital in these times.

“We all need good information. And, that is a health issue. I mean if we get bad information that might lead to people taking the wrong decisions in their personal lives, which could lead to them catching COVID-19 or giving it to other people. So, it is absolutely vital we get good information,” Colville said.

Since the start of the outbreak, the Vienna-based International Press Institute has recorded more than 130 alleged violations against the media around the world. It found nearly 40 journalists have been arrested for reports critical of the state response to the pandemic.

These include three journalists who disappeared in Wuhan, China, after publishing articles critical of the authorities' COVID-19 response.

Li Zehua, who vanished Feb. 26, re-emerged two days ago. Colville said nothing has been heard from Chen Qiushi, who has been missing for 75 days, according to his friends, or Fang Bin, who disappeared sometime in February.
Overall, Colville said his agency has gathered information of physical assaults or other forms of attacks against journalists and the media in 29 countries. These include Mexico, Guatemala, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Tanzania.

“The kind of leaders who are criticizing journalists in a way that is quite disturbing are in some ways, the usual suspects. These are the leaders who have done it before, who do not tolerate criticism of their policies…. In Turkey, for example, President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan said [his] country not only needs to be saved from the coronavirus, but also from all media and political viruses,” Colville said.

In her statement Friday, Bachelet warned against blaming the messenger. She urged countries to encourage healthy debate concerning the pandemic and its consequences, rather than threatening journalists or stifling criticism.

She said that open and transparent debate builds public trust and results in measures that protect the health of state leaders, as well as their populations. She said protecting journalists from harassment, threats, detention or censorship helps keep everyone safe.