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Advocates to Mark World Press Freedom Day Amid Coronavirus-Related Crackdowns

FILE - Protesters for press freedom hold placards outside the Harare Magistrate's Court in Zimbabwe on Feb. 9, 2020.
FILE - Protesters for press freedom hold placards outside the Harare Magistrate's Court in Zimbabwe on Feb. 9, 2020.

Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, media rights groups and free speech advocates have highlighted the importance of an independent press in times of crisis.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Friday said in a statement that the role journalists play in helping people make decisions can be a matter of life and death.

“As the pandemic spreads, it has also given rise to a second pandemic of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories,” he said. “The press provides the antidote: verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis.”

VOA has been tracking COVID-19-linked censorship and press freedom violations.

World Press Freedom Day is spearheaded by United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has declared this year's motto "Journalism without Fear or Favor."

Guterres unveiled a communications strategy in March to battle misinformation and conspiracy theories about the origin of the novel coronavirus, but on Friday he said more needed to be done.

“We call on governments to protect media workers, and to strengthen and maintain press freedom, which is essential for a future of peace, justice and human rights for all,” he said.

A first step, said David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, is to release any journalists currently jailed as a result of their reporting.

“At a time when disease outbreaks spread through detention facilities, detention’s cruelty is exposed, imposing an additionally excessive punishment that carries with it the risk of illness and death,” he said in a statement.

In December, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt the world's leading jailers of journalists. Its 2019 survey of journalists in prison for their work as of December 1 documented 250 incarcerations.

“The criminalization of journalism must end," Kaye said. "That can start with releasing journalists from detention as a matter of urgency.”

The risks journalists take to cover the news are also acknowledged at events for Press Freedom Day.

At least 55 media workers in 23 countries have died since March 1 because of the pandemic, according to the Geneva-based Press Emblem Campaign.

The group said that although it remained unclear how they contracted the virus, the toll highlights that media workers often lack proper protection.

According to UNESCO, at least 1,388 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since World Press Freedom Day was first observed in 1993.

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