Threats to freedom of press: Violence, disinformation & censorship
The free flow of ideas: Freedom of the press, the journalists on the frontline
The way we see the world and act on it depends on the information we have. This is why freedom of expression and freedom of the press are fundamental rights, and the free flow of ideas is a key driver of vibrant societies and human progress. UNESCO works to reinforce the tools, skills and conditions that make these rights real.
Peter R. De Vries was on his way to a car park, walking past crowds of people enjoying post-work drinks in the heart of Amsterdam. It was the early evening of 6 July 2021 and the veteran crime journalist had just left a nearby TV studio, where he had appeared as a talk show guest.
De Vries was a household name in the Netherlands, where his own TV show had run for 17 years, working with crime victims’ families, pursuing unsolved cases and exposing miscarriages of justice. The journalist had recently refused police protection after receiving death threats. A year earlier, he had agreed to act as an adviser to the key prosecution witness against the suspected head of a cocaine trafficking gang.
As De Vries walked to his car, several bullets were fired at him. He died from his injuries nine days later.
Threats and violence against journalists
De Vries’ death prompted outpourings of condemnation and anger in Europe. Yet, many journalists and reporters around the world today risk their lives to uncover the truth. Every four days a journalist is killed in the world. In 2020 alone, according to UNESCO, 62 journalists were killed just for doing their jobs. Between 2006 and 2020, over 1,200 media professionals lost their lives in the same way. In nine out of ten cases, the killers go unpunished.
In many countries investigating corruption, trafficking, human rights violations, and political or environmental issues puts journalists’ lives at risk.
62 journalists killed in 2020,
just for doing their jobs: UNESCO
To help create the kind of environment journalists need to perform their vital work, UNESCO has set up several initiatives, including a global plan of action for the safety of journalists, in order to support Member States to establish or improve mechanisms for prevention, protection and prosecution to bring justice to cases of murdered journalists. One key aspect of UNESCO’s work is first and foremost to report and publicly condemn all cases of killing of journalists. UNESCO also produces training materials and best practices to help improve journalists’ skills and knowledge on international standards for freedom of expression, investigative journalism and reporting on conflicts.
For the past 40 years, UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) has focused on targeting the most pressing issues concerning communication development around the world. It helps keep journalists safe, supports the development of media in countries where it is most needed, promotes freedom of expression and public access to information.
Fostering Freedom of Expression
Women journalists facing risks and abuse
Across the world, journalists face countless threats every day, ranging from kidnapping, torture and arbitrary detention to disinformation campaigns and harassment, especially on social media. Women journalists are at particular risk.
According to UNESCO research, 73 per cent of women journalists surveyed said they had been threatened, intimidated and insulted online in connection with their work. Often, the failure to investigate and address online attacks has real-life consequences for women journalists, affecting their mental and physical health. In some cases, online threats can escalate to physical violence and even murder, as the murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 demonstrated.
For many years, Caruana Galizia had been the most prominent investigative journalist in Malta. She had worked as a columnist and editor in various newspapers. She later set up the website Running Commentary, where she published some of her most significant investigative journalism, exposing tax abuse and corruption in Malta and abroad. Harassment, threats and attempts to silence the journalist had been a constant presence throughout her career.
Online threats and violence against women journalists are designed to belittle, humiliate and shame them, as well as induce fear, silence and discredit them professionally. To respond to increasing threats against women journalists, UNESCO has published a research paper aimed at associations, politicians and governments: The Chilling. It seeks to promote discussion about effective legislative and organizational initiatives that are designed to protect women journalists.
Training judges and prosecutors to defend press freedom
Caruana Galizia’s biggest fear was that her example of physical threats, online harassments and libel lawsuits might discourage other journalists from speaking out. At the time of her death, Caruana Galizia was facing 48 libel suits. Award-winning journalist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Maria Ressa also faced several lawsuits before being found guilty of libel in the Philippines in 2020.
Ressa and a former colleague at the news site she founded, Rappler, were convicted of cyber libel by a court in Manila after they published an article linking a businessman to illegal activities. During her career, Ressa has been arrested and has been subject to a sustained campaign of gendered online abuse, threats and harassment, which at one point, resulted in her receiving an average of over 90 hateful messages an hour on Facebook.
Often based on meritless or exaggerated claims, these lawsuits are brought in order to pressure a journalist or human rights defender, rather than to vindicate a right.
That is why judges and prosecutors play an important role in protecting journalists from threats and harassment, as well as promoting prompt and effective criminal proceedings when attacks occur.
In recent years, UNESCO has trained nearly 23,000 judicial officials, including judges, prosecutors and lawyers, through several workshops on media and journalist law, training courses and online webinars, in partnership with universities and educational institutions like the Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Austin, Texas (USA). Training focuses on international standards related to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists, placing a particular focus on issues of impunity. In 2021, UNESCO’s online conference The role of the judiciary and international cooperation to foster safety of journalists – What works? explored effective ways in which judges, prosecutors and lawyers, as well as regional human rights courts and judicial training institutes, can combat impunity for crimes against journalists.
The fight against misinformation and censorship
The threats to freedom of expression and democracy also come from misinformation and censorship. The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing pandemic of misinformation have demonstrated that access to facts and science can be a matter of life and death.
In the first three months of 2020, almost 6,000 people around the world were hospitalized because of coronavirus misinformation, according to a paper published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. During this period, researchers say at least 800 people may have died due to misinformation related to COVID-19.
In May 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic, the Knight Center, with the support of UNESCO and the World Health Organization (WHO), launched an online course on how to empower journalists, communication workers and content creators countering the phenomenon of disinformation related to the pandemic. The course attracted nearly 9,000 students from 162 countries. ‘2020 was surely the most important year for the fact-checking community,’ said journalist Cristina Tardáguila, who was the course instructor and has been involved in global initiatives against disinformation as associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).
Journalism in a Pandemic: Covering COVID-19 Now and in the Future is an online self-directed course available in eight languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Hindi,
Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
Journalists covering the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines have received support through a live webinar, Covering the COVID-19 Vaccines: What Journalists Need to Know. The recording is now available in 13 languages: Arabic, Bambara, Chinese, Dari, English, French, Guarani, Hindi, Pashto, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Wolof.
The media can also take an important part in understanding complex issues such as climate change and fighting the misinformation that surrounds it. In the face of climate change, journalists have the ability to enlighten the public and be the link between scientists and citizens by highlighting the urgency of the situation, but also tell stories that are positive and inspire solutions.
Getting the Message Across: Reporting on Climate Change and Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific
UNESCO has supported the publication of a handbook for journalists covering climate change. Journalists are key to ensuring that stories of destruction as well as of resistance are shared, in order to get the message across about climate change and avoid misinformation.
The power of community radios
The struggle to protect journalists and promote freedom of expression is just one of the pillars helping build knowledge societies that have the power to transform economies and communities. Universal access to information and knowledge as well as the respect for cultural and linguistic diversity are essential to building peace, sustainable economic development and intercultural dialogue.
The Syrian Hour is a UNESCO-funded project that produces a bi-weekly radio programme, aired on Yarmouk FM radio station in Irbid, northern Jordan, where there is a large Syrian refugee population.
The programme trains young Syrians in radio broadcasting skills to host the shows while the shows themselves provide vital information and support to displaced Syrian refugees residing in Jordan. Majd Al Sammouri is one of the young people being trained to host The Syrian Hour.
Many Syrian refugees who fled the war to Jordan still lack awareness about their security, liberty and protection rights and what is available to them in terms of food-assistance, education, health or psychosocial support. Often, their precarious refugee status makes them too afraid to approach authorities and humanitarian organizations.
Majd and his young colleagues provide much-needed reliable information and support to the refugee community.
Community radio is a powerful tool because it has the potential to reach out to people with little or no access to information. It is an efficient mechanism for educating and informing people living in remote areas about key issues such as health, education and sustainable development.
UNESCO is supporting and promoting community radios as a means to facilitate social communication and support democratic processes within societies.
Community radios are also being used to promote oral traditions. For example, in Bandafassi, Senegal, the community radio broadcasts stories and proverbs, traditional music and the history of the various villages. This is one of the many small steps towards building pluralistic and diverse media that provide free impartial information options to empower the public to make their choices towards peace, sustainability, poverty eradication and human rights.
Fostering freedom of speech
UNESCO works to foster free, independent and pluralistic media in print, broadcast and online. Media that adhere to this model enhance freedom of speech as well as contribute to peace, sustainability, poverty eradication and human rights.
#TruthNeverDies is a campaign developed jointly by UNESCO and communication agency DDB Paris to commemorate the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on 2 November.
Women Make the News
Women Make the News is a global initiative aimed at raising awareness on issues relating to gender equality in and through the media, driving debate and encouraging action-oriented solutions to meet global objectives.
#HerMomentsMatter is a continuation of UNESCO’s World Radio Day campaign and aims to promote fairer coverage of women athletes. Women represent just 7 per cent of sportspeople seen, heard or read about in the media, while only 4 per cent of sports stories focus primarily on women.
Remote Radio Week
Community media, whether broadcast or online, are key to ensuring media pluralism and freedom of expression. They are also an indicator of a healthy democratic society.
In partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO), UNESCO has launched a free online training for radio stations to develop their capacities to broadcast remotely.
Remote Radio Week
AI and Facial Recognition webinar
This webinar about artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition, organized by UNESCO, touches on the pressing issues of facial recognition and the concerns it raises about the widespread adoption of AI and human rights. As AI is developing rapidly, it is important to understand its developments, which may have profound and potentially adverse impacts on individuals and society.
Webinar on Artificial Intelligence and Facial Recognition
World Atlas of Languages
The World Atlas of Languages is an unprecedented initiative to preserve, revitalize and promote global linguistic diversity and multilingualism as a unique heritage and treasure of humanity. The project aims to stimulate new research and innovation, create demand for new language resources and tools, help support language policy and legislation, and forge new partnerships and collaboration in the global community to open up access to information.
World Digital Library
Launched in 2009, the World Digital Library is a project of the U.S. Library of Congress, with the support of UNESCO, and contributions from libraries, archives, museums, educational institutions and international organizations around the world. The WDL seeks to preserve and share some of the world’s most important cultural objects, increasing access to cultural treasures and significant historical documents, to enable discovery, scholarship and use.
World Digital Library
UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize
Created in 1997, the annual UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize honours an individual, organisation or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the defence and, or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world, especially when this has been achieved in the face of danger. It is named after Guillermo Cano Isaza, a Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper El Espectador in Bogotá, Colombia on 17 December 1986.
UNESCO / Guillermo Cano
World Press Freedom Prize