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During this coronavirus pandemic, ‘fake news’ is putting lives at risk: UNESCO

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Unreliable and false information is spreading around the world to such an extent, that some commentators are now referring to the new avalanche of misinformation that’s accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic as a ‘disinfodemic’. 

And fears are growing that this phenomenon is putting lives at risk, prompting some with symptoms to try unproven remedies in the hope of ‘curing’ themselves. UNESCO, the UN educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is leading efforts to counter falsehoods and promote the facts about the virus.

‘Barely an area left untouched by disinformation’

Well before the outbreak of the virus, UNESCO was issuing warnings of the impact that political, technological, economic, and social transformation has had on how we exchange information in recent years, referring to the “contamination” caused by some orchestrated misinformation campaigns, which pose a threat to fact-based journalism and, particularly during the current pandemic, people’s lives.

Guy Berger is the Director for Policies and Strategies regarding Communication and Information at UNESCO, and one of the agency’s lead officials on the subject of disinformation. In an interview with UN News, he explained that falsehoods related to all aspects of COVID-19, have become commonplace.

“There seems to be barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from the origin of the coronavirus, through to unproven prevention and ‘cures’, and encompassing responses by governments, companies, celebrities and others.”

He added that “in a time of high fears, uncertainties and unknowns, there is fertile ground for fabrications to flourish and grow. The big risk is that any single falsehood that gains traction can negate the significance of a body of true facts.

“When disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people, the grave danger is that information which is based on truth, ends up having only marginal impact.”

Mythbusting, and the dangers of promoting unproven medicines

Because of the scale of the problem, the World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the UN’s response to the pandemic, has added a “mythbusters” section to its online coronavirus advice pages. It refutes a staggering array of myths, including claims that drinking potent alcoholic drinks, exposure to high temperatures, or conversely, cold weather, can kill the virus.

Mr. Berger noted that some people believe, wrongly, that young people or those of African descent are immune (some disinformation has a racist, or xenophobic, tone), and that those in warm climates or countries where summer is on its way, do not need to worry too much. The likely consequence, he says, is complacency, which could fuel more premature deaths.

The UNESCO official also pointed to a more harmful example of disinformation: encouraging the taking of medication, approved for other purposes, but not yet clinically proven as being effective against COVID-19.

The good, the bad, and the gullible

Sadly, says Mr. Berger, some have capitalized on the pandemic, to spread disinformation for the purposes of advancing their own agendas: “The motives for spreading disinformation are many, and include political aims, self-promotion, and attracting attention as part of a business model. Those who do so, play on emotions, fears, prejudices and ignorance, and claim to bring meaning and certainty to a reality that is complex, challenging and fast-changing.”

But, he adds, not everyone responsible for spreading untruths is doing so maliciously. Well-intentioned people are also uncritically circulating dubious content. Whatever the reasons, her warns, the outcome is the same: “These different motives require different responses, but we should not lose sight of the fact that, irrespective of intention, the effect of sharing falsehoods is to disinform and disempower the public, with deadly potential.”

Supplying and demanding the truth

Against this, what can be done to ensure that truthful, helpful and potentially life-saving information gains wider prominence? UNESCO’s answer, says Mr. Berger, is to improve the supply of truthful information, and ensure that the demand is met: “We are underlining that governments, in order to counter rumours, should be more transparent, and proactively disclose more data, in line with Right to Information laws and policies. Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.”

“However, this is not a substitute for information supplied by the news media, so we are also intensifying our efforts to persuade authorities to see free and professional journalism as an ally in the fight against disinformation, especially because the news media works openly in the public sphere, whereas much disinformation is under-the-radar, on social messaging apps.”

UNESCO, continued Mr. Berger,  is particularly urging governments “not to impose restrictions on freedom of expression that can harm the essential role of an independent press, but to recognise journalism as a power against disinformation even when it publicises verified information and informed opinion that annoys those in power. There is a strong case to be made that the media deserves to be recognised and supported by governments as an essential service at this time.”

To satisfy the demand for authoritative facts, UNESCO is circulating as much reliable public health information as possible, via the media, channels, in partnership with agencies like WHO.

UNESCO is also working to help people become more critical of what is being presented to them online and elsewhere, as fact, so that they are less likely to believe, and spread, falsehoods. The agency is using the hashtags #ThinkBeforeSharing, #ThinkBeforeClicking, and #ShareKnowledge, and promoting the view that the rights to freedom of expression and access to information are the best remedies to the dangers of disinformation.

These rights, says Mr. Berger, “enable governments and the public to take evidence-based decisions about reality, and to put in place responses that are founded on both science and human rights values, and which can get us through the pandemic in the best way.”

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Environment

Greenpeace Africa reacts to DRC President’s decision to suspend illegal logging concessions

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The President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Félix Tshisekedi, ordered on Friday, October 15th, the suspension of all dubious logging concessions, including the 6 granted in September 2020. Greenpeace Africa, one of the civil society organizations that denounced these concessions, applauds the decision taken by the Head of State and encourages him to remain vigilant and ensure its effective execution by Deputy Prime Minister Ms. Eve Bazaiba.

Greenpeace Africa reiterates its call for maintaining the moratorium on new industrial logging concessions to prevent a human rights and climate catastrophe. This logging sector, characterized by bad governance, favors corruption and remains out of touch with the socio-economic needs of the Congolese people and the climate crisis we live in.

Irène Wabiwa Betoko, Head of the International Congo Basin Forest Project of Greenpeace: “The decision of H.E. President Tshisekedi against the illegal actions of former Minister Nyamugabo sends an important message to the Congolese people and their government. It is also a red light for the plans of Ms. Ève Bazaiba, current Minister of the Environment, to open a highway to deforestation by multinational logging companies through lifting the moratorium on new industrial concessions.”

The President asks to “Suspend all questionable contracts pending the outcome of an audit and report them to the government at the next cabinet meeting.” Greenpeace Africa maintains that the review of illegalities in the forest sector must be transparent, independent, and open to comments from civil society organizations.

Ms. Wabiwa adds that “Both the protection of the rights of Congolese peoples and the success of COP26 require that the moratorium on granting new forest titles be strengthened. We again call on President Tshisekedi to strengthen the 2005 presidential decree to extend the moratorium.”

Ms. Wabiwa concludes that “instead of allowing new avenues of destruction, the DRC needs a permanent forest protection plan, taking into account the management by the local and indigenous populations who live there and depend on them for their survival.”

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Tech News

Standards & Digital Transformation – Good Governance in a Digital Age

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In celebration of World Standards Day 2021, celebrated on 14 October every year, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is pleased to announce the launch of a brochure, “Standards and Digital Transformation: Good Governance in the Digital Age”.

In the spirit of this year’s World Standards Day theme “Shared Vision for a Better World”, the brochure provides insights into the key drivers of the digital transformation and its implications for sustainable development, particularly people, prosperity and planet. Noting the rapid pace of change of the digital transformation, with the COVID-19 pandemic serving as an unanticipated accelerator, the brochure highlights the role of standards in digital transformation governance. It further considers the principles necessary for guiding the collaborative development of standards in the digital technology landscape to ensure that the technologies remain human-centered and aligned to the goals of sustainability.

This year’s World Standards Day theme highlights the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) representing a shared vision for peace and prosperity, for people and planet. Every SDG is a call for action, but we can only get there if we work together, and international standards offer practical solutions we can all stand behind.

This brochure is a summary of a publication set to be released in November 2021.

Download it here.

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Human Rights

UN: Paraguay violated indigenous rights

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An indigenous community in Paraguay wait to receive their COVID-19 vaccination. WHO/PAHO

Paraguay’s failure to prevent the toxic contamination of indigenous people’s traditional lands by commercial farming violates their rights and their sense of “home”, the UN Human Rights Committee said in a landmark ruling on Wednesday. 

The Committee, which is made up of 18 independent experts from across the world, monitors countries’ adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  

Lands represent ‘home’ 

The decision on Paraguay (in Spanish) marked the first time it has affirmed that for indigenous people, “home” should be understood in the context of their special relationship with their territories, including their livestock, crops and way of life.  

“For indigenous peoples, their lands represent their home, culture and community. Serious environmental damages have severe impacts on indigenous people’s family life, tradition, identity and even lead to the disappearance of their community. It dramatically harms the existence of the culture of the group as a whole,” said Committee member Hélène Tigroudja. 

The decision stems from a complaint filed more than a decade ago on behalf of some 201 Ava Guarani people of the Campo Agua’e indigenous community, located in Curuguaty district in eastern Paraguay. 

The area where they live is surrounded by large commercial farms which produce genetically modified soybeans through fumigation, a process which involves the use of banned pesticides. 

Traditional life affected 

Fumigation occurred continuously for more than 10 years and affected the indigenous community’s whole way of life, including killing livestock, contaminating waterways and harming people’s health. 

The damage also had severe intangible repercussions, according to the UN committee.  The disappearance of natural resources needed for hunting, fishing and foraging resulted in the loss of traditional knowledge.  For example, ceremonial baptisms no longer take place as necessary materials no longer exist. 

“By halting such ceremonies, children are denied a rite crucial to strengthening their cultural identity,” the Committee said.  “Most alarmingly, the indigenous community structure is being eroded and disintegrated as families are forced to leave their land.” 

Toxic exposure 

The indigenous community brought the case to the Human Rights Committee after a lengthy and unsatisfactory administrative and judicial process in Paraguay’s courts. 

“More than 12 years after the victims filed their criminal complaint regarding the fumigation with toxic agrochemicals, to which they have continued to be exposed throughout this period, the investigations have not progressed in any meaningful way and the State party has not justified the delay,” the Committee said in its decision. 

Recommendations, reparations 

Members found Paraguay did not adequately monitor the fumigation and failed to prevent contamination, adding “this failure in its duty to provide protection made it possible for the large-scale, illegal fumigation to continue for many years, destroying all components of the indigenous people’s family life and home.”  

The Committee recommended that Paraguay complete the criminal and administrative proceedings against all parties responsible and make full reparation to the victims. 

The authorities are also urged to take all necessary measures, in close consultation with the indigenous community, to repair the environmental damage, and to work to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future. 

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