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Human Rights

The dangerous job of separating ‘truth from falsehood’

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Prominent journalists and champions of press freedom from across the world are examining ways to overcome increasing challenges facing the media during a two-day online conference organized jointly by the UN’s cultural and educational agency, UNESCO, and the Netherlands.

The World Press Freedom Conference 2020, which began on Wednesday, features interactive panels and discussions covering issues such as investigating the killings of journalists, online violence against women journalists, and the media’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Not only are journalists conveying vital information during the pandemic, they also help us distinguish all manner of truth from falsehood, which is fundamental to our social contract”, said Audrey Azoulay, the UNESCO Director-General. 

“Yet, journalists continue to be targeted, harassed and attacked. In recent years, threats against them have grown because they disrupt, because they tell the truth. Or, to put it simply, because they do their job.” 

No ‘press’ without ‘freedom’ 

Between 2010 and 2019, nearly 900 journalists were killed in the line of duty, according to UNESCO data; crimes that mainly go unpunished.  Women journalists have faced harassment, including physical or sexual threats, whether online or in real life, while the pandemic has added to the already precarious financial situation of the media industry. 

There can be no “press” without “freedom”, the Dutch Foreign Minister, Stef Blok, stressed, acknowledging how he counts on the media to keep him informed about what is happening at home and around the world. 

Mr. Blok said he had spoken earlier on Thursday with young journalists from Ethiopia and Libya “and I really could tell them from the bottom of my heart: We need you. We need you to know what is happening in your country, and to do what we have to do as ministers.” 

Corrosion and contagion 

During the first panel, Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times, spoke of the “rough four years” American media had to weather, covering the Trump administration. 

“He has called us ‘the enemy of the people’, he’s used the term ‘fake news’, which has been repeated by 50 Presidents, Prime Ministers and other government officials around the world”, she said.  

Although these attacks have had what Ms. Bumiller described as “a corrosive effect” on the media in the United States, she reported that The Times has nonetheless seen record levels of readership and digital subscriptions. 

However, Sudanese-born journalist Nima El Badir, a Senior International Correspondent with CNN in London, was wary that the “contagion” of populism is still spreading across the globe. 

“I worry that we are taking a breath and kind of exhaling a little too early”, she said.  “The sense that we get is that there is a contagion; that the lessons of the populist leadership, of the populist wave – whether in the US, the UK, or Europe – has been learned very well by leaders around the world.” 

Democracy in danger 

Ms. El Badir pointed to the situation in Ethiopia, where a communications blackout has been imposed in the north since the start of the Tigray crisis a month ago.  

 “How can President Trump, how can Prime Minister Johnson, how can any of the many leaders within the European Union, speak out about lack of access when they themselves would love to nothing more than exactly the same? If they could shut us down, they would”, he claimed. 

For Maria Ressa, Editor-in-Chief of the Philippines online news website Rappler, the rise of populism, and attacks against journalists, have been enabled by technology. 

Ms. Ressa, who has been arrested nine times, believes people must give consideration to their news sources.  Social media penetration in the Philippines is high, she said, describing it as “Facebook country.”  

“Well, our dystopian present has now hit many democracies around the world, and we’ve got to do something about this”, she warned.  

“And that is to make sure that news reaches you; that the platforms, the social media platforms, because of their business model, that they do not insidiously manipulate us to tear democracy down.”

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Human Rights

Myanmar: From political crisis, to ‘multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe’

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What began as a coup by the Myanmar military has ‘rapidly morphed’ into an all-out attack against the civilian population that has become increasingly widespread and systematic, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned on Tuesday.

Speaking at the 47th session of the Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet reiterated that the situation in the country has evolved from a political crisis in early February to a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe”, repeating a formulation she first used a month ago.

Since the coup, nearly 900 people have been killed while around 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes because of violent military raids on neighbourhoods and villages.

Downward spiral

“Suffering and violence throughout the country are devastating prospects for sustainable development and raise the possibility of State failure or a broader civil war”, she cautioned.

Ms. Bachelet explained that the catastrophic developments since February have had a severe and wide-ranging impact on human rights, peace and security, and sustainable development.

“They are generating clear potential for massive insecurity, with fallout for the wider region”.

The UN High Commissioner urged the international community to stand united in pressuring the military to halt its continuing attacks on the people of Myanmar and return the country to democracy, reflecting the ‘clear will of the people’.

The UN must act

She said the UN system must not fail the country a second time”, she added, citing the 2019 review of UN action in the country, by Gert Rosenthal.

She also advised swift action to restore a working democracy before the human rights situation in the country deteriorates further.

“This should be reinforced by Security Council action. I urge all States to act immediately to give effect to the General Assembly’s call to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”, Ms. Bachelet said.

Hunger, violence and poverty

Ms. Bachelet said COVID had had a ‘disastrous’ impact on an economy that relied on remittances, the garment industry and other sectors which have been devastated by the resultant global recession.

UN Agencies estimate that over 6 million people are severely in need of food aid and forecast that nearly half the population could fall into poverty by early 2022.

“A void has been opened for the most harmful – and criminal – forms of illicit economy to flourish”, she underscored.

Meanwhile, a countrywide general strike, combined with the widespread dismissal of civil servants – including educators and medical personnel – has cut off many essential services in the country.

Since 1 February, at least 240 attacks on health-care facilities, medical personnel, ambulances and patients have disabled COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccination.

Intense violence and repression

She denounced indiscriminate airstrikes, shelling, civilian killings and mass displacement. Civil voices are also being silenced: over 90 journalists have been arrested and eight major media outlets shuttered.

“We have also received multiple reports of enforced disappearances; brutal torture and deaths in custody; and the arrest of relatives or children in lieu of the person being sought”, she said.

New equation

Despite the repression, the UN High Commissioner indicated that the military leadership has not successfully secured control of Myanmar, nor won the international recognition it seeks.

“On the contrary, its brutal tactics have triggered a national uprising that has changed the political equation”, she said.

She added that people across the country continue peaceful protests despite the massive use of lethal force, including heavy weaponry, and a ‘civil disobedience movement has brought many military-controlled government structures to a standstill’.

Some people, in many parts of Myanmar, have taken up arms and formed self-protection groups. These newly formed groups have launched attacks in several locations, to which the security forces have responded with disproportionate force, she noted.

Consequences

“I am concerned that this escalation in violence could have horrific consequences for civilians. All armed actors must respect and protect human rights and ensure that civilians and civilian structures such as health centres and schools are protected”.

 “Any future democratic government in Myanmar must have the authority to exercise effective civilian control over the military. The international community should build upon the range of international accountability mechanisms already engaged, until transitional justice measures also become genuinely possible at the national level”, the High Commissioner concluded.  

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Human Rights

Amid COVID job losses, ‘high food prices are hunger’s new best friend’

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Job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic combined with high food prices are making it hard for millions of families to get enough to eat, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Thursday. 

WFP estimates that a record 270 million people worldwide are acutely food insecure or at high risk this year, a 40 per cent jump from 2020. 

“High food prices are hunger’s new best friend. We already have conflict, climate and COVID-19 working together to push more people into hunger and misery. Now food prices have joined the deadly trio,” said Arif Husain, Chief Economist at the UN agency. 

Food price inflation 

WFP said countries more likely to experience high food price inflation are those that depend on food imports, or where climatic or conflict shocks could disrupt local food production, or those suffering from macro-economic fragility, with some of the highest price increases found in the Middle East.  

Meanwhile, currency depreciation has further driven up local food prices in many countries, such as Zimbabwe, Syria, Ethiopia and Venezuela. 

WFP’s latest Market Monitor, which provides information on price changes for common staples, reveals that in Lebanon, where economic turmoil has accelerated over the past year, the average price of wheat flour was 50 per cent higher in March through May than in the previous three months. The year-on-year price rise was 219 per cent. 

In war-torn Syria, cooking oil has increased by nearly 60 per cent, and by 440 per cent year-on-year. 

Mozambique, which is confronting a conflict in the north, is among “high food price hotspots” in Africa.  The price of cassava there shot up by 45 per cent in March through May, compared to the previous three months. 

The picture is reflected across international markets, according to the Food Price Index published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).   

After rising for 12 consecutive months, food prices dropped slightly in June, reaching 124.6, which is just below the peak of 136.7 a decade ago. At the same time, the cost of a basic food basket has risen by more than 10 per cent in nine of the more than 80 countries where WFP operates. 

Trouble for families 

WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and its food assistance can make the difference between life or death for millions facing hunger. 

While food price hikes directly impact the people it serves, they have also affected millions of families whose incomes have been decimated by the pandemic.  

The crisis could push as many as 97 million people worldwide into poverty by the end of the year, according to the World Bank. 

“If you’re a family that already spends two thirds of your income on food, hikes in the price of food already spell trouble. Imagine what they mean if you’ve already lost part or all of your income because of COVID-19,” said Mr. Husain. 

WFP explained how high food prices affect its work, first by driving up the number of people who need help.  At the same time, the cost of commodities for food assistance operations is increased, with the agency paying 13 per cent more for wheat during the first four months of the year than it did in 2020. 

WFP is aiming to reach nearly 140 million people worldwide this year, its biggest operation ever.

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Human Rights

Famine knocking at the door of 41 million worldwide

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World Food Programme (WFP) food distribution in Kaya, Burkina Faso. WFP/Mahamady Ouedraogo

Famine is already present in four countries but millions more people are at risk, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Tuesday, underscoring the need for urgent funding and humanitarian access to reach those in need. 

Recent analysis by the UN agency reveals 41 million people in 43 countries “are teetering on the very edge of famine”, up from 27 million two years ago. 

Help needed now 

“I am heartbroken at what we’re facing in 2021. We now have four countries where famine-like conditions are present”, WFP chief David Beasley told its Executive Board on Monday, according to a press release. 

He described the situation as “just tragic”, as “these are real people with real names.”  

WFP said 584,000 people are already experiencing famine-like conditions in Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Sudan and Yemen.   

Nigeria and Burkina Faso are also of particular concern as they have pockets where famine-like conditions are present. 

“In Somalia in 2011, 260,000 people died of hunger – and by the time the famine was actually declared – half of that number had already died,” Mr. Beasley recalled. “We can’t debate the numbers to death when people need our help now.” 

Conflict, climate change and currency depreciation 

Hunger has risen due to conflict, climate change and economic shocks, WFP said.  However, soaring prices for basic foods have also compounded the situation, with the global cost of maize rising almost 90 per cent year-on-year, for example. 

In many countries, currency depreciation is also a factor, the agency added.  This has driven prices even higher, stoking food insecurity in places such as Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. 

WFP is this year mounting its biggest operation ever, targeting 139 million people.  With sufficient funding and access, the agency said it can provide them with lifesaving food and nutritional assistance. 

Mr. Beasley underlined the urgent need for support. 

“I want to emphasize just how bad it is out there. Today, 41 million people are literally knocking on famine’s door. The price tag to reach them is about $6 billion. We need funding and we need it now,” he said

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