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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

Over 1.9 billion people in Asia-Pacific unable to afford a healthy diet

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A child is tested for malnutrition at a UNICEF-supported health clinic in Bangladesh. According a UN report, malnutrition among young children and infants remains a pervasive problem in South Asia. UNICEF/Siegfried Modola

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and surging food prices are keeping almost two billion people in Asia and the Pacific from healthy diets, United Nations agencies said on Wednesday.

According to the 2020 Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition, the region’s poor have been worst affected, forced to choose cheaper and less nutritious foods. The report is jointly produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

“The outbreak of COVID-19 and a lack of decent work opportunities in many parts of the region, alongside significant uncertainty of food systems and markets, has led to a worsening of inequality, as poorer families with dwindling incomes further alter their diets to choose cheaper, less nutritious foods,” the agencies said

“Due to higher prices for fruits, vegetables and dairy products, it has become nearly impossible for poor people in Asia and the Pacific to achieve healthy diets, the affordability of which is critical to ensure food security and nutrition for all – and for mothers and children in particular.” 

As a result, progress is also slowing on improving nutrition, a key target for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As of 2019, over 350 million people in the region are estimated to have been undernourished, with an about 74.5 million children under five stunted (too short for their age) and 31.5 million suffering from wasting (too thin for height). 

‘Impact most severe in first 1,000 days’ 

The UN agencies went on to note that while nutrition is vitally important throughout a person’s life, the impact of a poor diet is most severe in the first 1,000 days, from pregnancy to when a child reaches the age of two. 
“Young children, especially when they start eating their ‘first foods’ at six months, have high nutritional requirements to grow well and every bite counts,” they said. 

The agencies called for an integrated systems approach – bringing together food, water and sanitation, health, social protection and education systems – to address underlying factors and achieve healthy diets for all mothers and children. 

‘Changing face of malnutrition’ 

They also highlighted the “changing face” of malnutrition, with highly processed and inexpensive foods, readily available throughout Asia and the Pacific. Often packed with sugar and unhealthy fats, such food items lack the vitamins and minerals required for growth and development and also increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

The report urged governments to invest more in nutrition and food safety to promote healthy diets, as well as regulate sales and marketing of food for consumers, especially children. It also highlighted the need for action within the private sector, given the sector’s important role in the food system and its value chains for achieving healthy diets. 

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Human Rights

Israel: ‘Halt and reverse’ new settlement construction

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A little boy stands on the remains of his family's demolished home in the West Bank. (File) UNRWA/Lara Jonasdottir

Israel’s decision to advance plans for some 800 new settlement units, most of which are located deep inside the occupied West Bank, has sparked the concern of UN Secretary-General António Guterres. 

In a statement issued on Monday by his spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, the UN chief urged the Israeli Government to “halt and reverse such decisions”, calling them “a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution, and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”. 

‘No legal validity’ 

Mr. Guterres reiterated that Israel’s establishing of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”. 

“Settlement expansion increases the risk of confrontation, further undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and further erodes the possibility of ending the occupation and establishing a contiguous and viable sovereign Palestinian State, based on the pre-1967 lines”, he said. 

Pushing forward 

Israel has given the green light to 780 new homes in West Bank settlements on Sunday in a move widely seen as being influenced by the imminent transfer of power in the United States. 

Breaking with decades of US diplomacy, outgoing President Donald Trump, in 2019 unilaterally declared that the settlements no longer breached international law. 

Against that backdrop, Israel has been increasing construction and either approved or made plans for more than 12,000 homes in 2020, according to news reports.

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Human Rights

Spectre of unrest, violent repression looming over Haiti

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Fire residues and debris at a protest site in Port-au-Prince in July 2018. MINUJUSTH/Leonora Baumann

Increasing political tensions in Haiti coupled with insecurity and structural inequalities could result in protests followed by violent crackdowns by authorities, the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) warned on Tuesday.

According to the office, criminal activities, such as kidnappings, gang fights and widespread insecurity have increased, with “almost total” impunity. 

Added to the volatile mix is resurging political tensions over the timing and scope of elections and a constitutional referendum proposed by the Government, OHCHR spokesperson Marta Hurtado told journalists at a regular briefing in Geneva. 

“Calls for mass protests have been growing. This in turn raises concerns of renewed human rights violations by security forces during the policing of protests as seen during the months-long protests in 2018 and 2019, as well as during demonstrations in October and November of last year.” 

According to an OHCHR report on the unrest, protests started relatively peacefully in July 2018 but became increasingly violent over time, with many violations and abuses of the rights to life, security of the person and effective remedy.  

‘Pattern of violations’ 

The report also documented violations to the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. In 2019 demonstrations, barricades were set up that blocked people’s access to hospitals and passage of ambulances. Health facilities were also attacked, severely impacting the daily lives of the Haitian people, particularly those in a vulnerable situation. 

In addition, protesters and criminal elements imposed “passage fees”, further impeding the movement of people and goods and exacerbating economic hardship. 

“The report shows a pattern of human rights violations and abuses followed by near lack of accountability,” Ms. Hurtado said. 

‘Guarantee accountability’ 

The OHCHR spokesperson called on Haitian authorities to take “immediate action” to avoid repetition of such violations and abuses by ensuring that law enforcement officers abide by international norms and standards regarding the use of force when dealing with protests; as well as ensuring that gangs do not interfere with people’s right to demonstrate peacefully. 

She also urged the Government to guarantee accountability for past violations and abuses, ensuring justice, truth, and reparations. Alongside, Haiti should take steps to address people’s grievances and the root causes that fuelled the protests, she added. 

“OHCHR stands ready to continue supporting State authorities in their fulfilment of human rights international obligations [and] expresses its willingness to continue working towards the establishment of a country office,” Ms. Hurtado said, welcoming commitments made by the Haitian National Police to reform practices documented in the report. 

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