Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the online high-level dialogue on press freedom and tackling disinformation in the COVID-19 context, in New York today:
Good morning, good afternoon and good evening. It is a great pleasure to speak to you, and I hope you are all keeping safe and well.
We mark World Press Freedom Day every year as an important moment to focus on media freedom and the protection of journalists. This cause remains essential.
I have spent time in war zones and refugee camps; I have seen how journalists risk their lives to make sure people’s stories are heard. I could not do my job without the courageous, creative and often deeply moving work of the media.
Reporters regularly bring to light major cases of corruption and nepotism, human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, sexual and gender-based violence. These reports are crucial in the pursuit of justice, laying the foundations for more detailed investigations that may lead to prosecutions.
But the media has come under increasing pressure in recent years. Many journalists face threats, harassment and violent attacks. Last year, 57 journalists were killed around the world.
Women are often targeted for attack. The winner of this year’s World Press Freedom Day award, the Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima, is one such courageous woman reporter.
When journalists are attacked, societies as a whole pay a price. No democracy can function without press freedom, which is the cornerstone of trust between people and their institutions. So today, we pay tribute to all journalists working under hazardous and difficult conditions around the world.
This year on World Press Freedom Day, the world, including the media, faces an entirely new challenge: COVID-19, which is affecting everyone, everywhere.
Along with the pandemic, we are seeing a dangerous outbreak of misinformation, from harmful health advice and hate speech to wild conspiracy theories. Blatant lies spread online at a terrifying rate. A recent analysis found that more than 40 per cent of posts about COVID-19 on one major social media platform were posted by bots — automated programmes disguised as people.
The antidote to this pandemic of misinformation is fact-based news and analysis. It depends on media freedom and independent reporting. And it is rooted in a fundamental tenet: “journalism without fear or favour”. This is much more than a slogan. It’s a matter of life and death.
Journalists and media workers of all kinds are crucial to helping us make informed decisions. In a pandemic, those decisions can save lives. Now more than ever, we need the media to document what is happening; to differentiate between fact and fiction; and hold leaders accountable.
But since the pandemic began, around the world, many journalists have been subjected to increased restrictions and disproportionate punishments simply for doing their jobs. While temporary constraints on freedom of movement are essential to beating COVID-19, they must never be used as a pretext for cracking down on journalists’ ability to do their work.
People are scared. They want to know what to do and where to turn for advice. They need science, and solidarity.
So, I thank the journalists and others who are reporting and fact-checking stories and social media posts, particularly those women and men covering public health. The United Nations stands with you.
The use of social media has risen dramatically since the crisis began, as it provides unparalleled ways for people to connect and to access information. It is gratifying that social media platforms are beginning to take their responsibilities seriously.
I welcome recent commitments by social platforms to amplify factual content and combat disinformation — particularly those that are proactively removing harmful material. I urge them to build on these efforts which are helping to prevent the spread of dangerous rumours and fake cures.
We at the United Nations are working with social platforms to promote messages that keep people safe and healthy. And we have launched our own initiative to flood digital spaces with facts and science while countering lies and misinformation of all kinds.
International organizations, and indeed Governments, have an important role in promoting facts and scientific approaches. But no one can take the place of the media during this pandemic in providing the public with information and analysis, and in countering rumours and distortions.
I urge Governments and leaders of all kinds to do everything in their power to protect journalists and media workers, and to strengthen press freedom, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.