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Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right recognized by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, it is a right that is systematically trampled upon and ignored. Statistics show that in these past few years, more and more journalists have lost their lives just for doing their job. Between 2006 and 2020, more than 1200 journalists were killed, and in 9 out of 10 cases the perpetrator got away with it.

Moreover, the situation has been exacerbated by the current global pandemic which has allowed the governments to enact more repressive laws, endangering the freedom of expression. According to Article 19 of the UDHR, everyone has the right to express his beliefs and to seek, receive and impart any kind of information and ideas. Obviously, this right can be restricted in order to protect national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights and reputation of others. Thus, it is therefore impossible to restrict the freedom of speech without violating international human rights laws. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has once again highlighted the importance of this right. Obtaining accurate and truthful scientific information can be essential to preventing the spread of the virus and to allowing people to make informed decisions about their health. The spread of false and misleading information by politicians or other influential people, as well as various conspiracy theories, has had an impact on people’s behavior increasing vaccine hesitancy, according to a study conducted in several European countries. But, at a time when this right should therefore be better protected, as it is closely linked to the right to health, we have seen its restriction.

As early as December 2019, those in China who tried to alert the population about the existence of a new unknown virus were silenced and imprisoned. As of February 2020, the investigations opened for “intentional production and dissemination of false and harmful information” were about 5511. Furthermore, numerous articles related to the virus have been censored as well as any type of post or critical comment on government action. And China is not the only one. More and more states, such as Russia and Cuba, took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to enact emergency measures that restrict human rights. Although many of these are necessary to fight the virus, measures restricting the freedom of expression are a danger to everyone, not just journalists. 

These laws tend to use vague terms that are open to different interpretations and will most likely remain in place long after the pandemic is over. These types of legislation have allowed those in power to exert more control over the population and to eradicate all forms of dissent. Therefore, the goal seems to be not the safety of the citizens, but their control.

Moreover, the pandemic has also changed the working conditions of journalists, as they have to work more through digital media, and are exposed to new types of threats. Online violence against journalists, especially women, has now reached new levels, severely affecting their offline lives, and those of their families. UNESCO has recently issued a paper about the matter called “The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists”. According to the paper, 73% of the women surveyed have been victims of threats and intimidation. It is now time to put an end to systematic human rights abuses and to the unjust imprisonment and killing of journalists. Governments have a duty to protect journalists, as well as every other citizen, from violence, intimidation, and threats. States should work to provide reliable information to all people and prevent misinformation, by forcing social media companies to take action against it.

Indeed, digital platforms must now take their responsibility and begin to actively combat the spread of fake news, as well as violence and threats, that begins on social and then pour into real life. As Audrey Azoulay said on the occasion of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalist, nowadays “telling the truth comes at a price” but “only allowing the truth to be spoken can we advance peace, justice and sustainable development in our societies”.

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