UN Human Rights Chief Calls on Nations to Respect Rights of Journalists

BenarNews staff
Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Dhaka
UN Human Rights Chief Calls on Nations to Respect Rights of Journalists Supporters and employees of ABS-CBN join a protest in front of its building in Manila after the government failed to renew its broadcast license, Feb. 21, 2020.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights marked World Press Freedom day on Monday by demanding that nations respect and protect the rights of journalists, even as advocacy groups urged her to give special attention to abuse of media freedom in Bangladesh.

In a statement, Michelle Bachelet noted that freedom of the press has come under particular attack during the pandemic, when the public is especially in need of information.

“The COVID-19 crisis has made it clearer that critical reporting on government policies or public figures is all too often met with prosecution,” she said. “Laws adopted or applied to restrict and criminalize disinformation during the pandemic have also been used by States to target journalists.

“In order to fully celebrate the bravery of journalists in their determination to keep the public informed, we must demand that their rights are respected, protected and fulfilled,” Bachelet said.

The same day, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and seven other non-governmental organizations posted a letter to Bachelet online urging her to address “the Bangladesh government’s increasingly violent crackdown on media freedom.”

FIDH said that Bachelet and other U.N. experts should publicly and vigorously express concern over attacks on the media, including arbitrary arrests and torture, “and use all possible means to urge the Bangladeshi authorities to protect and respect freedom of expression.”

Bangladeshi authorities have used the draconian Digital Security Act against people questioning its handling of COVID-19, including writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who died in custody – of natural causes, according to the government – and cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, released on bail in March, who said both he and Mushtaq Ahmed had been tortured in jail.

BenarNews has been blocked in Bangladesh since April 2020, following publication of a report about a draft UN memo warning of the potential for a huge number of COVID-19 deaths in Bangladesh.

Khwaja Mia, Bangladesh Information Ministry secretary, rejected the groups’ allegations.

“There are hundreds of newspapers and 34 television channels operating in this small country. This indicates how much the government believes in the freedom of the media,” he told BenarNews.

Former journalist killed

Meanwhile, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) condemned the killing on Sunday of former journalist John Heredia, who had earlier served as a board member and the organization’s representative in his home province of Capiz, in the Western Visayas region. 

Local police chief Lt. Col. Ricardo Jomuad Jr. said Heredia, the town administrator, was shot several times Sunday afternoon as he was about to board his truck outside a hardware store in Roxas City. The gunman and a motorcycle-riding accomplice, both wearing hoodies and face masks, were captured on closed circuit television as they fled. 

“There is no clear motive as of this time,” Jomuad said.

“This is a monstrous crime that must be investigated promptly and properly so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice,” the NUJP said in a statement. 

“These killings must end and the perpetrators and all those behind them must be held to account for these atrocities.”

The attack was not the first on the Heredia family – his widow, Criselda Heredia, and his daughter survived an ambush in September 2019. Their attackers have not been caught, according to colleagues.

Criselda Heredia, a human rights lawyer, said her husband had been receiving death threats before his killing.

Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office nearly five years ago, 19 journalists have been killed, including four during the COVID-19 pandemic which began last year.

In his message marking World Press Freedom Day on Monday, Duterte said journalists play a crucial role in a democracy.

“Moreover, the messenger itself, the press must be protected from all forms of threat and intimidation so that they may fully serve the best interest of our people,” he said. 

Despite that statement, Duterte has often bristled about criticism from the media, especially those who have questioned his war on drugs that has led to thousands of deaths.

In addition, his legislative allies last year shut down the free channel of national broadcaster ABS-CBN Corp., while the head of online news site Rappler, Maria Ressa, was convicted of cyber libel, but remains free pending an appeal.

Shortly after he won the presidency, Duterte also said: “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”

Malaysian concerns

In Malaysia, noted editorial cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ul Haque, more popularly known as Zunar, has been summoned to appear for questioning by police about a caricature of the chief minister of northern Kedah state, posted online earlier this year.

The hearing, scheduled for Sunday, has been moved to May 7, according to Zunar, who faced a series of charges over cartoons lampooning Najib Razak that were dropped after the former prime minister was voted out of office in May 2018.

Meanwhile, police in April arrested artist Fahmi Reza over satirical commentary and a music playlist that poked fun at Queen Tunku Hajah Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah. He is currently free on bail.

Three media groups – the Center for Independent Journalists, the National Union of Journalists and Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm) – on Monday highlighted concerns about diminishing access to newsmakers and the use of repressive laws to silence critics.

In a memorandum, the groups called on the government to guarantee equal access to all media and to drop all investigations, acts of intimidation and adverse actions against the media. They also called on the government to establish a media council to promote press freedom.

Members of parliament began debate last year on a draft bill to establish a media council.

Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and his deputy, Zahidi Zainul Abidin, took to Facebook to wish all reporters “Happy Press Freedom Day” without commenting on the memorandum.

“The World Press Freedom Day is celebrated on May 3 every year to increase awareness on the importance of freedom of the press and uphold the right to freedom of speech,” Zahidi said.

Jojo Riñoza and Luis Liwanag in Manila, Nonoy Espina in Bacolod, Philippines, Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur and Ahammad Foyez in Dhaka contributed to this report.


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