Pacific governments are using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse for curtailing press freedom, according to the United Nations Human Rights council, which says it has observed a number of incidents of online abuse and misinformation as part of the attacks on the media.
The UN council created a mandate for its special rapporteur to promote and protect the freedom of opinion and expression, offline and online, in light of international human rights law and standards to address the ongoing issues.
The pandemic that has continued for the past 18 months has led to further UN observations of greater interference of information from the state than prior to 2020.
“The current Covid-19 pandemic has had an alarming impact on press freedom across the Pacific region and there have been instances of governments using – knowingly or not – the health crisis to restrict the flow of information, stifling the press freedom that underpins societies and the rights of its citizens,” assistant to the regional representative Setita Karikaritu said.
The council has alleged there has been attacks against journalists and media workers, more searches and arrests from police, an increase in repressive government regulations and laws, seditious cases that have incited or caused citizens to rebel against the state, a greater number of legal actions from the cases and “other incidents that qualify as violations” of press freedom.
A 2020 Human Rights Situational Analysis report that touches on press freedom has found within the Pacific and during the pandemic concerns in relation to restrictions on media reporting and access to social media sites have been “threatening freedom of information and freedom of expression”.
The report that is an initiative of the Pacific Community’s Human Rights and Social Development division analyses research compiled from open sources including UN documentation including the UN Universal Periodic Review and special procedures’ documents.
“The report is not a scorecard or ranking of the rights records of countries in the region, but sheds light on selected critical issues, areas of progress, and continuing challenges,” Ms Karikaritu said.
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Reporters Without Borders, an organisation that safeguards the right to freedom of information to the public, released its World Press Freedom Index earlier this year.
Samoa was No.21 for the most free press in the world from 180 ranked nations ahead of Tonga at No.46, Papua New Guinea at No.47 and Fiji at No.55.
One point made in the analysis was of allegations of attempts to rush through major constitutional changes under the cover of a state of emergency.
“It is essential that measures taken in the ongoing COVID-19 response and subsequent recovery efforts are aligned with international legal standards to avoid violating the rights of people,” the report said.