Coalition seeks to bolster press freedom, protect media workers



The recent Global Conference for Media Freedom resulted in a call for new measures to protect media workers, but CWA Canada says it’s going to take a lot of pressure to make sure that actually happens.

A ministerial communique issued by the Media Freedom Coalition, formed at the first conference in 2019, called on its 40 member states to consider a host of measures, chief among them “providing safe refuge for journalists at risk who have been targeted for their work.”

The ministers also urged the governments to consider “adopting and applying targeted sanctions against known perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses in response to the repression of journalists and restrictions on media freedom.”

CWA Canada President Martin O’Hanlon, who attended the six-hour virtual conference co-hosted by Canada and Botswana on Nov. 16, said he was pleased with the call for sanctions, but cautioned that words are “toothless” and there needs to be action.

“In our submission to last year’s inaugural conference in London, we were one of the first organizations to urge sanctions against those who suppress press freedom, and we’re glad to see that this year’s communique supports that,” O’Hanlon said.

“But calling for a sanctions regime does not mean member states will actually follow through. We are going to have to step up the pressure on individual countries to introduce sanctions legislation, and Canada should set an example by being among the first to do that.”

During the conference, a group of independent international legal experts released a landmark report — authored and delivered by former justice minister Irwin Cotler — pushing for a new global charter of rights for imprisoned journalists, including protections against arbitrary detention.

Cotler and international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney are key figures on the legal panel created last year by the Canadian and British governments to provide advice to the coalition of states that have committed to work together to improve media freedom and the safety of journalists both at home and abroad.

“We meet today on the occasion not only of a global COVID pandemic, but a global political pandemic, characterized by a resurgent global authoritarianism, the backsliding of democracies and global assaults on media freedom, where journalists are increasingly under threat and under assault,” Cotler said.

Clooney told the conference the U.K. has adopted her group’s recommendation to establish a sanctions regime against governments that don’t respect press freedom and that the European Union is considering one as well.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a video address described key issues about media freedom and highlighted how free media is a cornerstone of democracy.

Trudeau said press freedom is under assault around the world, from Hong Kong to Belarus, and “it’s never acceptable for a journalist to be attacked for doing their job.”

“A crackdown on media puts democracy in danger … Canada will always defend freedom of the press.”

While there were no direct references to the U.S. election two weeks earlier and President Donald Trump’s false claims about voter fraud or his spreading of misinformation about the deadly pandemic, the concern could clearly be read between the lines.

“In the last few months we’ve seen how free, open debate based on facts is the only way forward. When journalists can do their jobs, when citizens can get good reliable information, everyone does better,” said Trudeau.

In their joint statement, the Media Freedom Coalition ministers “expressed alarm at the continued decline in media freedom driven in part by the rise of authoritarianism … unduly restrictive laws, arbitrary and/or unlawful surveillance, censorship, undue interference in the circulation of information online, and physical violence, exacerbated by financial threats to media independence and sustainability.”

They “commended journalists and other media workers” reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. “Their work serves to keep societies informed, to promote proper health measures, and to counter false or misleading information.”

The ministers also “expressed concern that some states have undertaken pandemic-related disinformation campaigns to undermine trust in democratic political systems and their pandemic responses.”

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