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Global leaders warn 2020 is seeing ‘disturbing’ crackdowns on journalists

A coalition of international lawyers, led by a former Canadian attorney general, is calling for a new global charter to protect the rights of imprisoned journalists in an increasingly hostile world.

Irwin Cotler, the former Liberal justice minister and international human rights lawyer, made the recommendation in a report he authored for a coalition of independent international legal experts.

The report was released Monday at an international conference on media freedom co-hosted by Canada and Botswana, and which saw the Belarusian Association of Journalists granted the inaugural Canada-U.K. Media Freedom Award for their work advocating the rights of journalists amid press crackdowns.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the “shocking” repression of media in Belarus following a disputed August election as a “very dark moment” for the country’s freedoms.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also spoke at the conference, and highlighted the plight of journalists in Hong Kong who have faced brutal crackdown by authorities over the past year for reporting on the erosion of democracy in the region by Chinese crackdowns.

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“It is never acceptable for a journalist to be attacked for doing their job,” he said.

The new charter would upgrade legal obligations on a country that arbitrarily imprisons a journalist and impose new legal duties on the home country of a journalist who has been rounded up.

Cotler says the new measures are needed because the current international laws designed to protect the diplomatic access to people imprisoned in foreign countries are not adequate.

“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 told the video conference.

“Although some states already do this to some extent, the system is haphazard and weak,” said Amal Clooney, an international human rights lawyer who has represented imprisoned journalists.

Cotler and Clooney say the COVID-19 pandemic has emboldened authoritarian governments and created new risks to journalists working internationally.

“So the report proposes a new charter of rights for detained journalists and a new code of conduct for governments to be overseen by a newly appointed international commissioner who would be tasked with monitoring states compliance,” said Clooney.

Trudeau also touched on the current climate in his remarks, which come just two weeks after a U.S. election — the campaign of which was marked by divisive rhetoric and misinformation.

The week since President-elect Joe Biden was declared has also seen repeated false claims from U.S. President Donald Trump of widespread voter and electoral fraud, despite providing no evidence.

While none of the leaders speaking at the conference mentioned the U.S. directly, they repeatedly raised the need for strong, free media as a bulwark against repressing human rights.

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

Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, was more blunt in her assessment, pointing to efforts by governments to censor and limit coverage of their failures to contain COVID-19.

“Censoring this kind of vital information means the government’s image is more important than peoples’ health,” she said. “Like censorship, misinformation can kill.’

She warned of a rise in officials using the “fake news label” to undermine reporting they don’t like and said the current climate for freedom of expression online is “disturbing.”

“Even in countries with a long legacy of protecting media freedom, journalists have been targeted for online harassment, including by top political leaders,” she said.

Clooney and Cotler are the leading figures on a panel created last year by the Canadian and British governments to find ways to increase protection to journalists and prevent abuses of media freedom.

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