Protecting Journalists Saves Lives

Happy World Press Freedom Day!

Today and everyday, we recognize the importance of a free press, freedom of expression and public access to information, all of which are essential human rights. These rights allow us to live with dignity and help us make informed decisions about our futures.

As the global community suffers together from the COVID-19 pandemic, the freedom to access information is more important than ever: Accurate information arms all of us against the virus’ spread. Unfortunately, we have seen governments and organizations take advantage of the global pandemic to spread misinformation and lies, often in an effort to consolidate their own power. In Guatemala, government corruption and a lack of transparency is leading to a severe lack of critical information about the pandemic. We have also seen governments limit and prevent citizens from accessing information that will save their lives. For example, in Bangladesh, Rohingya people live in the largest refugee camp in the world and rarely have Internet access.

We are hopeful, though, when we hear from our partners around the world that are working against the odds to fight misinformation and promote health and human rights with the truth. From Haiti to Uganda and everywhere in between, AJWS partner organizations are taking charge, empowering their communities to access the information they need to stay safe and healthy.

Spreading critical health information—not the virus

Our partners with a long history of defending the right to speak out are rising to this unprecedented moment by delivering accurate health information to their communities. For example, AyiboPost—a Haitian grantee that normally works to inform and engage the public through new forms of journalism—has produced and distributed two short educational videos about COVID-19.

Many of our partners that—in non-pandemic times—do not focus exclusively on free speech are now working to spread information that will protect their communities. For example, Sosyete Animasyon Kominikasyon Sosyal (SAKS), a partner usually fighting for civil and political rights for all Haitians, has produced five educational radio messages about COVID-19 protection, which are being broadcast on a network of community radio stations. AJWS is proud to aid in these efforts and has reallocated current funding so that SAKS and our other partner organizations can continue to spread the word in Haiti, a country where a lack of government transparency and public health services is sadly common.

AJWS is also making new grants to facilitate the free spread of information. Many people living in rural communities lack access to credible news sources, and misinformation about COVID-19 is running rampant around the world. And, as we know all too well, during a crisis, governments often seek to spread misinformation in an effort to spin a narrative that is most conducive to retaining or even expanding power—as well as to unjustly blame and scapegoat marginalized communities.

Defending the rights of the most marginalized/Battling Misinformation

In Uganda, the pandemic has unleashed a rise in homophobia, where the LGBTQI+ community is being blamed for COVID-19. This misinformation has led to unjust arrests. In late March, 23 people living in a shelter for homeless LGBTQI+ youth were arrested, brutalized and charged with willfully spreading the virus. At the time of the raid—led by a local mayor and his security forces— the shelter’s residents were complying with the government’s social distancing orders. More than a month later, 20 of these individuals remain behind bars.

While AJWS grantee organization Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) is providing emergency legal support and pushing authorities for their release, other grantees continue to wage the battle against misinformation and the discrimination it causes. AJWS just made a new grant to Northern Uganda Media Club (NUMEC), which is disseminating clear and accurate information through radio and print to remote rural communities on the causes of COVID-19 and, in particular, the importance of handwashing and social distancing.

Defending the truth-tellers

Even when our partners are not creating and disseminating information about the COVID-19 crisis, they are working tirelessly to defend journalists and create and strengthen networks of communication. They are determined to spread accurate information to create more just and equal societies in which everyone—particularly marginalized and vulnerable communities—has the information to protect themselves. Longtime partner UDEFEGUA, a venerable human rights defender organization, released a statement denouncing the Guatemalan government’s web of disinformation and the treatment of journalists who dare question the government’s COVID-19 response. Because rural communities often lack Internet access and rely on word of mouth, differentiating truthful reporting from misinformation can be difficult. Our longtime partner, Prensa Comunitaria, is responding to the need by building a network of journalists in rural areas around Guatemala to ensure that local media outlets are receiving factual updates—allowing them to inform and educate their communities.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, governments all over the world are taking advantage of the moment to attack journalists and our basic right to freedom of expression. But with partners like AyiboPost, Sosyete Animasyon Kominikasyon Sosyal (SAKS), Northern Uganda Media Club (NUMEC), UDEFEGUA, Prensa Comunitaria and our 65 partners in total who are on the frontlines, defending our right to speak out and access information, we are stronger than ever in our resolve to support journalists and the free press.

Malkah Bressler is the Marketing & Communications Associate at AJWS.