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Ukraine: Joint statement on Russia’s invasion and importance of freedom of expression and information (04 May 2022)

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GENEVA (4 May 2022) - Following the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation and the continuation of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, freedom of expression mandate holders* from the United Nations, the African Commission of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issue the following joint statement:

“We collectively condemn the invasion of and continuous aggression against Ukraine, its sovereignty and territorial integrity by the Russian Federation. The actions of the Russian Federation violate international law and the common UN, OSCE, ItACHR and ACHR commitments and the very principles on which our organisations are based.

We are outraged about the continuous atrocities and the resulting grave human rights and humanitarian crises, which have a massive detrimental impact on civilians’ lives, safety and well-being. We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in these difficult times.

We recall that it is precisely during times of war and armed conflict that the right to freedom of expression and free access to information must be vigorously defended, as it is instrumental for the promotion of lasting peace, understanding the nature of the conflict and ensuring accountability.

In this connection, we highlight the following:

First, we are profoundly concerned about the safety of journalists, media workers and associated personnel in Ukraine, who are carrying out their work under unprecedented conditions, and are now at a very high risk. There are numerous reports that journalists are being targeted, tortured, kidnapped, attacked and killed, or refused safe passage from the cities and regions under siege. Such actions are abhorrent and must be stopped immediately. We recall that under international humanitarian law, during armed conflict journalists are considered to be civilians and must be afforded protection as such. An attack to kill, wound or abduct a journalist constitutes a war crime. Those responsible for direct or indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including journalists, should be held accountable and brought to justice under national and international law. Measures must also be taken to trace missing journalists, ascertain their fate, provide appropriate assistance and facilitate their return to their families. States have the duty and obligation to protect and guarantee human rights, to conduct effective investigations and to guarantee effective remedies and reparations.

Second, we are alarmed by reports that Ukraine’s media and internet infrastructure may be intentionally targeted by the Russian forces in an effort to disrupt access to information, including by means of cyberattacks. We appreciate that access to Ukraine's internet infrastructure has remained largely resilient. It is crucial to ensure that people in Ukraine have continued access to the internet, broadcasting and other means of communication. We call for the adoption of all feasible measures to protect the media, media organisations, and internet infrastructure from attacks and hostile take overs. We also call for increased support in various forms by the international community to ensure media sustainability in Ukraine at a time when a number of national and local media outlets have lost their premises and equipment or have been damaged or destroyed. Initiatives that enable Ukrainian journalists and media in exile to continue their professional work should also be supported in a manner that is sustainable and adapted to the exceptional conditions they are facing.

Third, we underline that propaganda for war and national hatred which constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence are profoundly harmful and prohibited under article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We call on the Russian Federation to immediately refrain from these unlawful practices.

Fourth, we are concerned at the spread of disinformation concerning the conflict in Ukraine in Russian state-owned media. However, we believe that disinformation cannot be addressed by blocking or banning media outlets. Any restriction of freedom of expression should respect scrupulously the three-part test of legality, legitimate aim, and necessity and proportionality. We are concerned that the EU’s decision to ban two Russian state-owned media outlets may have been a disproportionate response to disinformation. It has been used as a pretext for additional closure of independent media outlets in the Russian Federation. Promoting access to diverse and verifiable information, including ensuring access to free, independent and pluralistic media, is a more effective response to disinformation.

Fifth, we believe that the erosion of the right to freedom of expression and other human rights over a prolonged period of time and the silencing of critical voices in the Russian Federation have contributed to creating an environment that facilitates Russia’s war against Ukraine. We are alarmed at the further tightening of censorship and repression of dissent and pluralist sources of information and opinion in the Russian Federation, including the blocking of social media platforms and news websites, disruption of services from foreign content and service providers, massive labelling of independent journalists and media as ‘foreign agents’, introduction of criminal liability and imprisonment of up to fifteen years for spreading so-called ‘fake’ information about the war in Ukraine or questioning Russian military action in Ukraine or simply standing for peace or even mentioning the word ‘war’. We deplore the systematic crackdown on political opponents, independent journalists and the media, human rights activists, protesters and many others opposing the Russian government’s actions. All these measures amount to the creation of a state monopoly on information in blatant violation of Russia’s international obligations. They must stop. We call on the Russian government to fully implement its international human rights obligations, including by respecting, promoting and protecting the freedom to seek, receive and impart information regardless of frontiers, and by ensuring a safe working environment for independent media, journalists and civil society actors.

Six, we note that the war in Ukraine has further highlighted the risks of the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation and incitement to violence and hatred and restrictions of lawful speech on digital and social media platforms as a result of their business models, policies and practices. While we appreciate that dominant companies recently made some efforts to address these problems, we urge them to strengthen their human rights due diligence and impact assessment, accountability, transparency and equal and consistent application of policies to uphold the rights of all users.”

ENDS

*The expert: Ms. Irene Khan was appointed as UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression in June 2020 and is the first woman to hold this mandate. An internationally recognized advocate for human rights, gender equality and social justice, she was Secretary-General of Amnesty International from 2001 to 2009 and Director-General of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) from 2010 to 2019. Ms. Khan is affiliated with the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and has been Consulting Editor of the Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest English newspaper.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

The freedom of expression mandates issuing the Joint Declaration on freedom of expression and gender justice: Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mrs.Teresa Ribeiro, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Mr. Pedro Pedro Vaca Villarreal, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, and Hon. Ourveena Geereesha Topsy-Sonoo,African Commission Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information.

For more information and media requests please contact OHCHR-freedex@un.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts, please contact Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 79 444 7578 / jeremy.laurence@un.org).

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter: @UN_SPExperts.