UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Friday said she was alarmed by restrictive measures imposed by several States against the independent media, as well as the arrest and intimidation of journalists, saying the free flow information was vital in fighting COVID-19.
“Some States have used the outbreak of the new coronavirus as a pretext to restrict information and stifle criticism,” Bachelet said.
She said a free media is always essential, but they have never depended on it more than they do during this pandemic, when so many people are isolated and fearing for their health and livelihoods. "Credible, accurate reporting is a lifeline for all of us.”
The UN human rights chief also noted that some political leaders had directed statements towards journalists and media workers that created a hostile environment for their safety and their ability to do their work, according to a statement issued from Geneva.
According to the International Press Institute there have been over 130 alleged media violations since the start of the outbreak, including more than 50 reported instances of restrictions on access to information, censorship and excessive regulation of misinformation.
It reported that nearly 40 journalists have been arrested or charged in the Asia-Pacific, Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Africa for reports critical of the State response to the pandemic or for simply questioning the accuracy of official numbers of cases and deaths related to COVID-19.
The actual number of media violations and arrests is probably far higher.
There have also been reports of journalists disappearing after publishing coverage critical of the COVID-19 response, and several news outlets have been closed by the authorities over their reporting.
“This is no time to blame the messenger. Rather than threatening journalists or stifling criticism, States should encourage healthy debate concerning the pandemic and its consequences. People have a right to participate in decision-making that affects their lives, and an independent media is a vital medium for this,” Bachelet said.
“Being open and transparent, and involving those affected in decision-making builds public trust and helps ensure that people participate in measures designed to protect their own health and that of the wider population and increases accountability.”
Additionally, independent media provide medical professionals and relevant experts a platform to speak freely and share information with each other and the public, she said.
The UN’s human rights chief echoed concerns raised by the Secretary-General about the “dangerous epidemic of misinformation” around the pandemic which generated confusion and more ill-health, and paid tribute to the journalists working in the independent media whose fact-checking provided truth and clarity.
“Journalists are playing an indispensable role in our response to this pandemic, but unlike the grave threats posed to other essential workers, the threats media workers face are entirely avoidable. Protecting journalists from harassment, threats, detention or censorship helps keep us all safe,” Bachelet said.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has sought greater coordination and responsibility-sharing by states to address the maritime movements of refugees and asylum-seekers in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea saving lives.
"We are increasingly concerned by reports of failure to disembark vessels in distress and of the grave immediate risk this poses to the men, women and children on board," said Indrika Ratwatte, Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, on Thursday.
The UNHCR official said saving lives at sea must be a collective effort, in which any one state that rescues and disembarks refugees can draw on resources pooled from other states in the region.
"Predictable disembarkation and safe pathways for refugees in distress strengthen public health by ensuring that whatever the manner of arrival, people go through appropriate health screening," said Ratwatte.
The UNHCR official said it safeguards prevention measures rather than risking that people will instead seek clandestine points of entry without going through proper quarantine procedures.
Rescue at sea and allowing the persecuted to seek asylum are fundamental tenets of customary international law, by which all states are bound, said the UN agency.
Ratwatte said beyond the current COVID-19 crisis, a predictable and humane disembarkation approach will remain critical. "UNHCR is calling on all states to uphold these life-saving obligations to refugees and asylum-seekers."
The UNHCR said search and rescue, along with prompt disembarkation, are life-saving acts.
"The dire – and, in many cases, fatal – predicament of thousands of refugees and migrants in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2015 ultimately demonstrated the critical, humanitarian imperative for solidarity and joint action to address threats to life at sea," said Ratwatte.
The 2016 Bali Declaration embodied these principles and outlined the way forward to prevent another crisis in the Andaman Sea.
"We must not return to such life-threatening uncertainty today," said Ratwatte.
In the context of the unprecedented current COVID-19 crisis, the UNHCR official said, all states must manage their borders as they see fit.
"But such measures should not result in the closure of avenues to asylum, or of forcing people to return to situations of danger. UNHCR stands ready to support Governments in carrying out responsible disembarkation procedures and quarantine measures to ensure that public health issues are addressed."
Ratwatte said the challenge of irregular movement is not unique to Asia.
Refugees and asylum-seekers move through unofficial and often inherently risky channels because it is the only option available to them. The reality for many refugees is that persecution and threats to their lives and well-being are more immediate than COVID-19.
"UNHCR notes and is encouraged by the Association of South East Asian States’ clear commitment to joint action and a whole-of-society approach in the context of COVID-19," said the UNHCR official.
Leaving no-one behind is the only lasting means of ensuring that we collectively beat this global challenge, and they are all only as strong as their most vulnerable members, said Ratwatte.
The government of Bangladesh has so far facilitated the repatriation of 4,422 foreigners living in Bangladesh, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here on Thursday.
The citizens are from a number of countries, including Bhutan, Malaysia, the USA, Japan, Russia, Germany, Canada, Australia, Maldives, Turkey, the UK and Singapore.
The MoFA shared the information highlighting a range of measures taken following the outbreak of Coronavirus in December 2019.
Foreign missions stationed in Dhaka facilitated the arrangements of chartered flights.
In most cases, the passengers are of Bangladeshi origin and paid for their passages, according to the MoFA.
The foreigners who left mostly worked in various development projects and other professions whose projects are currently suspended, it said.
On the other hand, the MoFA has facilitated the repatriation of 1,799 stranded Bangladeshi citizens from China, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman and Turkey including pilgrims, students, tourists, patients & attendants and businessmen.
The MoFA said it is fully committed to working under the overall guidance of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during the critical moment of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Bangladesh missions abroad are also instructed to look after the expatriate Bangladeshi community living there.
Under the guidance of the MoFA, the Bangladesh missions abroad have established ‘Hotline Numbers’ and many missions formed ‘Pool of Doctors’ to provide online medical advice to the expatriate Bangladeshis.
The MoFA has dispensed funds for the Bangladesh missions abroad in coordination with the Ministry of Expatriate’s Welfare and Overseas Employment.
The Bangladesh missions distributed food and necessary items among the Bangladesh community living in different countries, particularly in the Middle East with the allocated funds.
The MoFA, in cooperation with the Army, has sent some gifts to a few countries, including Bhutan, the Maldives, China and Kuwait.
It established a webpage titled “COMBAT CORONA” on its website for providing telemedicine services, awareness raising and disseminating COVID-19 related information which is also connected with hotlines of the Embassies.
It has also created a "WhatsApp Envoys" group through which they disseminate/communicate information instantly.
Besides, Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen has sent letters to the Foreign Ministers or spoken over to many relevant countries and a few letters have been sent jointly by the Foreign Minister and Expatriate’s Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister.
Foreign Minister Dr Momen urged the OIC member states to give utmost importance to the issue of job retention of domestic and resident migrant workers. He also proposed establishing an OIC Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund.
He requested for engaging humanitarian organisations in the OIC member states to provide sufficient financial assistance, medical support to the Muslim migrant workers from LDCs and developing countries until the impact of the epidemic is over, and also to advocate for their job retention to ensure their healthy livelihoods.
The MoFA has established a ‘Corona Coordination Cell’ headed by an Additional Foreign Secretary immediately after COVID-19 affected Bangladesh and started working closely with the Prime Minister’s Office and other relevant Ministries and agencies.
As the fatal virus has spread around the globe, the MoFA started working in coordination with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Civil Aviation and tourism, the Ministry of Expatriate’s Welfare and Overseas Employment, Civil Aviation Authority, Directorate General of Health, Armed Forces Division, and Immigration Department.
Another group of 177 British travellers left Dhaka for London on Thursday afternoon in the second chartered flight.
The special flight of the British Airways departed from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport around 3pm.
The British High Commission in Dhaka thanked the government of Bangladesh, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Civil Aviation Authorities, local police and volunteers from the British High Commission for their all help.
"Our priority for these flights continues for vulnerable British nationals in Bangladesh wanting to return home. Two more flights are scheduled for April 25 and 26," said the High Commission in a message.
On April 21, a total of 264 British visitors returned home from Bangladesh.
British High Commissioner to Bangladesh Robert Chatterton Dickson was present at the airport to observe the return process and speak with departing British travellers.
Earlier on 18 April, the British High Commission announced four charter flights from Bangladesh to bring home 850 British nationals to the United Kingdom.
The UK government committed up to £75 million to help thousands of British people return home, according to British High Commission in Dhaka.
The British High Commission here remains fully operational and “we will continue to provide full consular support to British nationals in Bangladesh.”
The chartered flights are for UK travellers who normally reside in the UK and their direct dependents.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has laid emphasis on respecting human rights at this time of crisis to build more effective and inclusive solutions for the emergency of today and the recovery for tomorrow.
"The message is clear. People — and their rights — must be front and centre. A human rights lens puts everyone in the picture and ensures that no one is left behind," said the UN Secretary-General in a message on human rights and COVID-19.
He said the virus threatens everyone and human rights uplift everyone.
Guterres urged all not to forget that the threat is the virus, not people. "We must ensure that any emergency measures — including states of emergency — are legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory, have a specific focus and duration, and take the least intrusive approach possible to protect public health."
The best response, the UN chief said, is one that responds proportionately to immediate threats while protecting human rights and the rule of law.
"Looking ahead, we need to build back better. The Sustainable Development Goals — which are underpinned by human rights — provide the framework for more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies," he said.
The UN chief stressed the importance of strengthening economic and social rights that bolsters resilience for the long haul.
The recovery must also respect the rights of future generations, enhancing climate action aiming at carbon neutrality by 2050 and protecting biodiversity. "We’re all in this together."
More than ever, he said, governments must be transparent, responsive and accountable.
"Civic space and press freedom are critical. Civil society organizations and the private sector have essential roles to play," he said.
Guterres said the COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency — but it is far more and it is an economic and social crisis.
"And a human crisis that risks becoming a human rights crisis. In February, I launched a Call to Action to put human dignity and the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the core of our work."
Human rights responses can help beat the pandemic, putting a focus on the imperative of healthcare for everyone.
Against the background of rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and a pushback against human rights in some countries, Guterres said, the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic. "This is unacceptable."