A free press is ‘cornerstone’ for accountability and ‘speaking truth to power’: Guterres

UN Photo/Violaine MartinJournalists wait for the arrival of official delegations at the Geneva II Conference on Syria, in Montreux, Switzerland. UN Photo/Violaine Martin    2 May 2019Culture and Education

At a time when disinformation and mistrust of the news media is growing, a free press is “essential for peace, justice, sustainable development and human rights”, said the UN Secretary-General, in his message for World Press Freedom Day, marked on Friday.

No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information, said António Guterres, describing unfettered journalism as “the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.”

This years commemorations which began on Thursday across the world, are focussing on the powerful role that good reporting plays in championing democracy and free elections, when disinformation is becoming a larger problem in even the world’s oldest and most sophisticated democratic systems.   

“Facts, not falsehoods, should guide people as they choose their representatives”, said the UN chief, noting that “while technology has transformed the ways in which we receive and share information, sometimes it is used to mislead public opinion or to fuel violence and hatred.”

According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), almost 100 journalists were killed going about their work in 2018, with hundreds imprisoned. A total of 1,307 journalists were killed between 1994, and last year.

Mr. Guterres said he was “deeply troubled by the growing number of attacks and the culture of impunity…When media workers are targeted, societies as a whole pay a price.”

Facts must win out: UNESCO chief Azoulay

The head of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, said in her message for the day that it was essential to “guarantee freedom of opinion through the free exchange of ideas and information, based on factual truths.”

She said societies which value a free press, needed to “constantly vigilant. We must act together to protect the freedom of expression and safety of journalists”.

A free media is a “prerequisite” for the proper functioning of democracies, she added: “Independent journalism provides an opportunity to present facts to citizens and to form an opinion. Press freedom guarantees transparent societies where everyone can access information”.

Among the commemorative events that got underway on Thursday, were a global conference on “Media for Democracy, Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation” in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, jointly organized by the Government and the African Union Commission, together with UNESCO; and a conference in the Lebanese capital Beirut, on the same theme, organized by the local UNESCO office in partnership with the Ministry of Information.

A high-level event takes place at UN Headquarters in New York on Friday where the Secretary-General and President of the UN General Assembly are due to speak, followed by an expert roundtable.

Venezuela: UN human rights office calls for ‘maximum restraint’ by authorities in face of new demonstrations

With another day of mass protests taking place across Venezuela, the UN human rights office (OHCHR) said on Wednesday it was “extremely worried by reports of the excessive use of force” by security forces, loyal to President Nicolás Maduro, a day after an opposition-led uprising appeared to stall. 

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UNHCR/Vincent TremeauVenezuelan migrants in Colombia. About 5,000 people have been crossing borders daily to leave Venezuela over the past year, according to UN data. Colombia, April 2019. 

Opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim leader in January, appeared on social media flanked by members of the armed forces on Tuesday, calling for action to remove Mr. Maduro from power. President Maduro accused his rival of an “attempted coup”. 

In the light of Wednesday’s day of planned protests, OHCHR Spokesperson, Marta Hurtado, said in a statement that reported violence against demonstrators on Tuesday by pro-Government forces, had allegedly resulted in dozens being injured. 

“Many have also reportedly been detained”, she added, calling on “all sides to show maximum restraint and on the authorities to respect the right to peaceful assembly. We also warn against the use of language inciting people to violence.” 

She said that State authorities had a duty “to ensure the protection of the human rights of all people – regardless of their political affiliation. All sides should renounce the use of violence”, she added.  

Protesters supporting the Government also reportedly took to the streets on Wednesday, with Mr. Guaidó addressing his supporters in the capital Caracas, reportedly saying that the demonstrations were “irreversible” and “there is no turning back”. 

Ms. Hurtado, urged political leaders “to engage in meaningful discussions to work towards resolving the current crisis”, adding that OHCHR would “continue to monitor developments in the country.” 

The UN human rights office does not have a presence in Venezuela, but in March, a five-person team was in the country for a “preliminary technical mission”, deployed ahead of a possible visit by the High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet.  

On Tuesday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said via his Spokesperson, that he was following events in Venezuela “very closely”, and was reaching out to both sides of the political divide. 

Gains by Abyei interim force can help advance resolution of border issues between Sudan and South Sudan, UN peacekeeping chief says

The United Nations security force for Abyei remains essential to stability in the border regions between Sudan and South Sudan, the UN peacekeeping chief said on Tuesday, proposing the creation of a civilian unit to support progress towards political resolution of the dispute between the neighboring countries, and requesting a six-month extension of its mandate.

UN Photo/Stuart PriceUNMIS Troops prepare for a patrol in Abyei (file).

“This modest shift in the mission’s role is necessary to match the reality on the ground,” Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations said during a briefing to the Security Council on the Secretary-General’s latest report on the work of the UN Interim Security Force, known by the acronym UNISFA.   

He explained that a civilian component would enable the mission to support the parties, the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel and the African Union Commission to advance daily solutions.

UN Photo/Loey FelipeJean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Peace Operations, briefs the Security Council on the situation in the Sudan and South Sudan including the situation in Abyei.

“The proposed support is particularly pertinent given the difficult internal circumstances in both countries,” noted Mr. Lacroix, adding: “It is important to prevent the dispute over Abyei and the border regions between Sudan and South Sudan from becoming another frozen conflict and preserve the gains achieved by UNISFA.”

Stressing that while the situation generally remains calm – amid efforts by the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities to preserve peace through dialogue – Sudan and South Sudan have made no progress on the issue of Abyei.

Further, there have been delays in the Council’s request to reconfigure the mission, he said. The first phase of troop reductions – a repatriation of 260 troops by 15 March – has not taken place, but efforts are under way to start the process on 12 May. 

As for the increase in police personnel, while the selection of police officers and the formed police unit has been completed, 130 visas from the Sudanese Government, necessary for their deployment, remain outstanding.

Against this background, Mr. Lacroix said that while UNISFA continues to play a stabilizing role in the Abyei Area and along the border regions, the operation can only provide a conducive environment for the parties, whose own efforts remain essential to progress.

“I am encouraged by the significantly improved relations between the two countries in the past year, as evidenced by Sudan’s role in facilitating the revitalized peace agreement reached by the South Sudanese parties and the resumption of joint oil operations,” he told the Council, urging the two countries to continue this “positive trajectory” and extend their cooperation to move forward on the resolution of their disputes.

UN Photo/Evan SchneiderParfait Onanga-Anyanga, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Horn of Africa, briefs the Security Council on the situation in the Sudan and South Sudan including the situation in Abyei.

Gains in relations between Sudan and South Sudan should not be lost

Also briefing the Council, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, said that both id Sudan and South Sudan “are at a crossroads with critical political processes under way.”

Following the ouster of Sudan’s President on 11 April after months of popular protests, the new authorities may need time to resume bilateral relations on the border, the Two Areas and Abyei. 

“We have a de facto status quo situation,” he said. In the absence of a joint administration and progress on Abyei’s final status, UNISFA remains central to preventing and resolving intercommunal conflicts.

In the coming weeks, he will encourage the respective capitals, Khartoum and Juba, to take a fresh look at the Abyei file, with a focus on implementing temporary arrangements for the Area’s administration. 

Noting that Sudan’s political transition could allow for redefining relations between the “centre” and its “peripheries” in a way that ends discrimination based on ethnicity, religion and territorial belonging, he said he will encourage parties to resolve the conflicts on the basis of a new political dispensation.

‘Action and tangible progress’ needed to finally ‘win the peace’ for Syrians: UN envoy

It will take “action and tangible progress” between Syrian Government and opposition leaders, not just dialogue, to bring about lasting peace said the UN Special Envoy for the war-torn country on Tuesday, stressing that Syria “contains many threats for renewed escalation”.

© UNHCR/Andrew McConnellA woman stands on her balcony in the El Khalideh neighbourhood of the Old City of Homs, in Syria. (March 2019)

Geir Pedersen, in his second briefing in the job to the UN Security Council in New York, said he had been “doing everything I can” in the past eight weeks, to consult and help bring the “key players” closer together both inside and outside the country.

“Even where violence has abated, the toll of suffering remains staggering”, he said. “There is a desperate need to meet the humanitarian and protection needs of Syrians across the country.”

He noted the “terrible situation” facing 73,000 in the overcrowded Al Hol camp, where many of the families of former extremist fighters, are alongside those displaced by the fall of ISIL – 92 per cent of them women and children.

Helping facilitate “concrete action” over those detained or abducted during eight years of war, would be “an important confidence building measure” said Mr. Pedersen, highlighting also the fate of tens of thousands who have gone missing. “The scale of this issue is of unprecedented proportions. It obliges us to continue our collective attempts to make progress”, he said, adding it would take “months if not year of meticulous and committed work.”

UN Photo/Loey FelipeGeir Pederson, the UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, addresses the Security Council on 30 April 2019.

Scale of suffering ‘weighs heavily on me’

For a political solution to work, it would have to meet the aspirations of the people said the Special Envoy, saying that only weeks into the role, the “terrible scale” of suffering “and the uncertain future of millions, weighs heavily on me, as it should us all.”

The Women’s Advisory Board, he said, “continues to remind us of the specific security, economic and human rights concerns of Syrian women – women who bring diverse experiences and views to the table and share the right to have a voice at the table.”

He expressed optimism that the stalled negotiations over an inclusive Constitutional Committee, to draft a new political roadmap for Syria, could now move forward: “I believe the final terms of the mandate can be agreed, with a modicum of goodwill…Work continues to identify a set of names that, when viewed in totality, can have the support of all concerned” to serve, he added.

Finally, he called for further international engagement and support for a Syrian-led and owned process. “I remain convinced that key international players agree on far more than it might seem”, he said, noting that external intervention was “a hard reality of the conflict”.

“Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, must be respected and restored – but saying so will not make it so”, said Mr. Pedersen.

“External intervention poses real threats to international peace and security. Five international armies operate across Syria’s land and airspace, in tension or even in conflict, generating risks for dangerous escalation. These risks must be contained and ultimately removed”, he told Council members.

He concluded on an upbeat note, said progress was being made: “I hope that next time I brief you, I will be able to report tangible achievements on the long road to a political settlement.”