Journalists face grave threats even in so-called “safe spaces” where security is increasingly at risk with the rising use of surveillance tools such as Pegasus or Candiru spyware, the United Nations human rights chief said Tuesday.
Michelle Bachelet spoke at a World Press Freedom Day event organized by the city of Geneva.
It was attended by journalists Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov from Russia, who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for their work, the first journalists to receive the award since 1935.
"Rising use of surveillance tools – such as Pegasus or Candiru spyware – intrudes deeply into people's devices and lives," said Bachelet, describing them as "an affront to the right to privacy and an obstruction to freedom of expression."
She paid tribute to those who have little choice "but to work amidst ever-increasing harassment, intimidation, surveillance and risk to their lives and livelihoods."
"They do so for the sake of all of us -- so that we have access to free, accurate, and independent information. So that we can live in just and peaceful societies."
Ressa founded the investigative news site Rappler and Muratov is the editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta in Moscow.
Ressa sought a special court order to attend the event, and Muratov's newspaper has closed down.
They discussed the state of press freedom at the invitation of the Freedom Cartoonists Foundation, Geneva.
Bachelet said that despite their crucial role in society, journalists operate under grave threat, whether in conflict zones or in countries with restricted civic space or with high levels of organized crime.
"And even in so-called safe and democratic spaces, their security is increasingly at risk," said the UN rights chief.
She devoted most of her speech to the "very real threat that surveillance poses to journalists' work."
Use of spyware
"The use of spyware has led to arrests, intimidation and even killings of journalists. It has endangered their sources. It has put their families at risk."
Journalists are often forced to take the dangerous path of self-censorship to counter these tools.
"Pegasus spyware is reportedly being used in at least 45 countries, often in total secrecy and outside of any legal framework," said Bachelet, explaining that the new and rapidly evolving surveillance methods pose risks while recalling society has a legal foundation to respond.
"The international human rights framework, in particular the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, provides such a foundation," said the UN rights chief.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights also provides a framework for the private section, including private surveillance companies.
"Today, however, countries are failing journalists by failing to enforce these frameworks. We are seeing a rapid rise in the international sale of surveillance tools, with the market thriving due to a lack of regulations and controls."
More generally, Bachelet said that the number of journalists detained worldwide rose to 293, and legal proceedings are also increasingly used against investigative journalists to obstruct their work, with 55 journalists reported killed last year.
The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) said separately Monday that at least 21 media workers have been killed in just over two months of war in Ukraine, while "many others were wounded, kidnapped, missing, threatened, hacked (or) forced to cease their work."
Around the world, 52 media workers have "paid with their lives for doing their job" in 2022, said the PEC.