Former U.S. President Barack Obama was right to say last week that it will take more than one election to stop “truth decay” in the United States. He noted the task requires both structural change and people listening to one another. His words evoke British Prime Minister Clement Atlee’s memorable speech at the conference establishing UNESCO, 75 years ago last week:
Today, the peoples of the world are islands shouting at each other over seas of misunderstanding. They do not understand each other’s history, each other’s ways of living, each other’s way of thinking.
The better they understand each other, the more they will realize how much they have in common and why and how they differ…and the less prone they will be to take arms against each other.
In its reverberations today, the problem of “truth decay” is as global as it is urgent. Authoritarian regimes around the world have been making every effort to suppress the free flow of information, so as to control what constitutes the truth. Their primary target has been the truth tellers, chief among them independent journalists and media outlets. And they have been assisted in great measure by the attacks on the independent media recently witnessed even in the most established of democracies – by the rhetoric of “fake news” and casting journalists as “enemies of the people.”
Such rhetoric too often spurs — or is accompanied by — even more serious harm. Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists noted recently that during the four years of the Trump administration, the number of journalists in prison around the world reached a record high and the cases of those jailed on charges of publishing so-called “false news” has also surged. UNESCO has documented that, between 2016 and 2018, more journalists were killed outside of conflict zones than in conflict zones.
The incoming Biden administration has an opportunity to restore the American public’s trust in the media and perhaps ease some of the polarization that “truth decay” has wrought. But those steps must be accompanied by action in America’s foreign policy to restore the protection and promotion of media freedom as a priority focus.
And this cannot be left to America alone. In July 2019, the United Kingdom and Canada took the lead in forming a Media Freedom Coalition, a partnership of countries working together to advocate for media freedom and for the safety of journalists, pledging also to hold accountable individuals and governments that harm journalists for doing their jobs.
That coalition is now 40 States strong, and last year it asked Lord Neuberger, the former president of the U.K. Supreme Court, to convene an independent and international High-Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom to advise States on the concrete measures they can take to protect media freedom and journalists. It is my privilege to serve on the Panel, and we have now started publishing our recommendations.
In February, in a report authored by panel Deputy Chair Amal Clooney, we set out our proposals that States impose targeted sanctions for human rights abuses, wherever they occur, following the example of legislation that has been passed in the United States and Canada, and to ensure that the penalties apply to abuses of press freedoms. Since then, the United Kingdom has introduced its own global human rights sanctions regime and used it to impose sanctions on Saudi officials following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Last week, in a report authored by High-Level Panel member and former Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, we as a panel called on States to strengthen consular assistance to journalists who have been detained or otherwise threatened for reporting the truth.
Today, the High-Level Panel publishes a new report that I have authored on the provision of safe refuge for journalists at risk. Among the nine recommendations is that States create an emergency visa for journalists who are targeted for their work at home. We make detailed recommendations as to how such a visa would operate and explain the enormous impact it could have for journalists and media freedom around the world.
All of the report’s recommendations have received widespread support, including formal endorsement from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Opinion and Expression, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the International Bar Association, and every major global non-governmental organization working to promote media freedom.
If democracies are to fight the spread of truth decay, they will need to work together in coalition, and do more than reaffirm their existing commitments to media freedom in speeches or expressions of concern. They must set an example to the world through their actions.
We offer them another mechanism for taking action, through the creation of an emergency visa for journalists at risk. What better way of protecting the truth than by opening your doors to those who risk their lives to inform us.
(A video of a Nov. 23 online discussion of the report is available here. The discussion features the author; Amal Clooney, Barrister, Doughty Street Chambers and Deputy Chair of the High Level Panel; Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists; and David McCraw, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at the New York Times Company and Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School; with opening remarks by Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, former President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom; and chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute and member of the High Level Panel.)