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UNESCO presents guidelines for UNCTs on the Universal Periodic Review and freedom of expression, access to information and safety of journalists

UNESCO recorded an 87% impunity rate for perpetrators of journalist killings between 2006 and 2020. In addition, the ongoing pandemic and 'disinfodemic' on COVID-19 have highlighted the need for reliable information produced by professional journalists. A webinar was convened on 17 November 2021 to support UN Country Teams (UNCT) in Europe and Central Asia in promoting freedom of expression, safety of journalists and access to information through the Universal Periodic Review.

The webinar, organised by UNESCO in close coordination with the UN Development Coordination Office (DCO) for Europe and Central Asia, discussed concrete ways to analyse the call to action on human rights, and more specifically how UNCTs can better leverage the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to promote access to information, freedom of expression and the safety of journalists.

The UPR is a universal mechanism and therefore applicable to all UN membership, It ensures that all human rights issues are discussed on a recurring basis and it is quite a unique tool to promote multilateralism as there is a broad participation of different stakeholders.

UNESCO supported the preparation of the UPR Guidelines for UNCTs on freedom of expression, safety of journalists and access to information, prepared by Denise Cook, former UN Resident Coordinator herself, and translated in the 6 UN official languages.

In presenting the Guidelines, Denise Cook explained that they “are intended to be a practical working document […] divided into 10 sections.” Each section focuses on general topics such as the role of the UPR process in the work of the UNCTs, specialised topics such as freedom of expression and disinformation, and provides checklists on the plan of action for the UNCTs in the 3 stages of UPR (before, during and after).

The Director of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe, Ana Luiza M. Thompson-Flores, underlined the importance of the UPR, “Its periodicity and universality is particularly suited to address emerging informational threats, which have a detrimental impact on freedom of expression and facilitate the spread of disinformation.

From UNESCO Headquarters, the Director for Strategies and Policies of the Communication and Information Sector, Guy Berger, recalled two complementary elements of freedom of expression, namely collecting/accessing and imparting information as being two inseparable entities. He also highlighted the key role of the UNCTs in "working with States in operationalizing and monitoring […] these two dimensions […] but also in playing a role regarding to UPR at input level.”

The webinar provided a platform to emphasize the essential role of the UNCTs “in applying the basic principle of the UPR in an impactful manner,” reiterated the DCO Regional Director, Gwi-Yeop Son. “Applying the human right lens has enormous value when crafting Common Country Analysis both from the perspective of duty bearers and right holders. [...] In addition, the UPR process and outcomes are helping to integrate human rights into the Sustainable Development Cooperation Frameworks.”

In addition to UNCTs’ members, the webinar was attended by 11 UN Resident Coordinators. The guidelines were viewed as a “useful tool” with a “concrete approach”, which will be of great support to their work, as stated by the UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia.

In concluding the webinar, the DCO Regional Director, Gwi-Yeop Son, noted that even though these guidelines cannot solve political issues, their “technical, practical and applicable” nature and the explanations given during this Webinar will, facilitate its immediate application to Common Country Analysis and Cooperation Frameworks to “use them as much as possible” as she advices.