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Panel Discussion on the Safety of Journalists

11 June 2014

Mr. President,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak on this important topic. Sound, bold and independent journalism is vital in any democratic society . It drives the right to hold and express opinions and the right to seek, impart and receive information and ideas. It ensures transparency and accountability in the conduct of public affairs and other matters of public interest. And it is the lifeblood that fuels the full and informed participation of all individuals in political life and decision-making processes.

The safety of journalists is quite simply essential to the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all of us, as well as to the right to development. However, to my consternation, more than a thousand journalists have been killed since 1992 as a direct result of their profession. 2012 and 2013 were among the deadliest years, and at least 15 have been killed since the start of this year. In many States, the perpetrators of these attacks could virtually count on impunity. According to reports, between 2007 and 2012 fewer than one in ten killings of journalists resulted in a conviction.

Many more journalists have faced violence, harassment and intimidation – including abduction, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, expulsion, illegal surveillance, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, and sexual violence against women journalists. They have been tried on spurious grounds such as espionage, threats to national security or alleged bias. Many have been sentenced to excessive terms of imprisonment, and they often suffer unreasonably long pre-trial detention. Prompt and fair trials are as much a right for journalists as for us all.

In recent years, there has been increased international awareness of the frequency with which journalists are attacked because of their work, and the need to ensure greater protection. The Security Council, the General Assembly, and this Human Rights Council have adopted resolutions condemning attacks against journalists. They have called upon all States to act on their legal obligations to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists, so that they can perform their work independently and without undue interference.

In 2012, UNESCO, in collaboration with my Office and other UN agencies, developed the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which is now being implemented in five pilot countries: Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, South Sudan and Tunisia. Regional organizations, including the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have also taken initiatives.

As requested by this Council, my Office presented at its 24th session a report on good practices in the protection of journalists, including the prevention of attacks and the fight against impunity. Today's panel discussion will, I hope, be a platform to share experiences and ideas about how best to put those key points into practise.

Allow me to remind you that above all, there must be unequivocal political commitment to ensuring that journalists can carry out their work safely. The international legal framework for the protection of journalists is in place. It must now be implemented at the national level. States must create an enabling environment in which the rights of journalists and other members of society can be fully respected, with clear and public agreement by officials that issues of public interest can, and should, be examined and discussed openly in the media. They must also adopt legislative and policy measures for ensuring the safety and protection of journalists and other media workers, with zero tolerance of any form of violence against journalists, and full accountability for any such violence.

Linked to the issue of political commitment is the question of who can be considered to be a journalist. From a human rights perspective, it is clear: all individuals are entitled to the full protection of their human rights, whether the State recognizes them as “journalists” or not; whether they are professional reporters or “citizen journalists”; whether or not they have a degree in journalism; whether they report online or offline.

The Human Rights Committee, in its General Comment no. 34, has defined journalism as “a function shared by a wide range of actors, including professional full-time reporters and analysts, as well as bloggers and others who engage in forms of self-publication in print, on the Internet or elsewhere”.

Last year the General Assembly also acknowledged, in resolution 68/163, that “journalism is continuously evolving to include inputs from media institutions, private individuals and a range of organizations that seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds – online as well as offline – in the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression, thereby contributing to shape public debate.”

I urge States to approach the issue under discussion from this human rights perspective, and to protect journalists and other media workers in the broadest sense.

Another key good practice is the creation of an early warning and rapid response mechanism to give journalists and other media actors immediate access to the authorities, and to protective measures, when they are threatened. Such a mechanism should be able to provide protection, including emergency evacuations and safe havens. It should be established in consultation with journalists and other media actors and organizations, and should comprise representatives from State bodies concerned with law enforcement and human rights, together with representatives from civil society, including journalist and media organizations.

Most importantly, States must combat impunity. Every act of violence committed against a journalist that goes uninvestigated, and unpunished, is an open invitation for further violence. Ensuring accountability for attacks against journalists is a key element in preventing future attacks. Failure to do so may be interpreted as tolerance of, or acquiescence to, violence. The investigation and prosecution of all attacks against journalists through an effective and functioning domestic criminal justice system is imperative, and there must be remedy for the victims.

Examples of good practices in this regard include the creation of special investigative units, or independent mechanisms to carry out investigations, with specialized expertise. Specific protocols and methods of investigation and prosecution can be developed. Law enforcement and military personnel, as well as prosecutors and the judiciary, may require training regarding their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, with a focus on the safety of journalists. I encourage States to examine, reinforce and replicate such initiatives.

I am convinced that much more can be done to protect the vital work of journalism. I look forward to your discussions, and I trust they will identify workable solutions that will improve the safety of journalists on the ground.

Thank you.