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Freedom of opinion and expression

The right to send out “inconvenient” information

21 June 2012


“Journalism must be seen as an activity and profession that constitutes a necessary service for any society, as it provides individuals and society as a whole with the necessary information to allow them to develop their own thoughts and to freely draw their own conclusions and opinions,” notes the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue.

In his latest report to the Human Rights Council, La Rue highlights the increasing restrictions placed on journalists working outside of armed conflict situations, noting that non-conflict situations are where the majority of human right violations against journalists occur. These range from restrictions to movement, arbitrary detention, torture, intimidation, enforced disappearances and even killings.

Online journalists and bloggers also face additional forms of harassment and censorship, such as illegal hacking of their accounts, monitoring of their online activities, and the blocking of websites that contain information critical of authorities. Female journalists face the additional risk of being sexually assaulted during coverage of public events or in captivity.

In 2011, 179 journalists were detained for short or longer periods, according to the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists, the highest number since 1996. Reportedly half of the journalists imprisoned have primarily published online. The same sources indicate that 565 journalists have been murdered since 1992 and that in 90 per cent of the cases the perpetrators of these killings went free. 

“One of the biggest challenges to ensuring the protection of journalists is impunity or the failure to bring to justice the perpetrators of human rights violations,” La Rue reports. “Impunity for those who attack and/or kill journalists is a central obstacle to guaranteeing the protection of journalists and press freedom, as it emboldens perpetrators as well as would-be perpetrators to attack journalists with no legal consequences.”

The Rapporteur notes that another threat to the freedom of journalists is the increasing use of criminal law on defamation, slander or libel to mask the determination of political and economic powers to retaliate against dissent, criticism or allegations of mismanagement or corruption, and to exert undue pressure on the media. These laws, he says, are inherently harsh and have a disproportionate chilling effect which stifles reporting on issues of public interest.

The expert also notes that journalists should not be held responsible or forced to reveal their sources when receiving and disseminating classified data which was not obtained illegally, including leaks from unidentified sources.

“Charges such as treason, subversion and acting against national interests continue to be brought against journalists worldwide, as well as allegations of terrorism and criminal defamation for reporting false news or engaging in ethnic or religious insult.”

Ensuring the protection of journalists and combatting impunity requires a holistic approach that includes legal, material, and political measures, La Rue stresses further in his report. He recommends effective investigation and prosecution for every attack against journalists, and that high-level State officials publicly condemn attacks and support press freedom.

“The problem of continued and increasing violence against journalists is not the lack of legal standards, but the lack of implementation of existing norms and standards,” he tells the Council. “To address the problem of impunity, we must look at its root causes – whether it is lack of political will to pursue investigations, inadequate legal framework and a weak judicial system, lack of expertise of law enforcement officials and judicial bodies, negligence, or corruption.”

21 June 2012