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Freedom of opinion and expression

Safety of journalists: States must act to end impunity

13 June 2014


In the past 22 years, 1055 journalists have been killed worldwide. Figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international non-governmental organization that promotes press freedom globally, show that the vast majority of journalists are not killed because of the life-threatening situations in which they find themselves, but are murdered outright because of their reporting. Very few of those murders are investigated and in almost ninety percent of cases no one is prosecuted.

UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay is unequivocal: “Sound, bold and independent journalism is vital in any democratic society… It is the lifeblood that fuels the full and informed participation of all individuals in political life and decision-making processes.”

Addressing the issue at the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Pillay called on States to end 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.”

All of the panel participants identified impunity as the pivotal problem that had to be addressed by States if journalists and media freedoms are to be better protected.

Frank Smyth, a senior adviser in journalist security at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said: “If we have learned one thing in recent decades, it is that violence against the press sharply reduces the possibilities of holding wrongdoers accountable, and the chances of criminal and corrupt activity being brought to light.”

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue said States must take responsibility for guaranteeing the safety of journalists in their jurisdictions. He agreed that every murder that remains unsolved creates another. All of us have rights, La Rue said, but some individuals are exposed to exceptional risks because of the role they play in society and are therefore deserving of special protection. La Rue urged proactive engagement with States to assist in training security and military personnel and the police to better understand and accept the role journalists have in coverage of events.

Getachew Engida, the Deputy Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN organization with principal responsibility for protecting press freedom, said violence against journalists takes the oxygen out of democracy. Impunity is the name of the game, he said, and urged States to take the necessary steps to investigate every attack on journalists and to reform their laws and legal processes to remove undue restrictions and facilitate prosecutions.

Engida said most States feel they do not have to “come clean” on the issue of journalists’ safety, a point taken up by Dunja Mijatović, the Representative on Freedom of the Media, for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who said international organisations need to get together and condemn States who permit attacks on journalists and media freedom with a stronger voice.

Abeer Saady, a journalist and Vice- President of the Syndicate of Journalists of Egypt, believes States in the Middle East that invest in the safety of journalists and media freedoms are investing in the well-being of the region and the transition to democracy. Most of the journalists killed, she said, are shot in the head – not at random. Local reporters, in particular, are targeted and so are their families. She described increasingly unpredictable violence from many different groups which makes the task of reporting more risky than ever before and particularly so, given the culture of impunity.

There was agreement that the solution to the issue of journalists’ safety and protection of media freedoms lies with States. Every State should have a response mechanism to deal with situations where journalists and media freedoms are threatened, La Rue said. They should have a special prosecutor and special investigators to deal with assaults and killings but the most important element is political will. Panelists also emphasized that protecting journalists requires States to accept and actively promote the idea that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are crucial in a democratic society, and that States must create an enabling environment in which journalists can play their role safely.

Engida stressed the importance of action on the ground and implementation of existing standards rather than the adoption of a new international instrument expressly directed to the protection of journalists. La Rue, however, proposed the development of a declaration on the protection of journalists, like the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Pillay too, said the challenge rests with States. The international legal framework already exists, she said, and now requires implementation 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… 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.”

13 June, 2014