UN plan to protect journalists opens rifts between nations

Wednesday 28 March 2012, 15:26

William Horsley William Horsley is the international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media and media freedom representative of the Association of European Journalists

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Two years ago, after some NGOs and media organisations complained about evasion and delay, the United Nations started to focus on the task of improving the safety of journalists. And last week, the first UN plan for effective safeguards against targeted killings and attacks on journalists was put to the test at a conference in Paris.

It was a setpiece occasion with delegates from 39 countries meeting as the Intergovernmental Council of the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), sub-body of UNESCO. This was where the plan was first proposed and which was now supposed to give it a formal go-ahead. 

But the two-day meeting turned into quite a diplomatic showdown, with India and Pakistan among the sternest voices raising objections.

Along with other non-governmental observers, I watched as the diplomatic exchanges developed into a heated and sometimes fierce debate.

By the end, the UN's Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity was still alive, but deep rifts have opened between nations over an issue which some are determined to treat as a question of national sovereignty. 

The wording of the IPDC's decision had to be watered down. So instead of stating, as in the draft text, that the Action Plan was "endorsed", the final text noted only that the IPDC had "commend[ed] the progress of the work" to prepare the Plan.

With that, UNESCO was obliged to acknowledge the vehemence of the resistance from a dozen countries, all wary of the prospect of sharper outside scrutiny and political or economic penalties when states fail to live up to their public commitments to protect the lives and rights of journalists.  

The next step will be for UNESCO to draw up its own Work Plan which must be approved over the next year, together with wider aspects of the Action Plan,

A diplomat at last week's meeting said the lack of a clear endorsement and the negative attitude of some states meant that further delays and attempts to derail the plan might lie ahead.

Anthony Mills of the International Press Institute, who was invited to speak on behalf of media enterprises and editors around the world, told the meeting that journalists themselves had grown sceptical about the sincerity of many states' formal claims of commitment to press freedom and free speech.

The UN plan consists of several important elements, all of which will now need to be secured in the face of some degree of opposition:-

- Strengthening the authority and resources of the UN's various human rights operations, including the work of the Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression, Extrajudicial Killings and Violence Against Women.

- Enacting detailed country programmes in line with the UN's wider development goals, taking special account of states' record on journalists' safety.

- Encouraging moves to broaden the scope of UN Security Council resolution 1738 (condemning attacks against journalists in areas of conflict) to include the promotion of the safety of journalists in non-conflict situations as well.

- Creating "effective forms of intervention" involving all relevant UN agencies to curb violence against journalists and fight against impunity

India questioned the authority of UNESCO to lead the process and cast doubt on the terms of some of UNESCO's public statements condemning journalists' killings.

Pakistan objected that UNESCO's attempts to audit states' judicial responses and follow-ups after the deaths of journalists had failed to take account of the strains arising from its own fight against terrorism

And Mexico protested that it did not deserve criticism since most of the dozens of journalists' killings in the country over recent years were by criminal gangs and the government had done all in its power to prosecute them.

These three are among the countries where journalists are in the greatest danger of being attacks or killed and where the rates of impunity are especially high.

UNESCO's detailed records, published on its website, show that over recent years the number of countries where journalists are killed has increased, and the rate of impunity (lack of effective investigation leading to prosecution) has reached around 90 percent. The willingness of states to provide information about journalists' killings in response to requests by UNESCO has also dropped to a dismally low level.

During 2008 and 2009, the latest period for which UNESCO has published detailed figures, 123 journalists were killed in 27 countries. But of them, only nine governments replied to the Director-general of UNESCO with any facts about the judicial response.

The UK played a leading part in saving the UN Action Plan from attempts to torpedo it. Britain was backed, among others, by the Netherlands, Sweden, the US and Niger.

The world's biggest media organisations are widely seen as lagging behind leading NGOs and the UN itself in speaking up for the Plan, even though they are major employers of the local stringers, cameramen and fixers who are exposed to the greatest dangers.

Perhaps the time has come for media big and small to recognise they have not only a duty of care to those who work for them, but a role in helping to put in place a safer environment for reporters and those who exercise their right to freedom of expression everywhere.

And here's a last note: Austria has said that it will table a Resolution later this year in the UN Human Rights Council, calling on all states to take effective action to protect journalists from harm and end impunity. The initiative is aimed at giving political impetus, while UNESCO puts the institutional machinery in place to reverse the tide of physical assaults on journalists and other forms of censorship.

Those things deserve proper support from all those concerned. It is not someone else's business. The lives of journalists are at stake.

More on these issues:

- The CFOM website

- The IPDC Decision of 23 March

- The UN Draft Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity

- The UNESCO Director-General's Report to the IPDC

William Horsley is a former BBC correspondent and founder of the Centre for Freedom of the Media.

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