UN calls on journalists to help stop the killing of journalists

is international director, Centre for Freedom of the Media

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It is high time journalists, media owners and editors stopped being passive in the face of the continued slaughter and silencing of journalists. They should demand protection for their colleagues who face violence and suppression.

That was the surprising message from a recent United Nations meeting aimed at agreeing new measures to stop the widespread killing of media workers in scores of countries around the world and ensure that those responsible are punished.

After the much-publicised killing of journalists like Anna Politkovskaya in Russia, Hrant Dink in Turkey, Lasantha Wickrematunga in Sri Lanka, and the 32 media workers massacred on a single day in Maguindanao in the Philippines in 2009, the argument for a more proactive UN effort to prevent targeted violence against journalists has been won - at least on paper.

After intense pressure from non-governmental organisations over many years, the UN convened the first-ever UN Inter-Agency Meeting on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity at UNESCO's Paris headquarters on 13 and 14 September.

It recognised that the high toll of journalist deaths is unacceptable and that the onslaught has a severely chilling effect. Societies where journalists, bloggers and others are forced to live in fear deprive themselves of the means to reveal and correct systemic corruption and abuses of power among their ruling elites and other powerful forces and criminal networks.

So far this year UNESCO has publicly condemned the assassination of 47 journalists. The International News Safety Institute says that in all 77 media workers have been killed since January. The INSI estimates that total deaths over the past ten years number more than 1,000.

Among the latest killings, UNESCO Remembers Assassinated Journalists recorded that the decapitated body of Maria Elizabeth Macias, a Mexican journalist who reported on organised crime, was found on 24 September with a message linking the murder to her reporting.

Like the great majority of journalists who have died in the course of their work, Macias was not a famous international reporter but a native of the country were she was killed.

And UNESCO says almost nine out of ten murders of journalists around the world are never properly investigated so the perpetrators go unpunished.

Human rights and media-monitoring organisations have forced these issues onto the UN's agenda. And at last enough states, including the UK, are backing the call for a coherent, UN-wide and "action-oriented" approach to preventing and combating these crimes.   

The Draft UN Plan of Action includes: a coordinated UN mechanism to maintain a focus on the issues of safety and impunity in the work of all relevant UN agencies; better monitoring at national and international level; and extra steps (not yet spelled out) to press states where such murders occur to implement the international rules and principles they have signed up to.

Speakers at the Paris meeting provided powerful arguments for more rigorous measures to enforce states' commitments. But in each case they also urged media organisations to do more to assert the rights and protect the lives of journalists under threat.

Jane Connors of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on journalists to make more use of the individual complaints procedure which allows the UN's independent body of legal experts, the Human Rights Committee, to rule on specific cases or establish commissions of inquiry into alleged violations of states' obligations.

She cited the authoritative Committee's latest jurisprudence, General Comment No. 34, which places a duty on states to "put in place effective measures to protect against attacks aimed at silencing those exercising their right to freedom of expression".

That text names journalists, human rights defenders, judges and lawyers as "frequently subjected to such threats, intimidation and attacks because of their activities".

Adam Rogers of the UN Development Programme raised the possibility that attacks on journalists limit freedom of expression and may therefore be considered attacks on a whole population and prosecuted internationally as crimes against humanity.

The UN also now says it is open to more participation by journalists in preparing UN development aid programmes in countries where media workers are targeted with violence.

Eric Chinje of the World Bank said journalists' organisations had so far not pressed for the issues of safety and impunity to be used as criteria in the bank's programmes worldwide. In future, states' performance with respect to those things could be taken into account in administering the UN's Millennium Development Programme, whose goals include better government accountability.

Chinje urged the international media to speak up more loudly and put a stronger spotlight on those issues.

Media editors and other journalists might shrug off these calls and retort that the core issue here is a shameful lack of will on the part of governments to confront official negligence or complicity in the epidemic of violence against journalists in the world's troubled places.

That charge is hard to dispute. UNESCO's own attempt to audit the systemic failures of some governments to protect journalists or to seriously investigate their murders has produced limited results.

Out of 28 governments asked in 2010 (on a voluntary basis) to account for the killing of journalists in their jurisdiction in the previous two years, 13 refused even to respond to the request from UNESCO's Director-General for information on the cases and any attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice.

At the Paris meeting, journalists' representatives and other civil society speakers all called for that rudimentary system of oversight to be made compulsory, with stronger intervention powers by appropriate UN bodies.

But another lesson that may be drawn is that, to achieve major changes of that kind, journalists themselves will have to engage more fully by raising public awareness, training members of their profession to understand how to assert their rights, and banging on the doors of governments and UN agencies to demand effective action.

Apart from particular outrages like the shooting of Anna Politkovskaya in her Moscow apartment block in 2006, how much attention do the Western media pay to the steady toll of journalist killings and the stifling self-censorship that often results?

And don't those media have a direct interest? After all they depend heavily on local journalists in war zones and under dictatorial regimes who often pay for their work with their lives or freedom? The death of 15 journalists in the 'Arab Spring' uprisings during the first four months of 2011 illustrates the point.

Perhaps journalists everywhere should make it their business to know what emerges from the UN's Action Plan on Safety of Journalists and understand what it means for journalism.

They might note that 23 November, the anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre, has this year been designated a global Day Against Impunity by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, IFEX.

And they should realise that the struggle for survival of free and independent journalism in Mexico, Somalia, Russia, Egypt, Pakistan and the Philippines is also in a real way their own.

Related websites

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Impunity Index   

UN Inter-Agency Meeting on Safety and Impunity.

William Horsley is International Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield and co-director of The Initiative on Impunity and the Rule of Law.

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