UN says journalists’ work is ‘in the public interest’

is international director, Centre for Freedom of the Media

Here’s some relief for much-battered journalists: after months of uncertainty and sometimes tense diplomatic negotiation, the United Nation’s main human rights body has adopted a resolution which raises the banner of “the particular role of journalists on matters of public interest”.

The resolution also calls on all countries to create a “safe and enabling environment” for journalists to work independently.

The journalist-friendly move at the UN came after a week in which five journalists - four in Somalia and one in war-torn Syria - were killed in attacks which appear to have been linked to their work.

On Wednesday, Syrian forces attacked and burned the home of a citizen news network reporter, Abdel Karim al-Oqda, in the city of Hama, killing him and three others in the house. AFP cited a media activist as saying al-Oqda was targeted because of his coverage of the unrest.

The next day three of Somalia’s most senior broadcast journalists were among 14 people killed in a suicide attack in a Mogadishu café frequented by the press and civil servants. Then on Friday another Somali journalist who had reported on the bombing of the café the day before was killed, in what appeared to be a targeted attack.

Of course many thousands of civilians have died in Somalia’s long-running internal conflict and Syria’s bloody civil war.

In July, the UN Human Rights Council passed another resolution on Syria condemning the gross violations of human rights and atrocities committed by the Syrian authorities and expressing deep concern, too, about human rights violations by opposition forces.

So why did a core group of five countries - Austria, Brazil, Morocco, Tunisia and Switzerland - backed by 62 other “co-sponsors” including the UK expend political capital by pushing for the latest resolution, despite a good deal of reluctance from China and some other states?

This despite the unfavourable reputation of journalists not just in Britain but in plenty of countries where the authorities tend to treat independent media as at best a nuisance and in some cases as enemies of the state?  

Well, the heart of the matter is that link between journalism and the public interest.

The UN’s most important human rights body has now come out with the clearest statement yet upholding the value and necessity of press freedom.

It calls on all states to ensure that their laws conform with their commitments to freedom of expression and opinion; and that the conduct of their police, courts and armed forces helps to maintain a “safe and enabling environment” for journalists to work without undue interference.

The resolution also points out that the work of journalists often puts them at “specific risk” of intimidation, harassment and violence. Again, journalists are not unique in that. But they are among the groups most at risk, most often.

Few would be so naïve as to suppose that a UN human rights resolution will change much by itself. But, the way the wheels of diplomacy work, this bit of paper makes it more likely that the UN’s work on all manner of human rights problems will in future also put more pressure on badly behaving states not to condone or encourage threats, attacks and the murder of journalists on account of their work.   

It calls to mind one of the few public statements issued by the BBC and other leading international broadcasters protesting about attacks against journalists. It was put out on 10 December 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Representatives of the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, Radio France Internationale, Radio Netherlands Worldwide and the Voice of America noted that “some governments have been implicated in harassing, detaining, expelling, threatening or - in extreme cases - killing journalists.”

Those broadcasting organisations used that occasion to underline the importance of the universal right to freedom of expression, as well as their commitment to the highest standards of accuracy, objectivity and truth. In the four years since then, the picture has unfortunately got worse.

Hence the timeliness and, yes, importance to journalists of the Resolution on the Safety of Journalists adopted on 27 September 2012.

For more on the prospects for the UN’s ambitious inter-agency Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, see William Horsley’s College of Journalism piece about a forthcoming meeting of global media editors in London on 18 October.