Handover of London Statement: William Horsley, Professor Jackie Harrison of CFOM and Janis Karklins.

On Friday, the United Nations fired the starting gun for a global campaign to reverse the toll of murders and attacks on media workers which has risen alarmingly in recent years.

At a two-day conference at the UN's Vienna headquarters, Janis Karklins (above right), the assistant director-general of the UN's Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO), announced the start of the implementation of the UN's Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

The Plan is a joint campaign by UN agencies, national governments, media and civil society groups in every country of the world, which one UN official compared to the UN's massive ongoing project to fulfil the so-called Millennium Development Goals.

UNESCO says that already this year the number of assassinated journalists around the world has reached a new record high of 100 deaths in the first 10 months of the year alone.

The Vienna meeting was attended by representatives of four 'first-phase' states and one region with disturbing records in terms of killings and targeted attacks against journalists to stop them from exposing crime, corruption or abuses of official power. They are: Latin America, Pakistan, Nepal, South Sudan and Iraq.

The conference heard that in Iraq as many as 300 journalists have been killed since 2003, and another 70 who are under arrest by the authorities are being held in undisclosed locations. In no single case has the killing resulted in those responsible being brought to justice.

“The brave ones are usually the ones who are killed,” said Amani Soliman of UNESCO's Iraq office.

In an unprecedented move, leaders of two major bodies representing the world's news media told the Vienna meeting that the media and journalists themselves should play an active part in monitoring key parts of the UN Action Plan.

Larry Kilman, deputy CEO of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA), said the media industry was willing to carry out independent monitoring of the Plan, which calls for press and broadcasting companies to ensure that people living under repressive governments can have access to free and independent information, and that vulnerable and exposed media workers have adequate protection, safety equipment and support.

Anthony Mills, deputy director of the International Press Institute, proposed that representative media and other stakeholder groups should cooperate to ensure the UN has a real "interlocutor" to ensure that the wide-ranging plan is effective where it is most needed.

An Implementation Strategy for the plan has now been all but finalised. It calls for the strengthening of UN mechanisms for journalists' safety and protection, reforms in governments' law, justice and police systems, and partnerships with media as well as human rights and civil society organisations.

The Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez, who spoke at the London Symposium, urged the UN in a letter to launch its plan in her country first. She said: “On my behalf and on behalf of dozens of journalists killed in Mexico, and many who have received death threats like me, I beg you to consider Mexico, specifically in this first phase. 

“International reports have classified Mexico as one of the most dangerous places for journalists.”

UNESCO officials say that the UN Office for Drugs & Crime and other relevant UN agencies will be expected to participate in some of the programmes of work set out in the Action Plan to protect the lives and work of journalists in Mexico, as well as other countries where journalists face the threat of violence or death for reporting on serious crime and corruption.

Guy Berger, a senior UNESCO official, told journalists working in dangerous parts of the world that the UN Plan is not in itself the solution but an important tool that can help bring some progress so that media workers can do their job as they should be free to and whole societies can exercise their right to receive reliable information from free and diverse sources.

The hard questions raised include:

Why are journalists in dozens of countries forced to live in climates of fear for reporting on crime, corruption and illegality?

How to remove the need for widespread self-censorship by media in countries as diverse as Pakistan, where state authorities have been accused of involvement in many journalists' deaths, and South Sudan, where 80% of the population is illiterate and journalists are so much at risk that many media serving its people are forced to operate from outside its borders.

Can the UN Plan succeed in ending impunity - the persistent failure of states to catch and punish the killers of journalists - through reforms of laws and judicial systems, such as extra penalties for violent crimes targeting media workers.

As part of the agenda, the Vienna gathering watched a short film made by the BBC's College of Journalism showing highlights from the London Symposium on the Safety of Journalists which focused on the growing risks to journalists’ safety and was co-hosted in London in October by the College and the Centre for Freedom of the Media of the University of Sheffield.

In the film, the BBC's director of global news, Peter Horrocks, expressed the concerns of many editors and journalists. He said the increase in violence, threats and other barriers to reporting from many parts of the world made it imperative to step up the pressure on governments to do more to protect the physical safety of journalists and end impunity.

In Vienna, the so-called London Statement of concern, expressing the media’s determination to scrutinise the actions of governments to counter the threats to reporting, and signed by 40 leading media organisations which took apart in the Symposium, was handed to the UN and the international community for urgent consideration.

You can read blog posts here by some of the frontline journalists who attended the London Symposium:

Anabel Hernandez

Veridiana Sedeh

Galina Sidorova

Hamid Mir

Omar Faruk Osman

 (This article was edited on 26 November - changes in italics.)

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