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UN Report Pleads For Journalists' Protection

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By Richard Johnson | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

GENEVA (IDN) - A new report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) faults both State and non-State actors for stopping journalists and other media professionals from documenting and disseminating information on human rights violations, environmental issues, corruption, organized crime, drug trafficking, public crises, emergencies or public demonstrations – and this with impunity.

Journalists are subject to abduction, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, expulsion, harassment, surveillance, search and seizure, torture and threats and acts of other forms of violence. Female journalists face additional risks, including being subjected to forms of sexual violence while covering public events or when in detention, says the report that the United Nations Human Rights Council debated on September 13, 2013.

“Trends in threats and attacks against journalists and other media professionals paint a very troubling picture. Reports indicate that, since 1992, approximately 984 journalists have been killed and 232 imprisoned in the exercise of their profession. According to other sources, since the start of 2013, 19 journalists have been killed and 177 have been imprisoned. In 2012, 90 journalists were killed, the worst figure recorded since 1995. In 2012 alone, 879 journalists were arrested, 1,993 were threatened or physically attacked and 38 were kidnapped. Some 73 journalists fled their country as a consequence of attacks or threats of attack;” the report informs.

It points out that some of the most dangerous countries for journalists are those that are or have been in situations of armed conflict. Indeed, since 1992, 185 journalists have been killed in such situations. A very large majority of violence and attacks against journalists occur, however, outside armed conflict.

Moreover, while the death or injury of foreign journalists often captures the attention of the international community, most of those who are victims of threats and attacks are local journalists covering local issues. The report quotes the Committee to Protect Journalists, which estimated that, since 1992, 88 per cent of the journalists who have been killed worldwide were local.

Furthermore, approximately 42 per cent of the journalists killed were reporting on political issues, 35 per cent on war, 20 per cent on corruption, 16 per cent on human rights and 15 per cent on crime.

Impunity

“Impunity for attacks against journalists is a serious and pervasive problem, and it is one – if not the main – challenge to strengthening the protection of journalists. For example, there is near total impunity in cases of violations of the right to life of journalists,” asserts the report. According to one source, perpetrators go unpunished in nine out of 10 cases. On May 16, 2013, those responsible for the murder of 594 journalists in countries around the world since 1992 had not been held accountable.

The OHCHR report finds that in many countries, the offences of slander, libel and defamation are treated as criminal offences. The existence and use of such criminal laws against journalists and other media professionals deters reporting on issues of public interest. The conviction of journalists for such offences often results in imprisonment, heavy fines or the suspension of media licenses, which in turn deter criticism of public figures and can significantly compound a climate of intimidation.

“The impact of counter-terrorism legislation on journalists and other media professionals raises concern, given that the use of broader police and intelligence service powers for combating terrorism are also used to unduly restrict freedom of expression,” says the report.

It states that the Internet and other digital media sources have become an essential medium for disseminating news. There is an increasing number of “online journalists”, both professionals and “citizen journalists”, who are untrained yet still play an important role in documenting and disseminating information.

In its general comment No. 34, the Human Rights Committee defined journalism as “a function shared by a wide range of actors, including professional full-time reporters and analysts, as well as bloggers and others who engage in forms of self-publication in print, on the Internet or elsewhere.”

“As the number of online journalists has increased, so have attacks against them, such as illegal hacking of their accounts, monitoring of their online activities, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the blocking of websites that contain information critical of the authorities,” says the report.

Recommendations

The OHCHR report contains a wide range of proposals which states can implement to achieve a secure environment for safe journalism. It argues that political commitment, backed by clear and effective legislative and practical safeguards to prevent attacks and threats to journalists, are the key elements of an effective approach to the protection of journalists.

They include the suggestion that violence against journalists should be considered an aggravating circumstance, leading to harsher sentences against journalists' attackers. This idea is supported by some academics for its deterrence potential. The report expands on this by suggesting that investigations into attack on media should look into any link between the suspected attack and the journalist's professional activity.

The report further advocates the creation of special units within the national legal systems to investigate attacks on journalists, an early warning system to facilitate timely intervention, and a rapid response mechanism to provide journalists with access to the authorities and protective measures.

The report features a contribution from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) focusing on the Federation's work on the safety of journalists such as safety training, emergency assistance from the International Safety Fund and monitoring the violations of media rights.

According to IFJ, during the debate on the report, remarks by members of the Human Rights Council were overwhelmingly positive and welcomed the measures proposed in the report. However, in a strongly worded statement on behalf of over 70 countries, Austria warned that concrete steps are needed to translate the strong support to the report in reality.

The statement specifically called for governments to take a public position at the highest level about the important role of journalists. It also suggested organizing a separate event for a detailed debate on the report's recommendations.

The IFJ joined the call for an uncompromising implementation of the conclusions and recommendations made in the report. In a statement on the report, the Federation argues that the establishment of special investigative units dedicated to tackle the violence targeting media could contribute to greater accountability and offer genuine deterrence. However, the Federation cautioned against any failure to act, saying that the current safety media crisis required drastic measures in order to address the pervasive culture of impunity.

It further called on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to set up a mechanism to monitor and report the extent to which governments abide by international laws and standards concerning the safety of journalists and keep the situation under review.

The IFJ appealed to governments and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to assist journalists whose lives are at risk by considering issuing them with emergency visas and laisser-passer to safety. [IDN-InDepthNews – September 16, 2013]

Picture: ww.unmultimedia.org | Credit: unmultimedia.org

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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