Despite laws, journalists’ safety remains under threat

© Q. Sakamaki, The Villager

Is journalism becoming more and more dangerous? While the right to inform is regularly reaffirmed by international governing bodies, and more organizations than ever before represent the press, the number of journalists targeted is constantly increasing.

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 2009 was “one of the worst years for killings of journalists, ending a violent decade which grievously affected journalism and saw record numbers of media professionals murdered”.

Last year, UNESCO denounced a total of 78 murders, a record number since 1997 when the Organization began to protest systematically every murder of a journalist. In its latest report, the UNESCO International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) noted that “in most cases, impunity precludes the way of justice”, which “represents a severe threat to freedom of expression.”

Yet the guarantees provided by international law are more universally recognized than ever before. “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”, states article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948.

In 2006, a Security Council resolution condemned “attacks deliberately carried out against journalists” (resolution 1738 about the protection of civilians in armed conflicts). It stated that they should “be considered as civilians”, provided they take no action contrary to this status.

In 2007, during a conference in Colombia about press freedom, UNESCO adopted the Medellin Declaration. It reaffirms that “press freedom can only be enjoyed when media professionals are free from intimidation, pressure and coercion”. This declaration requires Member States “to uphold their obligations to prevent, investigate and punish crimes against journalists”. UNESCO had already adopted a resolution about the obligation to prevent crimes against journalists (resolution 29) ten years earlier, in 1997.

Besides this legal protection, civil society organizations have taken on the task of defending media professionals. Reporters without Borders (RWB) publishes a Handbook for Journalists, which notably gives advice on coping with post-traumatic stress. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has published a safety manual and set up a “Safety Fund” to support threatened journalists. Furthermore, the International News Safety Institute (INSI) develops safety assistance programmes for the media. RWB does the same by organizing training sessions with the French army that simulates war zone reporting conditions.

While these training courses are undoubtedly valuable for war reporters, they are unfortunately of little use to journalists who are threatened for their writing, especially those investigating corruption or making accusations against politicians who cannot tolerate criticism. The IPDC has established that the great majority of victims are journalists who cover local news in their countries or in their regions and not specialized war correspondents. This is why organizations defending press freedom are campaigning to get States where journalists are regularly targeted to make a real commitment to ending impunity.

Back to top