The safety of journalists: Why should you care?

Finalist of the eYeka competition in support of World Press Freedom Day

More than 600 journalists and media workers have been killed in the last ten years. In other words, on average every week a journalist loses his or her life for bringing news and information to the public. To end violence against journalists and to combat impunity, the United Nations Chief Executives Board approved the first ever UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and  the Issue of Impunity, in April 2012, in a process spearheaded by UNESCO.

Now, in order to advance the plan and produce concrete strategies, a second UN Inter-Agency Meeting will take place in Vienna, Austria on 22 and 23 November, convened by UNESCO and co-hosted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). 23 November is the International Day against Impunity, declared by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a network of 90 international, regional and local organisations worldwide.

Why are journalists being silenced?

Finalist of the eYeka competition in support of World Press Freedom Day

In the first ten months of 2012, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has condemned 100 killings of journalists, media workers and bloggers, a dramatic increase compared to previous years. Furthermore, the Director-General also noted in her Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity that many more media professionals suffered non-fatal attacks, which means, being wounded, raped, abducted, harassed, intimidated, or illegally arrested. The same report also highlighted the problem of impunity, which is when the perpetrators of the crimes are never brought to justice. According to the information received by UNESCO, less than ten percent of all the cases included in the report led to the conviction of those who committed the crimes. There is a lot at stake in many of the issues reported by journalists. War is the most dangerous to cover. But typically, in most cases, the murdered journalists were not reporting in armed conflict situations, but on local stories in their home towns, particularly related to corruption and other illegal activities such as organized crime and drugs.

Investigating human rights issues is also increasingly being threatened, according to the 2012 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human right defenders, Margaret Sekaggya. Even reporting on environmental issues can sometimes be fatal for journalists.

In other words, they are the kind of news that every citizen such as you and I need to know. As the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) reports, “crime is fuelling corruption, infiltrating business and politics, and hindering development. And it is undermining governance by empowering those who operate outside the law”. In fact, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, focused his 2012 report on this reality, where he argued that “local journalists continue to face daily challenges in situations that have not reached the threshold of an armed conflict, but may characterized by violence, lawlessness and repression”

It does not work to have a journalist investigate a corruption case of a powerful politician or of a drug cartel only to receive death threats also delivered to family members. Worse, of course, too many of these threats go beyond intimidation into elimination of the messengers – the most brutal deprivation of the public of its right to know. Each silenced journalist is an attack on the human right to free expression, which is a key enabling right for a strong democracy, education, cleaner environment, health, and a transparent business sector.

You can help too

Winner of the eYeka competition in support of World Press Freedom Day

UNESCO has mobilized financial and human resources to support safety training to journalists worldwide, and we have collaborated with many NGOs on related research and publications, as well as with governments on how to promote a safe environment for journalists. We have affirmed the importance of safety at numerous World Press Freedom Day events on 3 May, using these occasions to highlight that the killings of journalists have ramifications far beyond pain of the loss of the individual lives – that the losses also hurt society and indeed the world at large.

We have done this because the right to receive and express information and opinion is central to the life of everyone. Within the totality of UN agencies, it is UNESCO, acting for its 195 Member States, that has the specific responsibility to promote freedom of expression, and the corollaries of press freedom and freedom of information. But there is a limit on what UNESCO alone can do. Fortunately, other UN actors have also been making a contribution. Already, we can see the various machineries beginning to move in the same direction of the UN Plan of Action. While this is not a magic wand, it reveals the best side of the international community, and it helps to raise awareness and add to the pressure to end impunity. But securing the safety of journalists needs the support and the help from everyone including media professionals, civil society, and national authorities. Combining all efforts can make a difference.

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