Journalists’ safety and the UN – Jessica Allen

steven-sotloffResolution A/HRC/27/L.7 on the Safety of Journalists by the UN Human Rights Council

Another day, another dead journalist; or so seems to be the trend in the media profession following recent news of the brutal beheading of an Israeli-American journalist, Stephen Sotloff, by Islamic State militants in Syria on 2nd September 2014. This Resolution seeks to facilitate the prevention of further fatalities.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1055 journalists have been killed worldwide in the past 22 years. Gunilla Von Hall, an eminent Swedish foreign correspondent and journalist, opened the Annual Geneva Peace Talks by sharing her experiences as a foreign correspondent to conflict zones such as Iraq and Bosnia. Gunilla commented on her need to ‘write for a visa’, making her withhold certain information from print temporarily so that she could continue to enter certain countries. She has had to openly refuse calls to work in certain areas due to the risks she now faces. Following the birth of her children, Gunilla’s responsibilities have more recently prevented her from risking her safety by travelling to these regions. She observed that, as a result, inexperienced reporters who are based in the countries have to be hired instead. Research undertaken by UNESCO compiled in the report ‘World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development’ suggests that 94% of those targeted have been domestic journalists.

The race to end impunity against media workers is persistent. Maria Roche’s 2012 post here deals with many of the same concerns as exist today and highlights the lack of protection offered by international human rights law. At the 27th session of the Human Rights Council, which took place in early September 2014 in Geneva, international non-governmental organisation ‘Article 19’ organised a side event to raise the issue and to call upon the United Nations for help. The NGO draws its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states in subsection 2 that:

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Freedom of the Media for the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) representative and panellist, Dunja Mijatović, reminded delegates that “attacks deter and sometimes prevent journalists from exercising their right to seek and disseminate information and deprive all of us of the right to know and to access information.” see here. The targeting of journalists is thus not only an infringement of the victims’ human rights but those of society too. The issue is unquestionably in serious need of redress.

The Resolution

It is unsurprising, then, that Article 19 among other NGOs has heartily welcomed the new resolution for the Safety of Journalists (here) passed by the Human Rights Council. The resolution signifies a significant step in ensuring that those responsible for the deaths of media workers are held accountable for their actions by building upon previous Human Rights Council resolutions.

In summary, the resolution obliges countries to:

  • Promote a safe environment for journalists to be able to perform their work without interference;
  • Denounce and prevent all attacks and violence against media workers, including but not limited to enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention in any circumstance;
  • Ensure accountability through the conduct of ‘impartial, speedy, thorough, independent and effective investigations’ into all allegations, bringing perpetrators and conspirators to justice, and ensure adequate remedies are available to families of those affected;
  • Develop and implement strategies for combating impunity including, where appropriate, good practices such as those compiled in the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on good practice on the safety of journalists;
  • “Collectively cooperate and coordinate on the international level”.

The consensus was reached with the sponsorship of an overwhelming 90 countries. Though reiterating guidance already given by UN bodies, the resolution expounds upon them and provides a mechanism for monitoring progress by subjecting the issue to Universal Periodic Reviews. Key concepts include the suggestion that media workers should be recognised and protected as citizens in areas of armed conflict, as well as the acknowledgement that infringements made against the human rights of journalists are not limited to freedom of expression but conversely concern privacy too.

What the resolution fails to address, however, is the presence of restrictive legislation and its abuse in offending countries. Whilst the suggestion in the resolution that conspirators be held legally accountable is promising, the absence of any access to justice in these jurisdictions is stifling. Norway broached such concerns with the ambassador highlighting that “there [was] no mention made of the law being used to limit the activities of journalists”. The Netherlands concurrently proposed the inclusion of “the use of abusive frameworks and legal processes against the journalists” to satisfy this oversight. Neither perceptive proposal was adopted.

Next Steps

The development comes ahead of the first International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists which is set to take place on 2nd November 2014 (see here). It emphasises the significant progress that the UN is making on this human rights issue. Nevertheless, countries should be ready to accommodate advancements to the resolution that did not achieve the necessary majority in the consultations to date.There is time for progress if countries do indeed ‘cooperate and coordinate on the international level.’

Jessica Allen is an undergraduate at Nottingham University, reading Law with French, and French Law. She attended the 27th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

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One thought on “Journalists’ safety and the UN – Jessica Allen

  1. Thanks Jessica, it is great that you’ve written this piece to highlight the resolution on safety of journalists and ARTICLE 19’s work in this field.

    The weakness of the resolution in terms of its failure to address restrictive legal frameworks is an issue that ARTICLE 19 brought to the attention of the core group of States supporting the resolution in advance of and throughout the 27th Session, suggesting previously agreed UN language that ultimately was not included in the final text. The core group could have been more ambitious by including and defending such language, but it seems a political calculation was made that this would risk breaking consensus and therefore wasn’t worth it.

    For those interested, our full comments from the 27th Session on this resolution can be found here:

    “End Impunity for Attacks on Journalists and Media Workers”, ARTICLE 19, 15 September 2014: http://www.article19.org/resources.php/resource/37693/en/unhrc:-end-impunity-for-attacks-on-journalists-and-media-workers

    “Resolution on safety of journalists adopted by consensus”, ARTICLE 19, 27 September 2014: http://www.article19.org/resources.php/resource/37704/en/un-hrc:-resolution-on-safety-of-journalists-adopted-by-consensus

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