“Sound, bold and independent” journalism is vital in any democratic society, the United Nations human rights chief declared today, stressing the need to ensure the safety of media workers, who have come under increasing attacks, harassment and intimidation over the past few years.
“The safety of journalists is quite simply essential to the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all of us, as well as to the right to development,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said during a panel discussion on the issue held in Geneva.
She noted, however, that in recent years, journalists and other media workers are increasingly being targeted with violence. More than a thousand journalists have been killed since 1992 as a direct result of their profession. Also, 2012 and 2013 were among the deadliest years ever, and at least 15 have been killed since the start of this year.
“In many States, the perpetrators of these attacks could virtually count on impunity,” she said.
Many more journalists have faced violence, harassment and intimidation, including abduction, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, expulsion, illegal surveillance, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, and sexual violence against women journalists.
There has been an increased international awareness in recent years of the frequency with which journalists are attacked because of their work, and the need to ensure greater protection, the High Commissioner noted.
Key UN bodies, including the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have all adopted resolutions condemning such attacks and calling on States to ensure a safe environment for journalists.
In addition, in 2012, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) developed the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which is now being implemented in five pilot countries – Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Tunisia. Initiatives have also been taken by regional organizations.
Above all, said Ms. Pillay, there must be an unequivocal political commitment to ensuring that journalists can carry out their work safely. Linked to this is the question of who can be considered to be a journalist.
“From a human rights perspective, it is clear: all individuals are entitled to the full protection of their human rights, whether the State recognizes them as ‘journalists’ or not; whether they are professional reporters or ‘citizen journalists’; whether or not they have a degree in journalism; whether they report online or offline.”
In terms of good practices, the High Commissioner cited the creation of an early warning and rapid response mechanism to give journalists and other media actors immediate access to the authorities, and to protective measures, when they are threatened.
“Most importantly, States must combat impunity,” stressed Ms. Pillay. “Every act of violence committed against a journalist that goes uninvestigated, and unpunished, is an open invitation for further violence.
“Ensuring accountability for attacks against journalists is a key element in preventing future attacks,” she added. “Failure to do so may be interpreted as tolerance of, or acquiescence to, violence. The investigation and prosecution of all attacks against journalists through an effective and functioning domestic criminal justice system is imperative, and there must be remedy for the victims.”
Promoting the safety of journalists and combatting impunity for those who attack them are central elements within UNESCO’s support for press freedom. The Paris-based agency is committed to advancing freedom of press and safety of journalists, both offline and online, through a variety of actions, including awareness raising, promoting partnerships and coordination of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists.
Addressing the panel, UNESCO Deputy Director Getachew Engida highlighted the need for real political commitment from leaders as well as adjustments in the legal system to ensure the safety of journalists.