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FEATURE: Impunity for crimes against journalists must end to protect open democratic societies – experts tell UN

A view of participants in a march for freedom and solidarity in Paris, held in the wake of the deadly terrorist assault on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. UNESCO/C. Darmouni
A view of participants in a march for freedom and solidarity in Paris, held in the wake of the deadly terrorist assault on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. UNESCO/C. Darmouni

FEATURE: Impunity for crimes against journalists must end to protect open democratic societies – experts tell UN

Human Rights

On the morning of 1 November 2015, the day before the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists last year, Abdalaziz Alhamza, co-founder of a campaign to expose atrocities committed against civilians in the Syrian city of Raqqa, received two photos. One was of his colleague – with no head.

The United Nations General Assembly marked 2 November as the International Day in order to call attention to the more than 800 journalists around the world who have been killed over the past 10 years and the impunity that has led to a rate of less than one in 10 convictions.

It was designated in 2013 to commemorate the murder of two French journalists who were abducted and killed in Mali after they interviewed a local political leader. This year, the UN hosted a panel discussion on 27 October that included experts and journalists who seek to put an end to this trend, one that saw last year as the second deadliest in the past decade. In 2015, 115 journalists were murdered, including in the unprecedented Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris that targeted and killed 10 media workers.

“The International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists should remind us of our duty to confront the viscous cycle of impunity,” said Ambassador Catherine Boura of Greece in her opening remarks to the panel discussion. The event was hosted by the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations along with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“It is our priority to secure a safe environment which will guarantee freedom of speech and expression as well as access to information for all,” she urged.

Murder is the ultimate form of censorship and it is enabled by a lack of justice

Panel participants included Frank La Rue, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information; Mazen Darwish, Syrian journalist and President of the Syrian center for Media and Freedom of Expression; Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ); and Abdalaziz Alhamza, the journalist who lost his colleague and co-founder of ‘Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently,’ the information campaign launched by non-violent activists to expose the atrocities committed towards the civilian population of Raqqa that won CPJ’s 2015 International Press Freedom Award. Representatives from France and Lithuania also spoke.

Mr. Alhamza urged that while organizations such as Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) and CPJ were instrumental in combatting impunity and protecting journalists, that they were far from capable of responding to the crisis without the concerted efforts of States.

“The international world needs to take action,” he underscored.

“Murder is the ultimate form of censorship and it is enabled by a lack of justice,” stressed Ms. Radsch, the CPJ representative.


“Let’s not forget that every case of a journalist or media worker harassed, injured, arbitrarily detained or killed is an assault to freedom of expression and a threat to the foundations of open and democratic society,” said Ambassador Boura.

Prior to the discussion, UNESCO shared its 360° virtual reality video that was part of the organization’s exhibit at the World Humanitarian Exhibition Fair in Istanbul this past May. ‘In Their Press Vests’ uses virtual reality oculus gear to take viewers into the lives of journalists as they document stories in Syria. It offers insight into some of the dangers, risks and challenges they face from the frontlines of reporting. So far this year, nine journalists have been killed in Syria.

In addition to the 827 known killings over the past decade around the world, journalists are kidnapped, arbitrarily detained, tortured, intimidated, and harassed on and offline. Women face the added threat of gender-based violence and sexual harassment. This trend violates human rights, is an assault on freedom of press, and directly opposes the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically Goal 16 and its corresponding 10th target, which ensures public access to information.

“The crucial issue is prevention,” said Mr. La Rue in an interview with the UN News Centre following the panel. “But, if you were to ask me which one is more urgent at this moment, the one that’s more lacking is the question of impunity, which is why we raised this at the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.”

According to Mr. La Rue, 92 per cent of cases are met with impunity, which, he says, “basically proves the point that anything can happen to journalists and everyone sees that as normal.”

Anything can happen to journalists and everyone sees that as normal

Geographically, the Arab States now have the highest rate of murdered journalists – 36.5 per cent – in part due to ongoing conflicts in the region. Latin America and the Caribbean are second, with 51 journalists killed between 2014 and 2015, followed by Asia and the Pacific with 34. Most of those killed are local to the region.

In addition to ending the cycle of impunity, are there particular conditions that Member States and other stakeholders should view as warning signals for journalists’ safety?

Ms. Radsch stressed the need to pay attention to threats that journalists receive – killings are frequently pre-meditated, and 40 per cent of victims received death threats. But she also pointed out that statements by politicians and other important leaders can have a significant impact on journalists’ safety.

“Rhetoric around hating journalists, comments about how they want to kill or attack journalists – when these statement are made by leaders, it creates a climate where attacks against journalists are more permissible,” she explained.

Moreover, repression of the media can often foretell crackdowns more broadly, such as during the recent coup attempt in Turkey.


And “elections,” she added, “tend to be very dangerous times for journalists.”

Stakeholders should take note of the heightened risk that these situations pose and implement policies and mechanisms to respond accordingly.

Mr. La Rue explained that UNESCO’s role is to promote state policies that do exactly this by working with states and championing multi-stakeholder approaches that combine a variety of approaches. The agency provides a range of information on awareness, policies, safety training, good practices, and more. But only States can effectively implement safety mechanisms and stop impunity, something that is increasingly important for freelance journalists who are subjected to greater exposure without the protection of news organizations.

When asked about exemplary models to protect journalists, Mr. La Rue cited Colombia, formerly home to the longest armed conflict in Latin America. The country modelled a mechanism to protect journalists after one that was designed to do the same for human rights defenders. For the past 15 years, the Colombian Government has appointed a delegate whose sole function is to ensure the protection of the press. There are also Bogotá-based La Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) and Federación Colombiana de Periodistas (FECOLPER), organizations who share the same objective.

This collaborative example illustrates a multi-stakeholder approach that Mr. La Rue explained is necessary to end impunity and prevent violence. It includes emergency hotlines, bulletproof cars, advocates, a budget, and plans for emergency situations that require journalists to be evacuated. However, such mechanisms require careful monitoring and regular improvement. Last year, RSF found that the system in Colombia is lacking adequate funding and is subject to corruption, poor decision-making, difficulties in evaluating risks and choosing responses, and “unjustified delays.”

Another example where the culture and state response has begun to shift is Paraguay, which, Mr. La Rue said, recently had an initiative come from the Supreme Court to establish a safety mechanism for journalists.

“The fact that it came from the Supreme Court,” he said, “is really symbolic.” It reveals the judges’ belief that the current system needs improvement and that “for them the role of justice is to play an important, key position on safety and guarantees [of protection], and of course on eradicating impunity.”

Asked about women journalists, who though they are killed at lower rates than men, experience high rates of intimidation, sexual violence, and access barriers to the profession, Mr. La Rue said there needed to be more accountability for harassment online: “Of course, we defend freedom of expression online, but there have to be preventive policies from the early ages in school to the way that the press itself deals with gender issues, and the treatment of women – the image of women in public media is crucial, so there has to be a joint effort.”

Each year, the UNESCO Director-General releases a report containing the latest data on the issue of impunity. On 17 November, UNESCO Member States in the Council of the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) will debate the report.

A map of additional events to be hosted around the world on 2 November is available from UNESCO here.