Protecting Journalists in Times of Unrest and Conflict

On the occasion of the celebration of World Press Freedom Day, a group of experts and senior journalists gathered at IPI on May 2nd to discuss the increasingly serious challenges faced by journalists around the world who are continually threatened, abducted, and even killed because of their work, particularly in conflict areas.

The panel, “Protecting Journalists in Times of Unrest and Conflict,” was cosponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and by the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations. The discussion highlighted the multiple threats journalists face when carrying out their work, such as the high numbers of kidnappings and murders, and the troublesome impunity surrounding journalists’ killings.

“What’s unprecedented today is the extent to which journalists are specifically targeted,” Joel Simon, the Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said during the panel. Especially in the aftermath of the attacks of September 2001, Mr. Simon noted, some governments have begun persecuting journalists under the rubric of counterterrorism. They have enacted strict anti-press laws and jailed and prosecuted journalists under anti-terror and anti-state charges, Mr. Simon said.

“The only way to combat murder is to overcome the culture of impunity,” Mr. Simon said. Indeed, what emerged from the panel is that the vast majority of crimes against journalists go largely unpunished. According to one of the panelists, Maria Cristina Caballero, an investigative journalist from Colombia, her native country has the highest rate of unsolved cases related to “disappeared” or murdered journalists in the Americas.

The growing danger to their lives and the high degree of impunity has pushed many journalists to flee their countries or toward some form of self-censorship, Ms. Caballero said. Some, she added, simply continue performing their work, knowing, however, that “life and death [are part of their] everyday lives.”

According to the panelists, the past two years have been some of the deadliest for journalists, not only in conflict areas such as Syria and Afghanistan, but also in relatively stable countries with strict anti-press laws in place. Some journalists are targeted in non-conflict areas for exposing government abuses and organized crime, the panel noted.

More recently, the United Nations has begun directing additional efforts toward the issue of press freedom around the world. Last November, the General Assembly passed resolution 68/163 on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. The resolution supplemented the earlier Security Council resolution 1738, passed in 2006, which sought to protect journalists in armed conflicts.

According to Suzanne Bilello, the Senior Public Information and Liaison Officer at UNESCO, freedom of expression and of the press have always been at the center of UNESCO’s and of the UN’s mission. “One of the key mandates of the founding architects and visionaries [of] UNESCO was as guardians of the most fundamental of human rights: to defend and promote freedom of expression and press freedom,” Ms. Bilello said.

The United Nations is currently working to ensure that the safety of journalists is taken seriously across the globe, Ms. Bilello said. The 2002 UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalist and the Issue of Impunity is an important step in that regard, she added, also noting that the “UN cares about this and we don’t want to see it happen any longer.” The document states that the Plan of Action seeks to formulate a “comprehensive, coherent, and action-oriented UN-wide approach to the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity.” Its primary goal is to create a free and safe environment for journalists around the globe.

At the same time, some of the panelists recognized that there are still obstacles to effectively securing the safety of journalists worldwide.

“The most disturbing trend of all is that representatives from certain countries blam[e] journalists for taking risks and for covering conflict,” David Rhode, an investigative reporter for the Reuters news agency and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. According to Mr. Rhode, countries such as Egypt and Russia are working on “demonizing and vilifying” the work of journalists, which is “completely unacceptable,” he said.

Last November’s General Assembly resolution was spearheaded by the government of Greece, whose Permanent Representative to the United Nations was also present at the IPI panel. In opening remarks, Ambassador Michel Spinellis warned that attacks against journalists are “creating an intimidating environment that restrains the free flow of ideas and information.”

Following the Greek initiative, other countries are also contributing to the global effort, both within the United Nations framework and outside it.

In November, the government of Qatar will host a conference to commemorate the International Day to End Impunity of Crimes Against Journalists. The Qatari Ambassador to the United Nations, Alya Ahmed Saif Al-Thani, praised the efforts of the General Assembly and reiterated her government’s commitment to “the right to freedom of expression and [the] promot[ion] of a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work.”

Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations, moderated.

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