24 September 2011

UN System Focus on Safety of Journalists and Impunity

UNESCO organized two days of UN system interagency meetings Sept. 13-14 to examine journalists" safety and impunity for crimes against them. The goal of the meetings was to outline a comprehensive action plan by UN agencies to combat impunity and improve journalists" safety by bringing NGOs and international organizations together.
UNESCO organized two days of UN system interagency meetings Sept. 13-14 to examine journalists" safety and impunity for crimes against them. The goal of the meetings was to outline a comprehensive action plan by UN agencies to combat impunity and improve journalists" safety by bringing NGOs and international organizations together. Raghu Menon, the Indian Chairman of UNESCO"s International Program for the Development of Communication (IPDC) opened the first-day meeting, which included relevant NGOs, with a reminder that “putting an end to crimes against journalists and to the impunity of their perpetrators requires a comprehensive strategy.” The meetings followed a call in March 2010 by the IPDC"s Intergovernmental Council for UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova to take advantage of the Organization"s mandate to promote freedom of expression and convene a joint strategy session of UN agencies. Bokova said in a welcome speech that “Violence against journalists is one of the most serious dangers to freedom of expression,” and that “The last decade has seen rising impunity for such crimes.” She said the meeting was designed to “formulate a comprehensive, coherent, and result-oriented plan for the safety of journalists and media workers and to redress the impunity of perpetrators of assaults against them.” Rodney Pinder, Director of the International News Safety Institute (INSI), moderated the first panel discussion on the safety of journalists situation worldwide. In opening remarks, he made pointed criticism but also offered concrete advice. He said UN Security Council Resolution 1738 on safety of journalists, passed nearly five years ago, has failed in many respects. Journalist deaths continue (about 100 yearly), and the global rate of impunity is an astonishing 80-90 per cent. According to Pinder, Resolution 1738 failed to address the reality that most attacks on journalists come not in armed conflicts, but against local journalists reporting local stories on day-to-day topics like politics, shady business dealings, corruption, or the illegal drug trade. Pinder also called upon the Secretary-General of the UN to give journalists" safety far more attention. “The Secretary-General has a mandate under R1738 to report on the safety and security of journalists and other news personnel,” said Pinder, “We would like to see this report - last year only one paragraph in the SG"s 32-paragraph report on civilian deaths in conflict - expanded and given more prominence. Offending countries should be "named and shamed" and major attacks on journalists listed, as elsewhere in his report.” He also advocated more safety training in media development programs and called on donor countries to consider a nation"s record before granting aid. There was much agreement in the room and certain themes Pinder outlined were repeated throughout the first day: -the need to protect journalists everywhere, not just in war zones, but in "non-conflict" situations (possibly reform and expand Resn. 1738), -naming and shaming criminals and countries that do not protect journalists and support impunity and to create consequences for violators, -enforcing existing laws, -focusing greater attention on the problem, -holding regular meetings to assess the safety situation of journalists, -increased coordination among NGOs, UN agencies, governments. Kwame Karikari, Executive Director of the Media Foundation of West Africa, also said it is the UN"s role to “name and shame” violent perpetrators. He said that thanks to the work of NGOs in West Africa, there has been some decline in the most violent attacks against journalists but that there are new laws and trends that threaten press freedom. Political intolerance, corruption, organized crime and drug syndicates are all major problems, he said. His recommendation, generally endorsed by the participants, was not to create new regulations, but to enforce the existing ones. A British pre-conference recommendation for a new international convention that would have defined who is a journalist - harking back, in effect, to earlier controversies at UNESCO on the international licensing of journalists - was quietly dropped beforehand from the documents prepared for the sessions. In the meeting, Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Executive Director of the South East Asia Press Alliance, also spoke of corruption and the problem of impunity in her region. Jorge Canahuati, the Inter American Press Association"s Chairman of the International Affairs Committee, described the depressing situation in Latin America. “Latin America is losing the battle of safety for journalists,” he said. “Murders are increasing.” He also described IAPA"s anti-impunity project which has had “some successes” (prosecutions have increased for crimes against journalists), and “many frustrations” (over lack of political will). Canahuati called for more severe punishments and for eliminating the statute of limitations for crimes against journalists. Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the African Union, said most crimes against journalists in Africa are committed during election periods. She said criminal defamation laws and secrecy laws must be repealed, hate speech laws must be extended, and judicial independence established to protect journalists effectively. Without judicial independence, she said, “We can"t beat impunity.” She said there is a need to reinforce coordination between the UN and regional bodies to help combat the problems. In regard to repealing insult laws and decriminalizing defamation, she said she was inspired by the Declaration of Table Mountain promulgated by the World Association of Newspapers and the World Press Freedom Committee, among others. Speaking of proposals for a new international convention, she said: “Do we need another instrument ? I don"t think so. If we can"t enforce the instruments that we already have, then we won"t be accomplishing anything.” Dunja Mijatovic, Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, spoke of a “witchhunt against journalists around the world,” and said that despite having signed agreements, many countries have no political will to enforce them. For Mijatovic. the first step is getting countries to decriminalize defamation “to show they are serious about protecting journalists.” She proposed getting the European Union"s Executive Commission, Council of Europe and OSCE to work together for that goal. “We can invent tools, but if there is no basic pre-existing understanding of freedoms, then we just have empty words on paper.” She recommended “pointing fingers” and pressuring governments by shaming them to change. “I don"t think quiet diplomacy works in this field.” She said that countries with insult or criminal defamation laws that are not invoked should be urged to abrogate them altogether. When the issue is raised with governments, she said, “The answer, "We have it, but don"t use it," doesn"t work.” She also rejected the idea of a new international convention. “I don"t think we need new instruments. We are not respecting the instruments we already have at our disposal.” Adam Rogers of the UN Development Program said crimes against journalists should be prosecuted as crimes against humanity. For Annie Game, Executive Director of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), the No. 1 issue is impunity. She proposed a global campaign against impunity and announced creation of an annual International Day to End Impunity on Nov. 23. Jean-Paul Marthoz, Senior Europe Consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists, called for UN agencies to make journalists" safety a priority, pointing out that more than 40 per cent of murdered journalists were threatened beforehand. Like Mijatovic, he spoke of lack of compliance by governments, suggested that the UN Secretary General make strong note of those that do not answer requests for information and that a public report be released citing press freedom abuses. He called for appointment of special monitors to attend court trials in countries where there are frequent prosecutions of journalists. Alison Bethel McKenzie, Director of the International Press Institute, also called for repeal of criminal defamation laws and a joining of forces by news organizations, civil society, intergovernmental organizations, governments and police. Ronald Koven of the World Press Freedom Committee of Freedom House agreed that no new international convention is needed. He protested that the second day of meetings, a working meeting among UN agency representatives to draft an action plan, was scheduled to be closed to journalistic NGO observers. “In my 30 years of monitoring these meetings ,” Koven said, “This is the first time I"ve seen a meeting which concerns journalists, closed to them.” Thereupon, Janis Karklins, UNESCO Assistant Director General for Communication, said the meeting would be open to observers, after all. Koven also called for reinvigoration of the “hot line” of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross for journalists who are arrested or in other difficulties with authorities. An ICRC representative had said that it had received 50 calls since the start of 2011. Koven said that shows that it is “grossly underused” and insufficiently publicized. Rodney Pinder of the International News Safety Institute said privately that he hadn"t even known of its existence. Jean-François Julliard, Secretary-General of Reporters Sans Frontieres, singled out several problem countries, such as China and Cuba. He complained of the presence in Paris that same day of Rwanda"s President Paul Kagame, on an official visit to France. This elicited several “rights of reply” by UNESCO member-state diplomats attending the meeting, including Cameroon, Cuba, Senegal and Rwanda. A Cameroon delegate asked, “Isn"t journalism a refuge for those who have failed elsewhere ? For press criminals ?” A Cuban representative spoke of “bad experiences with unacceptable statements by NGOs.” Some UNESCO Secretariat members grumbled privately about Julliard"s statement. Other NGOs taking part included Access Info Europe, Article 19, the International Federation of Journalists, International Media Support, the Open Society Institute, the World Association of Newspapers, Other intergovernmental organizations included the the International Telecommunication Union, the UN High Commission for Refugees and the World Bank. Special Rapporteurs on press freedom of the UN Human Rights Council, Frank La Rue, and the Organization of American States, Catalina Botero, also spoke. A Draft Plan of Action drawn up from the meeting and reviewed the second day is a seven-page paper proposing detailed and concrete “actions” to improve journalists" safety and combat impunity. Such measures include increasing coordination within the UN and between the UN and other organizations, especially NGOs; encouraging member states to comply with decisions of UNESCO"s IPDC; raising awareness; and fostering safety initiatives. Sylvie Coudray, head of UNESCO"s Freedom of Expression unit, advocated systematic condemnation of killings of journalists. quiet diplomacy, working discreetly with member states for reforms. She further called for awareness work: more campaigning like World Press Freedom Day; training and publications. She said that corruption is affecting journalists. She noted there is a need for risk awareness training. She said UNESCO has been working extensively with NGOs. IFEX, with Reporters Sans Frontieres by publishing a guide for journalists working in conflict zones. It has been translated into 14 languages and is a "bestseller,” she said. Vladimir Gai of IPDC (formerly a Soviet Delegation expert on communication issues) said, “UNESCO has been working for years, beginning with New World Communication Order.” Kiyo Akasaka, Special Assistant to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, promised to report the details of the discussions back to UN HQ New York: “I am sorry I didn"t know much about all you are doing. I really see the need to share the information about what you are doing [with the S.G.|. This meeting is so useful. I would like to see this kind of coordination organized regularly.” Akasaka said there is a need for more journalists" safety more training, rule of law, decriminalization of defamation laws. He said that at UN HQ, more of those involved could be invited to the annual World Press Freedom Day ceremonies on May 3 and that more meetings could be organized between UNESCO and the UN"s Department of Information. He said the UN Secretary General is very interested in reinforcing journalist safety. There were suggestions that similar safety/impunity meetings should become annual exercises.