Declining Dignity for Journalists: The Dual Challenges of Violence and Access

15 Dec

On Friday, the Security Council held an ‘Arria Formula’ event, hosted by Guatemala and France, focused on the growing problem of violence against working journalists.

The event was largely ‘off the record’ and attendance was somewhat restricted.   The opening panel featured an extraordinary array of UN officials — including UNESCO’s Irina Bokova and ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. These and other officials are tasked in part with ensuring that journalists are protected (and crimes against them are prosecuted) both by member states and by the international community, in part based on ‘protection of civilians’ mandates issued by the Council,  application of Article 8 of the Rome Statute, etc.   There was also important testimony provided by David Rhode of Reuters, who himself had been held captive by the Taliban, as well as by other professionals working to protect journalists from abuse.

Much of the discussion was premised on the language of SC Resolution 1738, which was the first Security Council text devoted to the protection of journalists in armed conflicts, expresses the Council’s concern regarding the lack of adherence to existing rules, and recalls the relevant body of legislation applicable.  Indeed, one of the best insights from a robust engagement with this issue was the call for a ‘consolidated document’ that summarizes all of the disparate UN efforts under way to better protect journalists.  This is clearly an issue for the UN system as a whole and not just for Council deliberations.

Beyond resolutions, the event made several things clear.   First and foremost, there was recognition that violence against journalists has reached epidemic proportions.   Speaker after speaker noted the frequent occurrence of murder and abduction of journalists, as well as the recognition that 90% or more of this violence goes unpunished.

It was also noted that violence against journalists occurs mostly away from conflict zones with most victims being local journalists.   Attempts to intimidate the community of journalists are widespread and corrosive of efforts to provide legitimate, impartial information that, among other things, can document and spread the word about massive violations of human rights.   As was noted on more than one occasion, murder remains the most effective form of censorship.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, there was recognition of the vital role that journalists – local and international – play in helping policymakers stay abreast of conditions in some of the most challenging and dangerous parts of our world.   There were welcome calls for new ‘journalist safety standards’ as well as more training of national security forces on the need to preserve freedom of expression.  These and other measures bring some hope for relief.

But violence is not the only challenge facing professional journalists.  There is also a problem with access to UN agencies, government officials and policymakers.  In addition, as more and more media becomes subsumed under corporate interests, the very same journalists who risk their lives to provide sometimes horrific images and stories of abuse from very challenging environments find that they must struggle harder than ever to ensure that at least some of what they investigate finds its way on to television screens and under newspaper bylines.

For its part, GAPW has been engaged with media professionals for over two years through our “Matching:Points” project directed by Lia Petridis Maiello.   Based on numerous interviews with working journalists and officials at the UN, Lia produced a report “Assessing UN Media Relations and Revitalizing Dialogue among Diverse Stakeholders (available at www.globalactionpw.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/media_diplo_brief.pdf ).  Her report makes clear the many ways in which journalists face barriers of access, in some cases regarding the very same officials and policymakers whom journalists are risking their lives and careers to keep informed.   Certainly there are few dangers covering the UN, but even in this environment there is much remaining to be done to respect and energize stakeholders so that we can all do our part to, as Lia notes, “help the global public understand the structure and activities of the United Nations, including its programmatic successes and political compromises.”

It is important that resolutions and related activities to protect journalists are accompanied by efforts to dignify their efforts in the field, to honor their courage with access to officials, straight talk, and more space for their work in existing media outlets.   Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, offered an intriguing linkage at the Arria Formula event between the status of journalists and that of human rights defenders.   In our view, journalists who face challenging conditions in the field while bringing to our attention stories and images that the world simply must address are indeed upholding our collective commitment to preserve human rights for all.  Beyond social media, corporate media and disinterested media, these often courageous journalists deserve every bit of assistance from the international community to preserve their personal safety and professional dignity.   As the Council members themselves no doubt recognized, resolutions alone are an insufficient response to the growing global problems of freedom of the press, including freedom from violent abuse.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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