By Michael Spindelegger & Alison Bethel McKenzie
Well over 100 journalists have been killed so far this year – the highest number since the International Press Institute (IPI) began keeping count of journalists’ deaths in 1997. All across the world – from Africa, Asia and Europe, to the Middle East and Latin America – journalists continue to be systematically and brutally targeted because of their work. Some are caught in the crossfire while reporting on conflict, but most are targeted by criminal groups and individuals who want to prevent information from getting out, corruption and other crimes from being exposed and critical views from being disseminated.
In many countries, journalists stare death in the face every day. For them, receiving threats is part of a near-daily routine. Journalists are killed for telling a story, but also, ironically, sometimes they’re killed for not telling one. Attacks against journalists are not confined to murder. Many reporters have been brutally beaten this year, or seriously injured by firearms or explosive devices. Just a few weeks ago, a Bolivian radio presenter was set on fire by assailants who poured petrol over him as he was live on air with his radio show. And all too often reporters’ families are also caught up in the deadly spiral of violence.
Impunity for those responsible for attacks against journalists is rampant and constitutes one of the biggest obstacles to improving the safety of journalists.
Journalists play a special role in society as providers of information on matters of public interest. To preserve this important role is in the interest of society as a whole. The consequences of attacks against journalists are manifest: An absence of crucial information, a denial of the people’s right to know and an inability of journalists to retain the independence that is so vital to their professional credibility
The growing number of journalists killed around the world has prompted a call for action. In the past year, a number of international initiative milestones have been achieved which we feel will provide impetus in the quest to roll back the tide of ‘violence with impunity’ directed at reporters.
For the first time in its history, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the safety of journalists last September. The new resolution – initiated by Austria in line with a commitment made when it became a member of the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 – represents a significant step forward in the promotion of the protection of journalists’ safety. Driven forward in cooperation with a cross-regional core group comprising Brazil, Morocco, Tunisia and Switzerland, and with input from IPI and other press freedom and professional organizations, the unique resolution makes a clear statement in condemning all forms of attacks against journalists and calls on states to end impunity and ensure accountability, by investigating attacks, bringing the perpetrators to justice and providing adequate remedies for victims.
The resolution also underscores the responsibility of governments in ensuring the safety of journalists not only in clearly-identifiable conflict situations, but everywhere, and at all times. For let us make no mistake: Most of the journalists killed and physically harmed are targeted outside classic conflict zones. The fact that the resolution – in spite of its strong, uncompromising language – was supported by 66 co-sponsoring states and passed by consensus in the Human Rights Council lends it even greater impetus.
Parallel to the UN Human Rights Council, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has also promoted discussions, and action, related to the need to reinforce international instruments for the protection of journalists. As a result, in another milestone, the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity was endorsed by the UN Chief Executives Board in April.
In the past couple of days, discussions have continued, as representatives of UN agencies, funds and programs, intergovernmental organizations, member states, professional associations and NGOs have gathered in Vienna at a follow-up meeting hosted by Austria and focused on the implementation of the UN Plan, to ensure that it does actually result in “action” that will help limit violence against journalists.
Members of the global media community have been actively involved in the implementation phase debate. In fact, at a meeting in London a few weeks ago, editors and journalists issued a statement welcoming the UN Plan of Action, calling on the UN system and other relevant national and international bodies to operate effectively and in accountable ways in the implementation of the Plan and encouraging news media to monitor regularly the actions of their governments, judicial authorities and other institutions in implementing the Plan and ending impunity.
Much has been achieved in 2012 to ensure greater protection for journalists in the future. Now it is up to UN agencies, civil society, media professionals and, most importantly, the numerous states that have endorsed the UN Human Rights Council resolution on the safety of journalists to actively show their commitment to this important cause.
Austria, and IPI, stand ready and willing to continue their work to actively promote the now-existing broad mechanisms for the protection of journalists.
And IPI will continue to support journalists in dangerous environments, call for justice when they are attacked and hold States accountable for their safety.
* Michael Spindelegger is vice-chancellor and foreign minister of the Republic of Austria, and Alison Bethel McKenzie is executive director of the International Press Institute (IPI)