UN: Commitments on paper to protect journalists not enough

UN: Commitments on paper to protect journalists not enough - Protection

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the adoption at the UN General Assembly of a resolution on “safety of journalists and the issue of impunity” on 18 December 2019, with record levels of support. It is the 10th UN resolution on this topic since 2012, yet the global threats facing journalists, in particular outside of conflict zones, remain largely unchanged. Governments must show political will and act to implement the resolution; where they fail, the UN must bolster international mechanisms able to step in.

The UN General Assembly resolution, led by Argentina, Austria, France, Greece, Tunisia and Costa Rica, was adopted on 18 December by consensus. An additional 100 countries, from all regions, expressed support for the resolution as cosponsors – a record for UN resolutions on the safety of journalists. This increased support at the international level is welcome, but it must now be translated into renewed political commitment and allocation of resources at the national level to prevent and protect against, and ensure remedy for attacks on journalists.

While overall numbers of journalists killed fell in 2019, rates of impunity for killings, where States have failed to hold to account those responsible for murders, remained largely undented.

The resolution recommits States to important actions, in line with their international human rights obligations, to tackle impunity and also protect and prevent against attacks. This includes:

  • The duty for political leaders to publicly, unequivocally and systematically condemn and speak out against attacks against journalists;
  • To create and properly resource national protection mechanisms;
  • To create special investigative and prosecutorial units for crimes against journalists, with specific protocols to end impunity, ensuring the independence of investigations that bring the masterminds behind attacks to justice.

The resolution recognizes a range of persistent threats to safety of journalists, with the UN again emphasising that a safe and enabling environment is needed for media freedom to flourish. This requires much more comprehensive action.

Ending impunity needs local action

While States’ commitments on the international stage are important, their value is seriously undermined by the lack of sufficient national political will and action to implement them. With 2019 trends indicating an increased proportion of attacks in countries not experiencing armed conflict, a closer examination of measures needed to increase respect for human rights and rule of law in those contexts is essential.

Mexico has in place both a national protection mechanism and a specialised prosecutor, yet it remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist; a joint civil society mission recently called on the government to implement more than 100 recommendations from UN bodies to address defects. In Malta, the government is nearing collapse amid accusations of political interference in a political inquiry to the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and connections between identified masterminds of the attack and the Prime Minister’s office.  Both Malta and Mexico sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution, and should make clear how their implementation efforts will deliver measurable change, including by ending impunity for cases of attacks against journalists yet to be resolved.

Journalism is not a crime

The resolution also repeats calls for the release of all arbitrarily detained journalists, and also urges States to ensure an enabling environment for journalism through legislative measures, calling for specific reforms to laws on national security, counter-terrorism, and defamation and libel, to bring them in line with international human rights standards. Notwithstanding this call being made in previous resolutions, a record number of journalists are behind bars, including in countries, such as Egypt, who cosponsored this resolution. The continued judicial harassment of journalists in Turkey, including through the abusive application of anti-terror laws, as well as persecution of the media in Cuba, must be condemned by all States who cosponsored this resolution. Notably, neither Cuba or Turkey are among the cosponsoring States.

Journalism is not “fake news”

Reiterating calls made at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, the General Assembly resolution expresses alarm at political leaders and authorities that engage in acts of denigration, intimidation or threats against media actors, adding recognition that such attacks can be gendered, disproportionately affecting women journalists.

This implicit denunciation of politicians who label as “fake news” media they don’t like clarifies that such attacks are not simply rhetorical, but place journalists at greater risk globally, while undermining public trust in the media. Notwithstanding this recognition at the international level, such rhetorical attacks are frequently seen, including in countries such as the United States, Hungary and Poland, who all supported the resolution as co-sponsors.

Addressing gender-specific and digital threats

The resolution saw progress in States’ recognition of the need to tackle gender-specific threats to journalists, making more comprehensive commitments in the latest resolution to ensure prevention and protection measures, as well as accountability and redress mechanisms, are gender-responsive, in particular in relation to online threats. More detail is provided on addressing gendered and sexist threats, intimidation and harassment, in particular considering the especially hostile responses women journalists can be exposed to.

The resolution is also the second time the UN General Assembly has called out States who intentionally disrupt Internet access, making it clear the impact of such measures on journalists’ ability to inform the public is intolerable. It reflects growing international concern at the use of shutdowns to restrict free expression and media reporting, including long-running and ongoing shutdowns in Indian-administered Kashmir. This time, the General Assembly has added concerns on government moves to arbitrarily restrict, block or takedown media websites, including through denial of service attacks.

Nevertheless, the resolution is weaker than similar Human Rights Council commitments on the need to protect encryption, including from government hacking. This is concerning, given an increase globally in government attempts to undermine encryption, including joint calls from the UK, US and Australia, posing serious threats to independent journalism.

Progress still needed on emerging threats

Despite containing many positive commitments from states, ARTICLE 19 is disappointed that the resolution did not address a range of emerging threats to the safety of journalists, and considers that these issues deserve closer international scrutiny going forwards.

The resolution is silent on the extra-territorial threats facing journalists that live in exile, a concern exemplified by the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Istanbul consulate of Saudi Arabia in October 2018. The abuse of privately developed surveillance tools against journalists, and the need for an international moratorium on their sale, transfer and use, was similarly ignored. The opportunity to strengthen existing calls in the resolution, to make them less equivocal and direct in the action they call for, were also missed.

Emphasise implementation, and strengthen UN role

The resolution does not seriously contend with the lack of progress States have made in implementing previous commitments. While the strength of many of those commitments are important, it is dispiriting that States who are failing to live by those commitments can join consensus and even sponsor resolutions without their national records facing scrutiny.

The main action point in the resolution directed at the UN Secretary General shows a lack of ambition to address this challenge. It calls for a repeat Secretary General report on implementation of the UN resolutions, in particular the work of the UN network of focal points on the safety of journalists. A similar call from the UN General Assembly two years ago resulted in a report with very little information on the contributions of UN focal points, and weak recommendations on enhancing the international effective response on safety of journalists as a whole.

Ending impunity can only fully be achieved through action at the local level. However, where States fail to act it is the responsibility of the UN to step in.

States should create a Standing UN Instrument on Criminal Investigations for Targeted Killings against Journalists and Human Rights Defenders, as proposed by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in her probe to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.  The standing mechanism could deter future attacks, and play a key role in the early stages following an attack to ensure adequate and independent investigations ultimately lead to accountability and justice for victims and survivors.

ARTICLE 19 encourages all States, in particular those that sponsored this resolution, to continue to engage with civil society on the ways to enhance the international response to threats facing journalists.