The UN General Assembly (UNGA) Third Committee has adopted a significant resolution on the safety of journalists, calling upon all States to take comprehensive action to end impunity for attacks on journalists, with a focus on tackling attacks that target or disproportionately affect women journalists. It also reiterates crucial commitments States have made to release all arbitrarily detained journalists, reform legal frameworks so they are not abused to undermine media freedom, protect digital security, cease Internet shutdowns, and end the forced closure of media outlets.
“It is long overdue that States commit to address the particular threats and attacks directed at women journalists, in particular online, including those motivated by sex and gender-based discrimination. We will continue pushing governments to implement the commitments this resolution contains and end impunity for all attacks,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.
The UNGA resolution on “the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity”, initiated by Greece, Argentina, Austria, Costa Rica, France, and Tunisia, was adopted at the Third Committee of the UNGA on 20 November 2017 by consensus. It received the support of 88 cosponsoring UN Member States from across all regions.
Between 2006 and the end of 2016, 930 journalists were killed for their work, with a 90% impunity rate for those crimes. On 2 November, the UN marked the fourth International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, which was created by the first UNGA resolution on this topic in 2013. The latest resolution is the fourth from the UNGA addressing this issue since 2013, and is the most comprehensive and most broadly supported yet.
“States renewing their resolve at the UN to address attacks against journalists, as well as impunity for those attacks, is much needed. While increased support for the resolution is welcome, the absence of ASEAN States backing this initiative, and the notable underrepresentation of African States in the list of cosponsors, is disappointing. Journalists perform an essential function informing the public in all parts of the world, and should not have to fear violence and intimidation merely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
“The emphasis must now be on implementation. The measures the resolution cites for improving coordination at the international level, including the revival of ‘focal points’ across the UN system, are positive, but must be organized so as to drive change for journalists on the ground”, added Hughes.
Safety of women journalists
The new UNGA resolution focuses particularly on the safety of women journalists, “condemning unequivocally” all “specific attacks on women journalists in the exercise of their work, including sexual and gender-based discrimination and violence, intimidation and harassment, online and offline.” It calls upon States to address these trends “as part of broader efforts to promote and protect the human rights of women, eliminate gender inequality and tackle gender-based stereotypes in society.” The resolution states that this is essential if women are “to enter and remain in journalism on equal terms with men”, while “ensuring their greatest possible safety”.
The UNGA resolution reflects many of the UN Secretary General’s recommendations in his 2017 report on the safety of women journalists, and provides specific guidance to States on how they must take a gender-sensitive approach to the issue of safety of journalists. According to the UN Secretary General’s report:
“[T]here has been an increase in violence, threats and harassment against women journalists. Women journalists are subjected to the same wide range of human rights violations as are directed against men journalists […] However, they also experience workplace and employment related discrimination and gender-based violence, including threats of violence, abuse and harassment. Both are symptomatic of the gender-based inequality, discrimination and violence experienced by women globally across many aspects of their lives.”
This reflects the concerns and recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression and on violence against women, who have highlighted the impacts of online abuse and violence on the freedom of expression of women, and cautioned against censorship in this context. Gender-based and sexual abuse online, they report, takes many forms, including but not limited to blackmail, threats of sexual assault, intimidation, stalking, surveillance and dissemination of private content without consent.
The UNGA resolution is responsive to these threats, calling on States to ensure that their strategies for addressing impunity for attacks and violence against journalists are gender-sensitive.
A particular barrier to justice for women journalists who face threats and attacks is the failure of public authorities to take sex- and gender-based threats seriously, in particular when they occur online. The resolution therefore calls on States to engage in training and awareness-raising activities among the judiciary, law enforcement, and military personnel on their international human rights law obligations pertaining to the safety of journalists, “including a strong focus on sexual and gender-based discrimination, and violence against women journalists, as well as the particularities of online threats and harassment of women journalists.”
To address the related and significant problem of under-reporting of sex- and gender-based discrimination against women journalists, including in particular of gender-based violence, the resolution further calls on States to put in place “safe gender-sensitive investigative procedures, in order to encourage women journalists to report attacks against them and provide adequate support, including psychosocial support, to victims and survivors.”
Addressing those threats and attacks that target or disproportionately affect women journalists is further hampered by the absence of reliable data collected by States, UN agencies, and civil society on the issue; data collection has to date mostly focused on the killing of journalists, which disproportionately affects male journalists. The resolution therefore calls on States to not only collect more qualitative and quantitative data on all threats and attacks against journalists, but also for this data to be disaggregated, including on the basis of sex.
The strong language in the resolution on addressing sex- and gender-based discrimination, violence and harmful gender stereotypes, including to ensure equal access to journalism as a vocation, points to how more must be done to address these abuses in the workplace. While States must ensure their legal frameworks provide redress to victims of work-place discrimination or harassment, media organisations also have important responsibilities in this regard.
Ending Internet shutdowns
The resolution recognises that States’ deliberate measures to shutdown the Internet in response to crises, to deny people access to information and obstruct public scrutiny of a governments’ actions, seriously impacts the ability of journalists to do their work safely. Without internet access, journalists must take additional risks to obtain information and communicate it to the public.
The resolution therefore “unequivocally condemns” Internet shutdowns, framing intentional prevention or disruption of access as a violation of international human rights law. The resolution recognises that shutdowns cause “irreparable harm to efforts at building inclusive and peaceful knowledge societies and democracies”, and, in a first for the UNGA, calls upon all States to “cease and refrain” from such measures.
This is consistent with the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, and also reflects the UN Human Rights Council’s most recent resolution on the Internet and Human Rights.
Prevent, Protect, Prosecute
The UNGA resolution reiterates States’ many existing commitments to prevent, protect against, and prosecuteattacks on journalists, building upon the September 2016 UN Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution 33/2 on the safety of journalists.
It is important that the UNGA has again highlighted the core actions that States must take to ensure the safety of journalists and end impunity. These include commitments for States to:
- Publicly, unequivocally and systematically condemn violence and attacks against journalists;
- Ensure impartial, speedy, thorough, independent and effective investigations, that also seek to bring masterminds behind attacks to justice, and to ensure victims and their families have access to appropriate remedies; and,
- Systematically collect data to inform policy making on safety of journalists.
The resolution makes reference to further “good practices” identified in HRC resolution 33/2, but only lists some of them in detail, requiring both resolutions to be read in conjunction to give a full picture of States’ UN commitments.
It is crucial, almost four years after the first action-oriented UNGA resolution on this issue, that political will is renewed and resources dedicated to ensuring that these basic core commitments are acted upon. The essential additional measures to establish protection mechanisms, including early warning and rapid response systems, to create special investigative units and specialised prosecutors, and to adopt specific protocols and methods of investigation and prosecution, listed in HRC resolution 33/2, must not be overlooked in this process.
Release arbitrarily detained journalists and reform abusive laws
The new resolution commits States, in a first for the UNGA, to “immediately and unconditionally release” arbitrarily arrested and arbitrarily detained journalists. Arbitrary arrests and detention are a priority concern for journalists’ safety, as highlighted in an oral statement ARTICLE 19 delivered to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2017.
Building upon language from previous UNGA and HRC resolutions, the new UNGA resolution further calls on states to review and where necessary amend laws that limit the ability of journalists to do their work independently and without undue interference. In particular, they must ensure that counter-terrorism, national security and public order measures comply with international law and aren’t use to arbitrarily arrest or detain journalists.
Digital security: encryption and source protection
The new UNGA resolution also integrates strong language from HRC resolution 33/2 on protecting digital security, making clear that trust in technology and the confidentiality of communications is key to journalists and their confidential sources of information staying safe. Importantly, and in another first for the UNGA, it recognises anonymity and encryption tools as “vital” for journalists, and calls on states to not interfere with their use.
This shows welcome support from all UNGA States for the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression relating to both anonymity and encryption and on protecting sources.
Unfortunately, the final resolution was not as comprehensive on the measures States must take in response to digital threats to journalists’ safety as it could have been. Strong language calling for States to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources in law was removed from the draft resolution in revisions leading up to adoption, due to opposition from a minority of States. That language, taken verbatim from HRC resolution 33/2, would have reflected in clear terms the international standard that judicial authorisation be required for States to take measures to reveal a journalist’s confidential source, and UNGA endorsement of that principle would have been significant.
Enhancing UN coordination and implementation
The focus of the UNGA resolution on implementation, and how the UN itself can further those efforts, is welcome.
The resolution acknowledges the recently announced decision of the UN Secretary General to mobilise a “network of focal points” throughout the UN system, to “propose specific steps to intensify efforts to enhance the safety of journalists and media workers.” It requests that the UN Secretary General assist in the implementation of the resolution, and to report on this, including the activities of the focal points, through reports to the UNGA’s seventy-fourth session (October, 2019) and to the Human Rights Council at its forty-third session (September, 2019).
The “need to ensure better cooperation and coordination at international and regional levels”, including through technical assistance and capacity-building, is stressed in the resolution, to bring about change at the national and local levels. ARTICLE 19’s guide to States’ UN commitments in this area includes a summary of the wide range of human rights mechanisms that are, to varying extents, tasked with ensuring the safety of journalists.
ARTICLE 19 encourages the Secretary General to identify the focal points across all relevant UN agencies, organisations, funds, and programmes, as soon as possible, and convene them at the earliest opportunity to establish a clear strategy for how they can advance the safety of journalists and drive change at the national and local levels.
The roles of UNESCO and OHCHR must remain prominent in this, in particular as the former leads on the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, and both jointly measure the implementation of Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The resolution commends the role of both entities, noting in particular the outcome of the Multi-Stakeholder Consultation on Strengthening the Implementation of the UN Plan of Action.
In 2017, States’ response rates to requests from UNESCO for information on the status of investigations to violence and attacks against journalists increased, following calls from both the UNGA and HRC to increase their cooperation. This progress should be built upon, including in relation to States’ cooperation in the Universal Periodic Review and with UN special procedures, in particular the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, and the implementation of their recommendations.
We also recall that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has separately been tasked with preparing a report analysing the effectiveness of existing international and regional prevention, protection, monitoring and compliance mechanisms relating to the safety of journalists. This will be presented at the 39th HRC Session in September 2018, a year in advance of the reports anticipated above from the Secretary General. Including within the OHCHR report an initial assessment of how the Secretary General’s soon-to-be revived “focal points” are complementing and enhancing the work of existing mechanisms, in particular to drive implementation at a nation and local level, will be valuable.
ARTICLE 19 will continue to work closely with UN mechanisms, through its nine regional and national offices, to ensure that the commitments made in this most recent UNGA resolution are implemented, in particular in relation to the safety of women journalists. From our newly established international office in New York, we will closely monitor and advocate for the implementation of these standards, as well as for a more effective UN response to this global freedom of expression priority.
 The reference provided is for the draft resolution (as revised), adopted at the Third Committee of the UNGA on 20 November 2017. Following the formal endorsement of the resolution by the plenary of the UNGA in December, the adopted resolution will be published with a new reference.
 In addition to main sponsors Greece, Argentina, Austria, Costa Rica, France, and Tunisia, the UNGA resolution was cosponsored by: Albania, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Australia, Belgium, Belize, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Canada, Central African Republic, Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kiribati, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Netherlands, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Ukraine, Uruguay, the United States of America, and Vanuatu.