UNHRC: Oral Statement on impunity for attacks against journalists and media workers

Article 19 delivered the following oral statement to the 27th Session of the UN Human Rights Council 

In his inaugural address to this Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein was unequivocal in condemning murders of journalists and media workers as “barbaric” acts.

Since 1992, there have been more than 1000 murders of journalists, and two thirds have occurred outside conflict zones. Impunity for murders, and for other threats and attacks against media workers, remains staggeringly high and points to a failure to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression.

Journalists and media workers perform an essential role in society, including by exposing and reporting on human rights abuses, organised crime, corruption and other serious forms of wrongdoing, but in doing so they are exposed to reprisals. Ending impunity for these crimes is critical to end the cycle of violence. Each case represents both an attack on journalists as individuals and an attack on the right of all people to seek, receive and impart information. The failure by States to ensure accountability for attacks is therefore an assault on freedom of expression and democracy itself.

In a Joint Declaration on Crimes Against Freedom of Expression in June 2012[i], international and regional special rapporteurs identified five elements for ending impunity for attacks on journalists:

First, States must prevent and prohibit. All too often killings are the final signpost on a road of failures – alerting us too late that someone failed to prevent it.

Effective prevention presupposes a legal framework that protects freedom of expression and creates a safe and enabling environment for journalists and media workers. Where law shields the powerful from criticism and criminalises open debate, authorities are encouraged to supress dissent rather than protect it. As the OHCHR recently recommended, “mechanisms of censorship and legal harassment must be removed” to ensure the safety of journalists. This requires decriminalising sedition, defamation and insult laws, and ensuring national security and anti-terrorism laws comply with international standards.

States must ensure training for law enforcement authorities on the risks journalists face, and provide adequate safety training to journalists, including where necessary software and hardware for at-risk journalists, in particular for smaller independent, community and/or indigenous media outlets and for freelance journalists. Safety training can be mainstreamed into formal education for journalism students. 

Second, States must protect. Special protection mechanisms should be established tailored to regional, local and individual circumstances and challenges. Where attacks on journalists are high or likely, States should implement early warning and rapid response mechanisms so that journalists have access to protective measures quickly. Involving journalists and media workers in the design and monitoring of these mechanisms, as well as maintaining detailed and disaggregated publicly available statistics on attacks against journalists and investigations, can greatly enhance trust in them and their effectiveness.

Third, there must be independent, speedy and effective investigations and prosecutions for perpetrators and instigators. Protocols must be in place to promptly establish lines of inquiry to determine the motivation behind any threat or attack on a journalist or media worker early, establishing a presumption until proven otherwise that the work of the journalists or media worker was a motivating factor. Protocols should also be established to collect and safeguard evidence and to protect witnesses necessary to secure convictions. Bringing masterminds behind attacks to justice is critical – so those who command, conspire to commit, aid and incite or cover up attacks must be prioritised in investigations.

But investigations and prosecutions will prove ineffective unless they are insulated from the influence of corrupt politicians or public officials, organised criminals or other powerful actors. Where credible allegations of State involvement in attacks are made, the investigation must rest with an authority outside the sphere of influence of those accused.

Where attacks on journalists are persistent or likely, States should create properly resourced and supported special invesitgative units and appoint specialised and trained prosecutors.

Accountability for investigations requires that they are run in a transparent manner, and independent complaints mechanisms must be available.

Fourth, there must be redress for victims, including through the criminal and civil law.

Fifth, States must encourage and support other responsible stakeholders in monitoring and responding to attacks on journalists and media workers, including journalists and media workers themselves, media organisations and civil society. This should include supporting media organisations in providing adequate safety, risk awareness and self-protection training and guidance for both permanent and freelance media workers.

ARTICLE 19 therefore calls on the Human Rights Council to adopt a strong resolution on ending impunity for threats and attacks on journalists and media workers, focused on giving practical guidance to States on the various concrete actions that can assist in this effort.

States must also support national, sub-regional and regional, and international human rights mechanisms and bodies, including the universal periodic review, special procedures, treaty bodies, to promote and protect the safety of journalists. In particular, they must cooperate with UNESCO and respond positively to their enquiries.

Thank you.

[i] The Joint Declaration on Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, adopted on 25 June 2012 by: the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression; the OSCE representative on freedom of the media; the Organisation of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information.