Could it at last come to an end? I mean the wretched, repetitive sham by which the leaders of dozens of UN member states routinely protest their fierce commitment to press freedom – and then proceed to jail, intimidate or set out to eliminate journalists and dissenters, to cover up corruption and abuse of power and silence any criticism?
It's too soon to be confident. But people and politicians alike should be aware that the UN is now giving high priority to the safety of journalists and the fight against impunity – meaning the pattern, borne out by grim statistics, in which media workers are targeted and killed and in nine cases out of 10 those responsible escape justice entirely.
UNESCO, the lead Agency for this UN-wide initiative, believes the UN Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity could be a game-changer.
Why should journalists warrant special protection when so many forms of injustice exist? Not because journalists are saints. But because press freedom and freedom of expression are essential to building just societies in which people have a real say about how they live their lives and how they are governed.
The urgency arises from the rising toll of death and the evident breakdown of the rule of law that has made journalism, in many places, the most dangerous profession. The killings of Anna Politkovskaya (Russia, 2006), Hrant Dink (Turkey, 2007), Lasantha Wickrematunge (Sri Lanka, 2009) and Marie Colvin (Syria, 2012) all followed the same pattern: all were journalists who risked their lives to expose grave human rights abuses and injustices; all were killed to silence a critical voice; and after their deaths those responsible have not been properly held to account.
On 23 November 2009 a single horrific incident brought home the corrosive effect of impunity in encouraging lawlessness in places where basic rights are denied through violence. Thirty-two journalists and media staff were among over 50 people killed on that day in the Philippines's Maguindanao province, and afterwards the authorities failed to mount any credible investigation. Justice has still not been done.
Last year, 23 November was chosen by members of IFEX, the global network for free expression, as the International Day to End Impunity. The day was marked by campaigns to end impunity in many countries. This year, following approval of the UN Action Plan on journalists' safety by the UN Chief Executives Board under Ban Ki-moon, 23 November is the symbolic date when all the UN agencies and bodies concerned will gather in Vienna to map out how to implement the UN plan to safeguard the lives and work of journalists.
Many remain sceptical after past disappointments. Hopes were raised in 2006 when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1738, condemning deliberate attacks on journalists and other civilians in conflict zones, but nothing much changed. And the latest statistics are alarming: with 95 journalists killed in the first nine months of 2012, this year is already one of the worst on record.
But something has changed. From a small seed sown in a sub-group of UNESCO, a group of committed states and NGOs have weathered diplomatic storms and serious resistance to ensure that this month the UN Action Plan will finally be hatched.
What will it add up to? The plan is a template of many strands – developing proper standards of law and law-enforcement and physical protection mechanisms, making press freedom a higher priority in the UN's country programmes and the audits of states' human rights records, and improving practical safety supports for journalists at risk. Its success or failure will depend on what states, UN bodies, and the media all make of it.
A sense of urgency was evident among the world's news media at a London symposium for editors and journalists co-hosted by the BBC and the Centre for Freedom of the Media on 18 October. Forty leading news organisations agreed to send a "London Statement" to the UN's Vienna conference. It calls for the media's concerns to be fully taken into account there, and for journalists themselves to monitor the actions of governments and courts to stop the killing of journalists and end impunity.
Earlier this year Brazil's media showed how vigilance can work. Brazilian officials criticised the UN Plan at a key UNESCO meeting, and a brief news report about the episode on Globo TV went viral in the nation's media. Soon the government announced full support for the UN Plan and agreed to listen to the wishes of the media and NGOs.
Then, in September, Brazil acted as a major sponsor of a journalists' safety resolution adopted at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the world's most important human rights body. It was proof that the media must be part of a solution to the canker of violent attacks on journalists – because silence is a friend to dictators, and democracy thrives on press freedom.
William Horsley is the International Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield, U.K.