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UN: Political will the key to end impunity in media killings

22 July 2014


In June 2014, the world's human rights body heard that the lack of political will among states is one of the main impediments towards ending impunity in the killing of journalists.

The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic went so far as to say that states have employed delay tactics or cited considerations for local cultures, as stumbling blocks to resolving the cases.

"We need bold steps to end impunity, not diplomacy," said Ms Mijatovic, who has been vocal against the continued threats against journalists and media in Europe.

Speaking at the panel on Safety of Journalists at the 26th Session of the Human Rights Council on 11 June 2014, Mijatovic said she was rather pessimistic about seeing improvements in the protection of individuals and free speech.

The panel was the first since the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (A/RES/68/163) on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity in December 2013. It was scheduled on the second day of the 26th session, with an opening reminder by the outgoing Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay that the safety of journalists "is quite simply essential".

Panelists also included Mr Gatechew Engida, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, Mr Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Ms Abeer Saady, journalist and Vice-President of the Syndicate of Journalists of Egypt, and Mr Frank Smyth, journalist and Senior Adviser to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

La Rue said ultimately it's with internal mechanisms at the national and local levels, [that it will be possible] to address the problem of impunity, similarly stressing the absence of political will in countries with worrying trends of threats against journalists.

For media freedom activists in Southeast Asia, where Philippines has the unfortunate label of being one of most dangerous countries for the media, the attitude of governments towards freedom of expression and media freedom can be best described as lukewarm or outright adversarial.

Despite the adoption of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Human Rights Declaration in 2012, there is little in the way of a regional mechanism to act as an alternative to the dearth of national commitment and actions to bring perpetrators to justice and provide a safe environment for the media and individual expression.

"There should be ombudsmen or special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression in every country and region, like the ASEAN," La Rue recommended. Crimes and violence against journalists must be fully investigated, he said, because we have to assume that these happen because of the nature of their work.

It remains to be seen if the UN resolution will compel states to be more proactive in reversing the trends in impunity killings. The record has not been encouraging as previous resolutions on the protection of journalists have largely been ignored. Nevertheless, the latest resolution can provide a focus for civil society and media to hold states accountable.

As a panelist, Smyth rightly pointed out in the panel discussion, that the concrete step forward is for states to be transparent about attacks on journalists and to what extent cases are brought to court.

Media NGOs globally, including the SEAPA and its members, had begun to commemorate and take part in a global campaign to end impunity in 2011 on 23 November, following the brutal killing of 32 media workers in the south of the Philippines in 2009. President Benigno Aquino III has yet to honour his pledge in combating the problem of impunity - instead, his administration has seen an escalation in the number of journalist killings.

The campaign will continue this year to encourage the different stakeholders to move forward the agenda to end impunity. As a start, SEAPA recommended that the ASEAN human rights commissioners conduct a thematic study on impunity and allow for cases to be submitted to them. The regional network will also focus its annual journalism fellowship program this year on the problem of impunity in the Philippines.

FORUM-Asia together with SEAPA made an oral statement during the session on the safety of journalists.

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