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UN HRC: States called on to end impunity for attacks on journalists

A journalist (L) stands in front of policemen during the trial of Andal Ampatuan Jr. at a court in the police headquarters in Taguig city, south of Manila, 17 November 2010
A journalist (L) stands in front of policemen during the trial of Andal Ampatuan Jr. at a court in the police headquarters in Taguig city, south of Manila, 17 November 2010

REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

On the side of the UN Human Rights Council's 27th Session, ARTICLE 19 convened a high-level panel discussion to underscore the importance of States supporting a draft resolution on the safety of journalists. The event, including speakers from the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), UNESCO, and individuals working for journalists' safety in the Caucuses and Philippines, added to on-going advocacy by ARTICLE 19 to ensure the UN Human Rights Council address this critical issue.

In a written statement to the event, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), Dunja Mijatović, said: "We all know that attacks on journalists are one of the main threats to free expression and the free media worldwide." "Attacks deter and sometimes prevent journalists from exercising their right to seek and disseminate information and deprive all of us of the right to know and to access information," Mijatović added.

The attacks journalists face are diverse, and ensuring a legal environment which protects journalists is key, the event heard. Pointing to the example of Ukraine, Mijatović highlighted the problems journalists face as including "assaults on journalists which are not properly investigated, the blocking and switching off of broadcasts, the systematic denial of access and information to members of the media and the denial of entry at borders, dissemination of propaganda and, in general, the greater restrictions on content."

The situation for journalists and media workers in Russia and the Caucuses is also grave, with clear failures by the State to protect journalists at risk or to ensure speedy, effective, or independent investigations.

Editor-in-chief of web portal Caucasian Knot, Gregori Shvedov, shared with participants the case of Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev, who was murdered on 9 July 2013 in Dagestan on his way to work. The authorities had failed to properly classify an attempt on his life 6 months earlier as an attempted murder, instead categorising the incident as "property damage" due to the bullet holes that were left in his front door and car. After being refused protection measures and the State failing to find those culpable, he was killed in circumstances identical to the previous assassination attempt. The investigation into his murder was recently "suspended" without the perpetrators being identified or brought to justice.

Shvedov emphasized, in his role as an editor and journalist, that proper classification of crimes against journalists early is important to ensure effective investigations, and that early warning and protection mechanisms should be readily available to those at risk. He added that reopening the murder investigation of Akhmednabiev would send a clear message that such crimes are not tolerated, and would show support for the journalists that continue their work in precarious circumstances. This need is urgent, as made clear by the murder in August 2014 of Timur Kuashev, a civil society activist and journalist for DOSH magazine who had also previously received a number of death threats.

Making clear that impunity for attacks on journalists is a global problem, Prima Quinsayas, a private prosecutor in media killings cases from the Philippines, highlighted that of 145 confirmed work-related media killings since democracy was restored in 1986 in her country, there have been only 14 convictions, with none involving masterminds. Under the current administration, 25 out of 42 journalists killed are confirmed to be work-related. Yet, even now the President refuses to recognise media killings as a "national catastrophe".

One of Quinsayas' high profile cases is the prosecution of those allegedly responsible for the Ampatuan massacre, where 32 journalists and media workers were murdered in a mass killing. Quinsayas identified that corruption has been a principle obstacle to secure justice in this case. Wealthy political classes live above the law, where they both commission crimes and use their money and armed security to intimidate and silence and ultimately to avoid accountability. Profound flaws in investigative processes compound these problems; forensic evidence is not collected or secured, and witness testimony is hard to come by where the risks of speaking out are so great and the protection offered is so minimal. Quinsayas also explained how closely intertwined some members of the judiciary are with the wealthy elites, causing delay in cases and making independent prosecutions almost impossible.

Guy Berger, the Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, explained in his intervention why the Human Rights Council must act now, to send a "strong counter-signal" that attacks on journalists, which aim at depriving all people of information, will not be tolerated.

According to UNESCO statistics for the five years up to 2012, contained in the report "World trends in freedom of expression and media development", 94% of killings were of local rather than international correspondents, making clear that States must act primarily at the national and local level. He identified 2 November 2014, which will be the first UN day to end impunity for crimes against journalists, as an important day in mobilising States and society at large to address this problem.

Berger explained how The UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity provides a roadmap for ensuring safety for journalists. Although monitoring and reporting on the question of safety of journalists is key, Berger pointed out that only 43% of UNESCO requests for information from States receive a response. To the extent that this was because States themselves did not have the information, they needed to monitor safety of journalists much more closely. Without this information, designing effective prevention, protection, investigation and prosecution mechanisms is impossible.

The UN Plan of Action highlights that civil society participation in these mechanisms is crucial, as well as capacity building for law enforcement and the judiciary. Berger went on to explain how the UN Plan of Action is already having an impact in many of the pilot countries where aspects of it are being implemented – including in Pakistan, Nepal, Tunisia, Guatemala, and Honduras, among others.

Identifying next steps, Gregori Shvedov called upon the international community to treat attacks on journalists as seriously as they treat acts of terrorism or drug trafficking – since the effect on society is as profound and as destructive. He indicated that inter-State investigative units to assist in ensuring accountability for such crimes should be explored, in particular by increasing capacity to collect forensic and witness evidence. Such international assistance would be helpful not only in Russia but also in Ukraine, Shvedov added.

Prima Quinsayas stressed that, for the Philippines, international pressure plays a key role in pushing the government to redouble its efforts to end impunity – and the more that can be done in this regard, through the adoption of resolutions of the Human Rights Council and the strengthening of other mechanisms, the more it will have an impact on the ground.

In his closing comments, Guy Berger stressed that at the UN level, the negotiation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should recognise freedom of expression as central to development and essential to accountability. In this, the safety of journalists was critical for the rule of law, peace and governance. The coming months will be critical for this as negotiations of the SDGs are finalised. Ending impunity was key to the draft SDG 16 which focuses upon ending violence in general, said Berger.

In closing the event, Andrew Smith, Legal Officer at ARTICLE 19 and chair of the panel discussion, stressed that "the Human Rights Council must be unequivocal in its call on States to end impunity for attacks on journalists. Condemnation is needed but by itself is not enough. There must be a commitment to implement specific measures to begin turning the tide against violence to protect freedom of expression, so that all people can engage in journalism without fear for their lives."

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