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The safety of journalist as a pre-condition to strengthening peace and development worldwide

The UN Human Rights Committee stated in 2011 that freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person. They are essential for any society. They constitute the foundation stone for every free and democratic society. A free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society to ensure these freedoms. However, the right to freedom of expression may be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others and the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals. 

Consequently, any restrictions on the operation of websites, blogs or any other internet-based, electronic or other such information dissemination system, including systems to support such communication, such as internet service providers or search engines, are only permissible to the extent that they are compatible with this restriction contemplated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In the last ten years more than 600 journalists, media workers and bloggers have been killed in the world, a dramatic increase compared to previous years. However, the number of media professionals, who suffer non-fatal attacks, which means, being wounded, raped, abducted, harassed, intimidated, or illegally arrested, is really high. This problem dramatically increases when the perpetrators of these crimes are never brought to justice and impunity prevails.
Journalists, media professionals and associated personnel can play an important role in protection of civilians and conflict prevention by acting as an early warning mechanism in identifying and reporting potential situations that could result in genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Education and training in international humanitarian law can play an important role in supporting efforts to halt and prevent attacks against civilians affected by armed conflict, including journalists, media professionals and associated personnel. 

The 31st Conference of the International Committee of the Red Cross of 2011 concluded that States and components of the Movement recognize that the work of journalists, other media professionals and associated personnel may make an important contribution to the public knowledge about and the recording of information on violations of international humanitarian law. Consequently, the Conference reaffirm that journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict are civilians and shall not be the object of attacks, unless and for such time as they are directly participating in hostilities. 

On 12 April 2012, the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination adopted the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, in which United Nations agencies, funds and programmes were invited to work with Member States towards a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers in both conflict and non-conflict situations, with a view to strengthening peace, democracy and development worldwide. 

On 10 February 2016, the General Assembly adopted resolution 70/162 on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, by which calls upon States to cooperate with relevant United Nations entities, in particular the UNESCO, as well as international and regional human rights mechanisms, including the relevant special procedures of the Human Rights Council (HRC), and to share information on a voluntary basis on the status of investigations into attacks and violence against journalists. 

In the fight against impunity for attacks and violence against journalists, all relevant reports of the special procedures of the HRC with regard to the safety of journalists, as well as the reports of the Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on freedom of assembly and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. 

In September 2016, the HRC adopted a resolution on safety of journalist by which requests the OHCHR to prepare a report with an overview of available mechanism concerned with ensuring the safety of journalists, including the existing international and regional monitoring and complaint mechanism, with a view to providing an analysis of their effectiveness, in consultation with States, the mechanism themselves, and all other relevant stakeholders.

The General Assembly has repeatedly invited the relevant agencies, organizations, funds and programmes of the United Nations system to actively exchange information, including through already identified focal points, about the implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, in cooperation with Member States and under the overall coordination of the UNESCO. 

In accordance with the decision taken by the 29th International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) Council session of UNESCO on 20-21 November 2014, all Member States should include freedom of expression and its corollary press freedom in the post-2015 sustainable development goals, in particular the safety of journalists and issue of impunity as a key gateway to achieving Goal 16 which seeks to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development and access to justice for all through achieving a reduction in violence and crime. 

Among all decisions taken by the UNESCO Executive Board at its 196th session held in Paris on 22 May 2015 highlights one about safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, in which the Board requests the Director-General to reinforce UNESCO’s lead role in coordinating the implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity in cooperation with Member States by strengthening the coordinated inter-agency mechanism among United Nations agencies established under the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity and promoting the use of the information in the research report World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development by other United Nations agencies, in particular during the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council.

In context of the current discussion on the safety of journalist taking place within the Human Rights Council in its 33rd session, the Permanent Missions of Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar, UNESCO and Article 19 organized a side event entitled “Safety of Journalists, Human Rights and Sustainable Development” on 23 September 2016 at the Palais Des Nations in Geneva.

Mr. Frank La Rue, UNESCO Assistant Director General for Communication and Information, said there had been very important steps and improvement for safety of journalists. In fact, there were many cases reported but the reality was more worsen such as physical attacks to journalists and the dramatic increase of sexual harassment to the women journalists. He stated, in this regard, the issues of human rights defenders were very relevant and crucial matter to consider. Also, in the fundamental perspective, true democracy could not be achieved without the real participation of civil society, and sustainable development could only be achieved based on the full access to information for everyone. Therefore it was significant to investigate the situation when there was harassment or violation against journalists. He noted that the UNESCO proposed and promoted the agenda on safety of journalists and it was an obligation for every state to have their own mechanism. Furthermore, he addressed, to consider the human rights defenders and safety of journalists together, we needed four elements: legal framework, capacity building for journalism through the concrete policy, immediate procedures for saving life, full investigation in case of the threatened situation as a question of human rights.

Additionally, Ms. Peggy Hicks, Director of Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division at OHCHR, stressed that OHCHR worked closely with the UNESCO and the ILO to make sure the information could be accessible to everyone and there should not be violation to the journalists, based on the collected sources and indicators. However, she emphasized that the results from the indicators and data covered very limited parts of the reality, and therefore, we still needed to look over lots of harassment and violation outside the picture. The OHCHR put efforts to improve the issues on it with the field presence, report monitoring mechanisms, human rights in peace operations covering safety of journalists, support in the case of violation and attacks to the journalists and media workers. 

To conclude, it should also be noted that the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) +10 High Level Outcome Documents of 2014 concluded that media will benefit from the broader and expanded role of Information and communications technology (ICTs) that can enhance media’s contribution to fulfilling the post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. Consequently, the right of freedom of expression, as described in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is essential for media’s role in information and knowledge societies.

David Fernandez Puyana, PhD, LLM and MA