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Journalists’ safety: a vital humanitarian concern

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When a journalist is killed in the line of duty, society as a whole is under threat. These deaths not only silence the journalist but also intimidate others into self-censorship. In this sense, freedom of expression (and with that, access to information) is a ‘meta right’ — a right on which the realization of many other rights depend. It is a cornerstone of democracy, good governance, accountability and society’s ability to make informed decisions.

During times of conflict, violent political unrest or natural disaster, the lives of journalists deserve special protection, not only because they perform heroic acts in the face of danger — although that is often the case — but due to the important social role they play. The alternative is a world driven by ignorance, rumour and ungrounded assumptions.

But journalism is a heavily contested domain and media professionals often find themselves in vulnerable positions, under threat from states and non-state actors alike. During the last two decades, around 1,000 journalists have been killed in the line of duty with a large number of deaths in just the last year.

While the tragic deaths of foreign correspondents caught in the crossfire often make headlines, two-thirds of journalists are killed outside armed conflict. The majority are freelancers, working for a local newspaper or radio. The greatest peril is murder, not accidents, and a large percentage of journalists who are killed have received threats. Murder is the most extreme form of censorship and, in countries where the risks are highest, there is a pattern of impunity.

Murder is the most extreme form of censorship and, in countries where the risks are highest,
there is a pattern of impunity.

One way to reduce the danger is to ‘elevate the issue’ — to take it from the local to higher levels. National leaders should, for example, strongly condemn killings of journalists. Investigation and prosecution could occur at the national as opposed to the local level (thus making political interference less likely). Local journalists must link with their international colleagues, and journalistic organizations and civil society groups could demand greater attention from regional and international bodies provided under international human rights law.

How to protect journalists?

Is it time for a new inter-national treaty? Or just better compliance with the laws already on the books? Read different points of view at:
www.redcross.int/journalists

Do we need a new treaty to protect journalists? In my view the current international legal framework is probably adequate in terms of the norms that it recognizes. The challenge lies in implementing the laws that already exist. Declarations or other similar instruments at United Nations and regional levels may help to elevate the issue and increase global awareness.

Humanitarian organizations also play an important role. The ICRC’s hotline for journalists — along with training in safety, first aid and humanitarian law provided by the ICRC and National Societies — are good examples of what humanitarian organizations can do. But humanitarian actors can do more by advocating for the role of journalists in natural disasters and armed violence to ensure transparency, accountability and public awareness.

States and society at large should not merely be told that journalists need protection. They need to better appreciate the media’s role in situations of catastrophe and conflict so that we all can better understand our world, help prevent conflict, diminish the impact of natural disasters and make informed decisions — especially when the stakes are so high.

By Christof Heyns
Christof Heyns is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. He is also a professor of law and co-director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. To read his full report to the UN Human Rights Council on the protection of journalists, please see A/HRC/20/22 on www.ohchr.org.

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