Don’t Shoot the Messenger – The Safety of Journalists under Threat Worldwide
By: Michael Spindelegger, Vice-Chancellor & Foreign Minister of the Republic of Austria Alison Bethel McKenzie, Executive Director, The International Press Institute (IPI)
"I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts."
Chilling – and yet inspiring - words from an editorial written by Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge just a few days before he was murdered in 2009 by two motorcycle gunmen in the midst of morning rush-hour traffic in downtown Colombo.
The editorial, in which Wickrematunge predicted his own killing, was published posthumously, and in its startling poignancy sent a shockwave around the world.
"In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry," he wrote. "But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too."
Defiant, stoic resignation to the tragic fact that in many countries, the killers of journalists are almost never brought to justice.
According to the International Press Institute’s Death Watch figures, over 90 journalists have been killed so far this year. That’s one every few days. Since 2000, more than 900 journalists have died because of their work. The killers of journalists are almost never brought to justice. This has created a climate of impunity in which - from the perspective of the killers - the murder of journalists is trivial, an act that can be repeated again and again with no fear of arrest or conviction.
Those who kill and physically assault journalists, or arbitrarily send them to prison, have one goal: to silence the messenger and intimidate other journalists. They seek to ruthlessly censor and promote self-censorship. They constitute the world’s gravest threat to press freedom.
The safety of journalists is a fundamental pillar of the universal, inalienable right to press freedom, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates the right of people everywhere to receive and transmit information.
When fear prompts journalists to self-censor, the free flow of information is impaired. Citizens are deprived of information. Accountability – in both the public and private sectors – is undermined. And democracy is threatened.
In the absence of critical, independent information, it is disinformation, propaganda and incitement which prevail. It is therefore the duty of everyone – not just journalists and civil society actors, but especially governments – to abide by international commitments, to respect the fundamental right to press freedom in action and not just in words, and to participate in a global effort to promote and ensure the safety of journalists.
Of course, editors and publishers must do their part, by ensuring that journalists who report in dangerous environments are properly trained and equipped. But helmets, flak jackets and safety training courses alone do not make reporting safe.
The approach must be more comprehensive: It must bring together news organisations, civil society groups, governments and international organisations. More needs to be done to ensure that pressure is brought to bear on governments failing to live up to their human rights obligations under international law. We must generate an across-the-board willingness to engage, to put values above vested interests, and – where necessary – to overcome ingrained patterns of intimidation or violence.
Governments must devote more efforts to bringing to justice the killers of journalists, and preventing assaults against the press. Violations need to be effectively investigated and perpetrators held accountable: Governments have to muster the necessary political will, but also ensure a functioning rule of law, an independent judiciary, and properly-trained, professional security forces sensitised to the rights and roles of the media.
International organisations must assist the international community in remaining vigilant, in asking for accountability and in promoting the development and exchange of best practices at the national, regional and international level.
Civil society must raise awareness and must embrace an authoritative visionary message that welcomes positive government initiatives and engagement and denounces contempt for a free media.
And journalists must monitor government measures to ‘protect’ journalists so those measures do not infringe on freedom of the press, while at the same time living up to, on a voluntary, non-statutory basis, the highest ethical values of the profession.
We have a long way to go.
International human rights watchdogs, such as the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the United Nations, have regularly pointed to the broad gap between existing international law and its actual implementation. Furthermore, there has been a notable lack of focus on the safety of journalists outside narrowly-defined conflict zones. We have to step up efforts to close this gap and to strengthen the protection framework for journalists.
That is why the Austrian government, with the support of IPI, is seeking to address safety of journalists at the United Nations Human Rights Council – to which Austria was elected recently. We want to focus on eradicating impunity and on preventing future attacks.
As a first step, on 23 November a group of experts including government representatives, civil society stakeholders and international organisations, will meet in Vienna upon our joint initiative to discuss concrete means of bolstering the safety of journalists around the world, especially through the United Nations and other international organizations.
The date we have chosen for this gathering is a significant one: On 23 November 2009, 32 journalists were slaughtered on their way to a political event in the Maguindanao province of the Philippines. A further 25 men and women, travelling in convoy with the journalists, were killed in the attack. Never before had so many journalists been murdered in a single violent incident. Since then, 23 November has been named ‘The International Day to End Impunity’.
The results of the Vienna meeting will be introduced into a series of activities in the framework of the Human Rights Council as the supreme human rights body of the United Nations. Our ultimate objective is to achieve a substantial resolution by the Council with a view to placing protection of journalists firmly on the international agenda.
We are fully aware of the challenges, and the uphill road ahead. But we – governments and media representatives – owe our commitment to journalists under threat everywhere, to the courageous defiance and noble legacy of those media workers who have paid the ultimate price in the pursuit of their job, and to the citizens on every continent who have a fundamental right to know.