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By Rodney Pinder, Director
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
In December 2006, the UN Security Council, to considerable acclaim from journalists around the world - and some scepticism - unanimously passed Resolution 1738 on the safety of journalists in conflict and impunity.
It strongly condemned acts of violence against journalists, media professionals and associated personnel in armed conflicts and called on all parties to put an end to such practices.
It demanded all parties to armed conflict comply with their obligations under international law to protect civilians, emphasised the responsibility of States in that regard and reminded them of their obligation to end impunity and to prosecute those responsible for serious violations.
This followed years of campaigning against violence and impunity by UNESCO and marked the highest-level political declaration against violence visited upon journalists.
Five years on, it may be harsh to say the resolution has failed in its purpose of reducing news media casualties and bringing an end to impunity. But the facts thus far are not encouraging.
Since the Resolution was passed, INSI has recorded 580more deaths of journalists and support staff -- and counting, 2011 will be a bad year -- the great majority murdered in their own countries as they worked to uncover crime, corruption and low-intensity conflict. Between 1996 and 2006 INSI recorded 1,000 deaths.
In the past 15 years the global rate of impunity has also remained constant at around 80-90 percent. That means only 1 or 2 out of every 10 killers of journalists are ever brought to justice. This of course only encourages more of the same - in too many countries, murder has become a cheap and relatively risk-free way to get rid of a troublesome reporter and intimidate their colleagues into silence.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the top 13 countries where killers get away with the murder of journalists are Iraq, Somalia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Afghanistan, Nepal, Mexico, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil and India.
It is troubling to note the presence of democracies, not at war, on that list.
Impunity, of course, is a key indicator in assessing levels of press freedom and free expression in nations worldwide. INSI concurs with CPJ research that shows that deadly, unpunished violence against journalists often leads to self-censorship in the rest of the press corps. From Somalia to Mexico, journalists avoid sensitive topics, leave the profession, or flee their homeland to escape violent retribution.
As a safety organization, INSI is most concerned with physical attacks on journalists. That is why we worked so hard with our members, the International Federation of Journalists and the European Broadcasting Union, to draft R1738 and push it through the United Nations.
Unfortunately, there may be a loophole in the resolution that has reduced its effectiveness. It refers to the safety of journalists in conflict which may allow some parties to dismiss its relevance unless in case of all-out war. Armed conflict however arises in peacetime between societies and criminals. Journalists are killed as they try to shine the light of truth into the darkest recesses of their societies.
So we would argue 1738 must embrace all manner of conflict, from international war to low-intensity insurgency, to drug wars and other civil conflicts. In this context, the definition of conflict must be addressed at its highest and widest.
Governments are primarily responsible for the safety of all of their citizens, including those in the news media. They have a responsibility to protect those citizens, pursue their killers and ensure freedom of expression, which is a basic right for all under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
States must apply their laws against murder equally to all of their citizens and end the culture of impunity that so often protects the murderers of journalists.
The worst-ever single slaughter of journalists took place in the Philippines in 2009 when 31 journalists covering an election were ambushed and slain. This was officially peacetime in a democracy - albeit one that has been a graveyard for journalists over several years.
Two more recent incidents have cause additional concern.
On 30 July, NATO warplanes attacked the Tripoli headquarters of the Libya state broadcaster Al-Jamahiriya, reportedly killing 3 journalists and wounding 21. NATO - operating under a Security Council mandate to protect civilians - tried to justify this attack on a civilian target by saying Colonel Gaddafi has used state TV as a means to foment violence against the Libyan people.
The day before, Israeli soldiers opened fire with riot-control weapons on a group of around 10 news photographers covering a Palestinian demonstration in the West Bank village Nabi Saleh.
Even some democracies, it seems, feel justified in attacking civilians - and journalists happen to be civilians - when it suits them. So much for free speech. So much for Resolution 1738 in the eyes of some members of the very same Security Council that passed it unanimously.
INSI has drawn these two incidents to the attention of the UN Secretary-General and the government of Israel with the request they be investigated and reported upon. UNESCO has weighed in with its own condemnation of the NATO action. But what will result? NATO, after all, has been here before. It was condemned by an International Criminal Court commission of inquiry for bombing Serbian television headquarters in 1999 on similar grounds.
Quite clearly, R1738 needs teeth. How they are implanted hopefully will be discussed at this conference. INSI has some suggestions.
The Secretary-General has a mandate under R1738 to report on the safety and security of journalists and other news personnel. We would like to see this report -- last year only one paragraph in the SG’s 32-paragraph report on civilian deaths in conflict -- expanded and given more prominence. Offending countries should be “named and shamed” and major attacks on journalists listed as elsewhere in his report.
A comprehensive account of a year’s incidents is supplied to the SG by INSI and the issue merits more than a passing reference in the final report. If the SG’s report relegates journalist casualties to a footnote then UN members are not going to pay the issue much attention either.
The Secretary-General said in his 2010 report that he would encourage the Human Rights Council to consider positively the recommendation of the former and current Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression to study the issue and develop proposals for strengthened protection. Has this been actioned?
We would also like to see an annual meeting, held under UN auspices, of all journalist support groups concerned with safety and impunity to review the current situation globally and to help inform the UNSG before he makes his report.
UN agencies must also consider whether their media development money is being put to best use. Rarely are there any provisions in media development programmes for safety training for journalists. The projects train young men and women to be good journalists but do not show them how to survive the story. It is time to take steps to include safety in all these programmes.
On a broader front, donor countries should consider a nation’s record on impunity and the safety of journalists when considering granting aid.
Freedom of the press and free expression are not possible where journalists face extreme violence for doing their job. And without freedom of expression, corruption flourishes, healthy development cannot happen and aid money is diverted from its proper use.
We take heart from the fact that this conference has taken place. This is a long-awaited development of considerable potential significance.
The conference must not disperse without deciding on an effective plan of action to ensure the safety of journalists around the world in conflict and in peace.