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UN HRC: Two Special Rapporteurs both call for those who violate journalists' rights to be held accountable

Publisher Article 19
Publication Date 19 June 2012
Cite as Article 19, UN HRC: Two Special Rapporteurs both call for those who violate journalists' rights to be held accountable, 19 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fe2c5dc2.html [accessed 21 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the unusual event of two reports concentrating on the same issue being presented at the twentieth session of the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday 19 June 2012.

The reports, by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, both focus on the issue of impunity for violations of journalists' human rights. 

Both reports urge relevant state and non-state actors to secure journalists' rights by implementing international human rights law and monitoring this implementation. ARTICLE 19 strongly endorses the Special Rapporteurs' recommendations and hopes they signal the start of more concerted global efforts to protect journalists. 

It is unusual for two Special Rapporteurs to focus on one particular issue. Each has done so from the perspective of their particular mandate: 

  • The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (SRESA), Christoph Heyns, has investigated the mechanisms in place to provide greater protection to the right to life of journalists
  • The Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression (SRFOE), Frank la Rue, has focused on the protection of journalists and media freedom, particularly in situations which do not involve armed conflict.

The overlap of the reports' content suggests that they are intended to be mutually supportive. This impression is reinforced by the fact that both documents are being presented on the same day of the current session of the Human Rights Council. It also shows how urgently the protection of journalists worldwide needs to be addressed.

The two reports should spur the international community to:

  • take a more comprehensive look at the current shortfalls in the protection of journalists' rights
  • take positive steps to implement the Special Rapporteurs' recommendations for addressing these problems.

ARTICLE 19 welcomes both reports and hopes they will lead to states improving how they respond to violations of journalists' rights: to date, these have been grossly inadequate.

ARTICLE 19 draws particular attention to the following features of the reports:

  1. The particularly important role that journalists play in society. Both reports recognise this and the reason why attacks on journalists' rights undermine freedom in general. As the SRESA states, the killing of a journalist: "silences the voice of the particular journalist, but also intimidates other journalists and the public in general. The free flow of ideas and information is replaced by the silent warning of the grave" (SRESA report para 21). He goes on to state: "journalists deserve special concern not primarily because they perform heroic acts in the face of danger – although that is often the case – but because the social role they play is so important (SRESA report para 24).
  2. The continuing high levels of impunity for violations and the disturbing increase in the number of killings and attacks against journalists. Both reports highlight these. For example: 
    1. The SRESA notes that since 1992, 909 journalists have been killed, 566 of them with total impunity (SRESA report para 30)
    2. The SRFOE notes the increase in violence against journalists, particularly during street protests and demonstrations, in many states including Belarus, Egypt, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, Syria and Tunisia (SRFOE para 50). As the SRESA highlights: "the most extreme form of censorship is to kill a journalist" (para 20, SRESA report)
    3. The SRFOE also expresses deep concern about the killing of Mexican social media journalist, Maria Elizabeth Marcias Castro, as well as the harassment of online journalists and bloggers (SRFOE report, para 62). He considers that the level of impunity is "one if not the main cause of the unacceptably high number of journalists killed or attacked every year" and "generates more violence in a vicious cycle" (SRFOE report, para 65).
  3. The way that challenges to journalists undertaking their professional work have the effect of silencing or censoring them. While both Special Rapporteurs have particular focuses, both of their reports appear to be motivated by broader concerns about the challenges journalists face now. 

    As well as killings and physical assaults that may endanger life, journalists also face other challenges: "restrictions to movement, including deportations and denial of access into a country or a particular area; arbitrary arrests and detention, particularly during public crises or demonstrations; torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including sexual violence against female journalists; confiscation of and damages to equipment, information theft, illegal surveillance and office break-ins; intimidation, including summons to police stations for questioning, harassment of family members, death threats, stigmatization and smear campaigns to discredit journalists; abductions or enforced disappearance to killings" (SRFOE report, para 48).

    The SRFOE's report also highlights the particular vulnerability of female journalists to abuses such as sexual assault or violence, detention and captivity (SRFOE report para 52).
  4. The most immediate problem being the lack of implementation of the international framework for protecting journalists' rights, rather than any gaps in the framework. This is emphasised particularly by the SRESA's report, which highlights various mechanisms that exist to protect journalists from attack and to ensure accountability where this fails. He highlights:
    1. states' "due diligence obligations" to prevent, punish, investigate and redress threats to and violations of the right to life (SRESA report, para 43)
    2. a proliferation of norms and initiatives which relate to the protection of journalists.

      In addition to the existing international treaties on international human rights and international humanitarian law, the following norms and mechanisms are relevant:

      - the Principles on Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions
      - jurisprudence of regional courts
      - the reports of the Special Procedures on the safety of journalists
      - intergovernmental initiatives on the protection of journalists from violence (e.g. the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe)
      - national law
      - additional mechanisms and methods of non-state actors, including NGOS and notably ARTICLE 19, on the safety of journalists in their work.
  5. Journalists' and media organisations' responsibility to "take precautionary safety measures to ensure their own protection". This is emphasised in the SRFOE's report, which also recommends tht they adhere to global standards of professionalism such as the Declaration of Principles of Conduct of Journalists (SRFOE report, para 60).
  6. The criminalisation of various forms of expression. The SRFOE's report looks beyond attacks against journalists to reflect his particular and deep concern about this issue. He notes that the current total of journalists imprisoned worldwide is at its highest since 1996, with 179 journalists reportedly behind bars, about half of whom are online journalists. His report draws attention to the existence and use of criminal laws which are used against journalists. These include laws on treason, subversion, terrorism, criminal defamation and ethnic or religious insult  and have a "chilling effect" which "stifles reporting on matters of public interest" (SRFOE, para 79). 
  7. Advocates a comprehensive understanding of who is a journalist, which recognises citizen or online journalists as journalists who therefore deserve a journalists' protections. The SRESA's report embraces Council of Europe Recommendation No 3 (2000) 7 (adopted on 8 March 2000), taking the term "journalist" to mean "any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of communication" (SRESA report, para 26). This definition means that a journalist does not need to demonstrate that he or she is a member of a professional association or union in order to practice journalism.

    The SRFOE reiterates previous assertions that freedom of expression should be fully guaranteed with online as well as offline content. Any limitations placed on this right online should conform to the criteria listed in Article 19 paragraph 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (SRFOE report, para 61-64). 

ARTICLE 19 strongly endorses the specific recommendations which are directed at states, civil society, the UN and regional actors.

We draw particular attention to the following recommendations aimed at states. States should: 

  • Ensure the unequivocal legal and practical protection of journalists' freedom of expression
  • Ensure clear and effective safeguards to prevent physical threats against journalists and to ensure accountability
  • Conduct prompt and exhaustive investigations into violations of journalists' right to life, identifying and bringing to justice those responsible
  • Take special measures, such as establishing commissions of inquiry, to address patterns of killings of journalists
  • Promote the judiciary's, journalists' and civil society's awareness of relevant international human rights standards and demonstrate a willingness to work towards implementing those standards
  • Ensure that law enforcement officials and the armed forces receive training, as part of standard procedure, on the legitimate presence of journalists during non-armed and armed conflict and on their legal protection
  • Strengthen their systems for gathering information and data on killings and threats and analyse the trends and developments, in a gender sensitive way
  • Publicly condemn at the highest political level all forms and incidents of violence against journalists
  • Sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance
  • Fully cooperate with UNESCO, in particular with the preparation of the bi-annual Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity/em>
  • Strengthen their cooperation with the special procedures of the Human Rights Council and regional human rights mechanisms and respond to their communications in a timely manner
  • Give full political support to strengthening media freedom and ensuring that independent, pluralistic and diverse media can flourish
  • Decriminalise defamation in states where criminal defamation laws still exist and ensure that financial sanctions in civil defamation laws are strictly proportionate to the harm caused
  • Only classify data which are proven to cause direct harm to national security and other vital interests of the state
  • Ensure that journalists working both on- and offline are free to use diverse sources of information, including those who do not wish to be identified. Journalists should only be obliged to reveal their sources in certain exceptional cases.

ARTICLE 19 notes that the Special Rapporteurs' specific recommendations echo those contained in an ARTICLE 19 Central America report that can be read here and here.

Copyright notice: Copyright ARTICLE 19

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