Photo: Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Secretary General for Foreign Affairs. (BMEIA). Credit: BMEIA/Grube - Photo: 2022

An Attack on Journalists is an Attack on Democracy, Emphasises a UN Conference

A Special Report by Aurora Weiss

VIENNA (IDN) — United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs (BMEIA) joined in early November to mark the 10th anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists at a high-level conference entitled “Safety of Journalists: Protecting media to protect democracy”.

The conference brought together more than 400 participants, including Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Media, key stakeholders from international organisations, civil society and academia.

Ahead of the conference, UNESCO organised regional and thematic consultations in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America and the Arab Region. Building on the findings of these consultations, selected representatives of the stakeholders, especially of civil society organisations (CSOs), academia, journalists and students, gathered in Vienna on November 3 for a Pre-Conference to develop concrete recommendations for improving the implementation of the UN Plan of Action.

This year, by November 1, 76 journalists have already lost their lives because of their job, 10 of them while working to cover the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. Between 2006 and 2021, more than 1,200 journalists were killed, with those responsible going unpunished in approximately 86 per cent of cases.

The conference adopted a political declaration reaffirming the commitment of the signatories to enhance the protection of journalists and strengthen media freedom. As of November 4, 53 countries had expressed their support for this declaration. It remains open for support by states.

Furthermore, 37 states, international organisations and civil society organisations delivered concrete pledges in support of media freedom and the safety of journalists. 28 Ministers and Deputy Ministers expressed their personal commitment either in person or through video messages.

The importance of the November 3-4 gathering in Vienna is better understood by recalling that in June 2017, the UN convened a global consultation to strengthen the implementation of its “Plan of Action”, at which CSOs identified impunity for the murder of journalists as the priority challenge for States and other stakeholders to tackle in the years ahead.

Though some progress has been achieved, observers are of the view that the international community has, as a whole, failed to come up with a necessary response, as indicated by the fact that the percentage of cases where both the perpetrator and the mastermind behind the murder of a journalist were caught in the last 30 years stands at 5 per cent.

At the early November conference in Vienna, several human rights activists said that institutions such as law enforcement, police, secret services, and the justice system are unreliable partners. At the same time, they stressed the need to work together with these structures for the protection and security of journalists. Cooperation with the legal system also plays a key role because 90 per cent of crimes against journalists remain unprosecuted. Investigators and lawyers, as well as judges, do not take motives into account: What stories was the journalist working on at the time of the attack? What stories did the journalist work on before?

It was also pointed out that education, specialization, and sensibilization of these structures are of particular importance. In the case of police involvement and involvement of any other government employee in an attack on journalists, an independent body should be established, and the investigation must be carried out independently.

Of crucial importance is the need to keep in mind that various criminal groups have an influence on political and legal structures as well as law enforcement, which can often result in the falsification of evidence, witness suppression, or investigation obstruction, as well as influence on the outcome of the verdict itself. Prosecutors and justices have also been used by political leaders and other individuals in power as a tool for targeted persecution of journalists with the aim of discrediting their work, especially with foreign correspondents.

The conference also discussed the evacuation protocol and how to evacuate a journalist from one country to another overnight, changing identities, financial support, subsequent evacuation of family members, and reintegration into the host country.

Unfortunately, the protection mechanisms offered by governments as a solution are not functional. For example, the Dutch government talked about the fact that to start the process, it is necessary to apply and wait for the results of the tender. Although the project “Shelter City” is amazing, it is, unfortunately, not an option for journalists whose lives and safety are threatened. In such cases, immediate action is required within 48 hours to prevent fatal consequences. Living in fear and under constant threats causes extreme ramifications for the journalistic profession, such as self-censorship, financial loss, long-term psychological damage and even loss of life.

Various NGOs collect financial funds and gain profit from their projects, which also motivated many organizations to visit this conference. However, when they need to provide their services, concrete reactions are largely absent. This is witnessed by a multitude of media workers.

Therefore, it was agreed that we cannot only blame government organizations when it comes to the frightening statistics regarding attacks on journalists with impunity. Here, symbiosis and concrete action of everyone taking financial profit for this work is of absolute importance. Moreover, the results of financed projects intended for the safety of journalists must be inspected and controlled.

Foreign correspondents are at high risk, yet politicians often declare them a threat to national security.

In an ever-more interdependent world, people need knowledge and understanding of what is happening beyond their borders. Journalism produced for external audiences helps fulfil this need. What is called “foreign correspondence” seeks to provide professionally verified news and informed analysis that answers questions on the minds of domestic audiences and raises their awareness of key external developments.

The journalists who produce this special content can be vital for humanity to act on common interests in, for example, solidarity over natural disasters, climate change mitigation, ensuring global vaccinations against new viruses, managing population migration, and addressing issues of war and peace as key witnesses to world-changing events.

Unfortunately, today it is all too common that many—foreign correspondents included—are forced to live in fear of violent attack, abduction, or arbitrary arrest and mistreatment due to their professional activities. Women journalists are especially vulnerable to vicious and misogynistic harassment, sexual attacks, and threats, even in democratic countries like Austria, which hosted the conference.

Numerous studies show that self-censorship among journalists has become a serious barrier to free expression and the freedom of media. When intimidation and reprisal become “normal” anywhere, the chilling effect is also felt by those working as foreign correspondents. Whether host-country nationals serving as foreign correspondents or those who do the job as foreign nationals, they may all face serious risks from state or non-state actors.

Some political leaders have sought to discredit and delegitimize both journalists from abroad and locals working as foreign correspondents by branding them as threats to state security or spreaders of false information.

According to the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), as of October 28, 2020, more than 1700 journalists had been killed as a result of their professional activities since the year 2000, with 39 journalists having been killed worldwide in 2020 alone (2019: 48, 2018: 79).

The number of actual victims is presumably many times higher, as is the number of those attacked or threatened for their work. The increase in targeted killings against representatives of the critical media is particularly alarming. At the same time, the number of resolved cases is appallingly low—around 90 per cent of reported cases are never resolved as perpetrators act in a climate of zero repercussions.

The safety of journalists is a requirement for the realization of a universal, inalienable right to freedom of expression and of the media, as stipulated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

States have a clear responsibility to protect journalists by ensuring safe working conditions. Unfortunately, this responsibility is being neglected far too often. Only a comprehensive approach that includes media organisations, civil society representatives, States and International Organisations, as well as journalists and media workers, can result in the effective protection of journalists, knowledgeable sources say.

A special emphasis is put on the protection of female journalists, who are increasingly targeted—above all online—and attacked as a journalist as well as for being a woman. In 2021, the percentage of women among all journalists killed almost doubled, rising to 11 per cent from 6 per cent the previous year. Available data as of September 30, 2022, shows again that 11 per cent of killings so far have been women journalists.

The data also shows that there is no safe space for journalists. Of the 117 journalists killed in 2020-2021, 78 per cent, or 91 journalists, were killed while away from their offices. Most killings occurred outside their newsrooms but were likely in connection with their profession. Some journalists were murdered in the street or in their vehicles, and some were kidnapped to be then found dead. Several were killed in front of family members, including their children.

It is not enough to condemn the perpetrators of crimes against journalists but also the masterminds beyond them.

< Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic (left) and our correspondent Dr Aurora Weiss.

We talked to Dunja Mijatovic, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, who pointed out that it is very important to insist that investigations be carried out not only to bring the perpetrators to justice but also those who ordered the monstrous attacks on journalists. During her current work as Commissioner for Human Rights and also previously as OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, she has witnessed how journalists and other media actors are threatened across Europe and beyond that continent first-hand.

Ms Mijatovic said 13 journalists have been killed while exercising their professional duty this year in Europe, mostly while covering the war in Ukraine. Six more were killed last year, including in EU countries. This adds up to more than 150 journalists killed in Europe in the past 30 years. This means that an average of one journalist is killed every two months on European soil. The picture at the global level is even more horrific. While some were killed covering conflicts, many others have been killed because they were trying to bring criminal activities under public scrutiny.

She mentioned the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia from Malta, on which she worked during her mandate in the OSCE as a Representative on Freedom of the Media and as Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in 2018. Daphne’s professional life was a testimony of many difficulties journalists are facing—violence, harassment, denigration—aggravated by the gender dimension. But Daphne made a choice to speak out to defend truth and justice. She chose to think and act with independence in the interest of the public good. This selfless devotion is the trademark of her life. And she was killed for that.

Ms Mijatovic said: “I started working on that case somewhere near the end of my mandate at the OSC, in February 2017. That’s when I got the information that she was under a lot of pressure, as was her family, and that a lot of lawsuits had been filed against her. They also blocked Daphne’s account, in which she had 50,000 euros. It was a matter of pressure from members of the government at that time.”

She addressed them with a letter and a press release, asking for her safety and for an end to such forms of pressure on her”, remembered Ms Mijatovic the case of an investigative journalist that was reporting on government corruption, nepotism, patronage, allegations of money laundering, links between Malta’s online gambling industry and organized crime, Malta’s citizenship-by-investment scheme, and payments from the government of Azerbaijan.

In March 2018, the Commissioner for Human Rights overtook the case that her predecessor Nils Muižnieks in the Council of Europe, was working on. In the meantime, Daphne’s case had become something very important for the freedom of media, for the fight against impunity and the fact that it is one of the murders of journalists that have occurred in recent years in an EU member state, she said.

For decades, the soil of the European Union was the soil on which journalists could work freely; of course, there were incidents. Murders such as those of Daphne or investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner in Slovakia, Lyra McKee in Northern Ireland, Dutch investigative journalist and crime reporter Peter R. de Vries and everything that happened afterwards created a completely new atmosphere.

During her visit to Malta, Ms Mijatovic spoke with the Prime Minister and went to visit the place where Daphne was killed. She also met her family. Before that, Commissioner Mijatovic sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Malta, where I was dealing with the commission organized to carry out justice and further investigate the case. We know that the two hitmen responsible for Daphne’s murder were sentenced to almost 40 years in prison. This is something to be welcomed; however, it is still unknown who the mastermind that ordered and organized this assassination is.

“I will continue to work on this with my team. The response to the letter from the Prime Minister of Malta Robert Abela is available to the public. This is one case; however, it is not the only one. Thorough investigation and the fight against impunity are of utmost importance for these cases.”

Mijatovic insists that the punishment of the masterminds in this abject crime while shedding the full light on the motives and institutional responsibility which made it possible is crucial.

A public inquiry into the assassination of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia has found the state responsible for her death. The report said the state had failed to recognise risks to the reporter’s life and take reasonable steps to avoid them, “creating an atmosphere of impunity, generated by the highest echelons”.

Female journalists face increasing dangers, highlighting the need for a gender-sensitive approach. In carrying out their professional duties, they often risk sexual assault, whether in the form of a targeted sexual violation, often in reprisal for their work, mob-related sexual violence aimed against journalists covering public events, or the sexual abuse of journalists in detention or captivity. Furthermore, many of these crimes are not reported as a result of powerful cultural and professional stigmas.

Crimes against journalists are always surrounded by corruption and power, and when there is sexual harassment or violence, the chances of reaching the trial phase get slimmer with each action or piece of evidence, stressed Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima during the conference in Vienna.

After waiting at the door of La Modelo prison in Bogotá to interview a paramilitary leader, she was tortured and raped by three men who kidnapped her. She was lured into a trap. The idea that being a journalist could cost her life: wasn’t on the radar. Despite a first attack the year before, and constant threats in the days leading to this attack, she never believed the criminals would be so daring. Jineth Bedoya Lima said that until that day, she was the daring one, continuing to denounce the network of arms trade and the trafficking of kidnapped persons orchestrated by paramilitaries, guerrilla fighters and members of the Colombian security forces.

In 2000, 26-year-old journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima was investigating a story on arms trafficking by both state officials and the far-right paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. She visited La Modelo prison in Bogota, where she had been promised an interview with a paramilitary leader known as “The Baker”. She brought along an editor and photographer from El Espectador’s staff, but when the pair were separated from her for a moment while awaiting clearance to go into the prison, she disappeared. She was abducted, gang-raped, tortured and held prisoner by a right-wing paramilitary group. The kidnappers insisted that Bedoya “pay attention” as they raped her, telling her: “We are sending a message to the press in Colombia.”

Less than four years later, she was kidnapped and tortured again by the opposing leftist militia known as FARC. After experiencing unbelievable terror at the hand of her divided country, Jineth Bedoya Lima broke her silence. In 2009, she staked her claim as the voice of more than 500,000 women subjected to rape and torture in the name of war and conflict over the past decade.

“One thing is clear about my case, 19 years after what was a tragedy both for me and for journalism in my country—had I been a man, the order would have been carried out without hesitation. A shot in the head from a hitman, and that’s it. But because I was a woman, they didn’t just kidnap me, they also had to use me to humiliate women who would dare to do so much; “the journalist Bedoya Lima described how she was raped for bravely doing her journalistic work.

It was especially painful for her that she was stigmatized by her own colleagues, who made her out to be the only person responsible for what had happened to her. They didn’t see her as a victim, and that’s probably why it took her so long to see everything clearly.

“For years, I attended innumerable hearings at the Attorney General’s office to give my testimony, trying to prove I had been raped, trying to materialize with my words something very clear to me in the privacy of my home. One afternoon in 2009, during one of those exhausting days, I was sitting on the stairs of the Attorney General’s office, and the former Director of the Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundacion para la Libertad de Prensa – FLIP) found me crying, ready to quit pursuing a judicial process that hadn’t even started yet. He was the only one who believed in me and thought it was possible to identify those responsible for my assault. It was the turning point of this battle against impunity,” said Ms Bedoya Lima describing her terrible situation as a journalist in which she had no support from institutions and, even sadder, no support from her own media colleagues.

She refused to go into exile after this, and she continued to work as a journalist. Today she is a reporter and editor at El Tiempo, and her fierce activism aims to eliminate the condemnation felt by survivors of sexual violence. Giving victims the courage to come forward with their own stories, Bedoya says, is the means to changing the reality of women who have faced sexual violence.

“There is still a long way to go. My case has changed prosecutors three times and remains unpunished. The perpetrators of the crime may never be brought to justice. There has been no progress through the Colombian courts,” she pointed out a few years ago.

The case was stalled for more than a decade with the Colombia Attorney General’s office before Bedoya appealed it to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In May 2011, a paramilitary soldier was arrested and confessed to being one of Bedoya’s three attackers. In October 2021, a regional human rights court found Colombia responsible for Bedoya’s kidnapping, torture, and rape.

Obviously, we need a public outcry

Leon Willems, Director of Free Press Unlimited. Credit: BMEIA/Michael Gruber. >

“The main reason for impunity is the lack of political will. If we are serious about breaking the silence and breaking the chain of impunity, we have to look at how we can break the lack of political will,” Leon Willems, former Executive Director of Free Press Unlimited, gave his argument from a civil society perspective, having done the investigations into cold cases of journalist’s murders.

During our conversation, Willems mentioned a few things that work in terms of reducing impunity.

For example, if witnesses are officially protected, they will come forward. In many cases of journalists being killed, we see that witnesses don’t speak out of fear of being the next target. That’s why the witness protection system is crucial.

There is also the lack of a quick reaction when evidence is being gathered and secured in a proper manner. That’s why prompt action is needed. And not only that, but a quick public outcry would also be all-important, meaning—all local civil societies, the media, and international organizations have to organize a public outcry in tandem, as the politicians are most sensitive to it. Coordinated, national, international, and non-governmental organizations, but also protective mechanisms such as the UN, the Human rights commission and state actors – like in the case of Daphne, as Malta is an EU member state. There should be mechanisms to ensure that media workers are not targeted for what they do. A system that can force states and national/local judicial bodies to act more quickly.

“You have heard from Han Moraal, Secretary-General of the International Association of Prosecutors, that they know why they must prioritize this, but, in many jurisdictions, the police carry out investigations. The next step is making the police investigators understand that the murder of a journalist is not just any murder. It is a murder with a particular motive—namely, to silence and suppress. So we need an engagement with the police, chiefs and high-ranking officials that instruct police investigators to be engaged in understanding this issue and the safety of journalists. That is a long road because police don’t really understand journalists,” stressed Leon Willems, Director of Free Press Unlimited.

Raising awareness about journalists getting killed and raped, as well as improving the investigation process and prosecution, is a long way ahead. That’s why we need to create an efficient and honest connection between the rule of law, judiciary, domestic affairs, international NGOs, watchdogs, and EU mechanisms so they can work together.

The killing of journalists in conflict areas is not a message, and it is a war crime.

As of May 30, 2022, at least 15 civilian journalists and media workers have been killed in the line of duty since the Russo-Ukrainian conflict began in 2014. Six have been Russian, four Ukrainian, one Italian, one American, one Lithuanian, one Irish and one French.

In addition, at least six Ukrainian journalists have been killed outside the line of duty or under ambiguous circumstances.

“I was in Ukraine for ten days while meeting with local and international journalists who told me that their publishing houses don’t pay enough attention. They don’t think about protecting people who work in war zones, who are, after all, our eyes and ears that go where others cannot. To shed light on crimes and point out what is happening. In addition to equipment, they must also have adequate insurance and psychological help – which is very important when dealing with conflicts and war zones,” stressed Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic.

In the past, press labels stood up for protection; now, by doing so, they become a target—as pointed out by Russian journalist and 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov during his speech in Vienna. The murder of journalists and the organized traps they are drawn into has become a means of sending political messages. In such cases, it is necessary to insist on investigations and bring the perpetrators before the war crimes court.

The Vienna conference took stock of the institutional framework set up to implement the UN Plan of Action and considered how to better connect it with the work of existing human rights mechanisms and the voluntary national reporting on SDG 16.10.1, with a view to upscaling actions to combat impunity for crimes committed against journalists.

This refers to actors and mechanisms within the UN system but also to other regional and international organizations, and national institutions, including the judiciary, legislators, prosecution, security forces, national human rights institutions and other stakeholders as well. It also discussed the new challenges that have emerged over the past decade, including challenges related to digitalization and orchestrated harassment against journalists. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 November 2022]

Photo: Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Secretary General for Foreign Affairs. (BMEIA). Credit: BMEIA/Michael Grube

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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