Ending Impunity for Crimes against Journalists

Op-ed co written by Swedish Minister of Culture and Democracy, Alice Bah Kuhnke and Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General

The safety of journalists is deteriorating across the globe. Journalists and media workers are victims of censorship, pressure, threats, physical abuse, violent attacks or mortal violence. Tackling this challenge successfully calls for political will and intensified cooperation. We call on all governments to join UNESCO in a renewed and stronger commitment to defend freedom of expression.

The protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms is a priority of the Swedish government. The issue is at the top of the national agenda as well as in Swedish development cooperation across the world. Sweden works hand-in-hand with UNESCO, and the leadership of the United Nation is essential to successfully address a complex, sensitive and global challenge affecting most countries.

In this, special attention and resources must go to women journalists and media workers. Women face specific forms of threats, including sexual harassment and gender-based violence, both online and offline, with deep impact in terms of self-censorship and the ability of women journalists to carry out their chosen profession.

At the core of the problem is impunity. It is unacceptable that human rights continue to be violated today and still meet with impunity. It is unacceptable that journalists and media workers are being kidnapped, tortured and killed and that perpetrators are not held accountable. We cannot accept impunity for serious crimes, which, in addition to being tragic in themselves, threaten to weaken societies by curbing peoples’ right to free expression and information.

Over the last ten years, 845 journalists and media workers have been killed across the world. This means that one journalist or media worker has been killed on the job every four days over the last decade. In more than nine out of ten cases, the perpetrators of these crimes go unpunished. According to figures reported to UNESCO by Member States, in the majority of cases, there is no information on any judicial follow-up.

This has to end, and the only way is for all governments to make ending impunity an absolute priority. This means ensuring judicial follow-up. It means strengthening laws, training legislators and law enforcement agencies. It means ensuring quality journalist education and supporting media organisations, including measures that protect individual and freelance journalists.

To support national action, UNESCO is spearheading the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The Plan encompasses all key actors — States, UN agencies, civil society organizations, media agencies and experts with a view to deepen cooperation and intensify action at national level.

We need more governments to adopt national plans for comprehensive action, guided by the principles of three Ps — prevention, protection and prosecution. In this, UNESCO is supporting individual countries in establishing journalist safety mechanisms, such in Colombia, and in reinforcing the capacities of judges and legal professionals — successful experience in Latin America will soon be replicated in African countries. In addition, security forces should be trained on obligations connected to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists, as UNESCO has done in Tunisia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Iraq and recently in The Gambia.

Lastly, we must join forces to raise awareness. In 2013, the United Nations designated November 2 as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. In a short time, this annual occasion has contributed to putting the issue of impunity higher on both the international and national agendas.

Awareness of freedom of expression and impunity have also increased by the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda, calls for peaceful and inclusive societies with effective, accountable and inclusive institutions.

We need strong action to protect journalists and media workers. We must all stand up today to defend the women and men who as journalists defend our rights and freedoms. If we cannot protect them, then our democracies and societies are at grave risk. Journalists and media workers are the backbone of healthy society and functioning democracy, and they play a crucial role in ensuring good governance and the rule of law.

For more information on the Multi-Stakeholder Consultation on Strengthening the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity held on 29 June 2017, in Geneva, Switzerland, see the website: http://en.unesco.org/strengthening-un-plan-action

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