Author: Dr Gemma Horton (University of Sheffield)


Safety of Journalists

In recent years, the threats that journalists face in their work have grown considerably. The development of technology has meant that journalists are subject to online violence for the work that they do, particularly women who are being targeted and are vulnerable to such attacks as outlined in a recent International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and UNESCO report.

Some States have also used outdated laws to prosecute journalists and, in some cases, submitted them to arbitrary detention . In some instances, the work that journalists do in holding governments to account or exposing crime can cost them their lives. Journalists such as Daphne Caruana Galizia and Jamal Khashoggi lost their lives because of the investigative work they were conducting. Alongside these attacks taking place, what is even more concerning is that, in a number of instances, crimes against journalists remain unprosecuted and the attackers are able to act with impunity.

The United Nations (UN), as the world’s largest inter-governmental organisation, plays a key role in holding its member states accountable for crimes committed against journalists. It is made up of a number of bodies that perform different roles and develop policy in order to try and provide a safe and free environment for journalists to work in.

UN Bodies, Resolutions and Journalism Safety

Several relevant bodies within the UN have in recent years stressed the importance of journalism safety. For example, the UN Secretary General prepares reports on the safety of journalists alongside focusing on the implementation of UN General Assembly resolutions and the safety of journalists in armed conflicts. UN Special Rapporteurs, who are experts on specific human rights violations, also conduct fact-finding missions on states when it has been reported that human rights violations have occurred, including violations against journalists. In 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan, examined the threats to media freedom and journalists’ safety in the digital age. In her report, she found that digital technology had aggravated the attacks that journalists faced. Journalists are now more likely to be subject to online gender-based violence, targeted surveillance and censorship of the content they produce.

The passing of resolutions by the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council and the Security Council have also increasingly focused on journalism safety and the need to end impunity. While UN resolutions are not legally binding on member states, they do serve as a strong political statement. This is because states have to take action that is in line with any binding international human rights law that they have signed up to, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR). These include absolute rights (i.e., the right to life) alongside rights that are subject to limitations in particular circumstances (i.e., the right to freedom of expression).Henceforth, resolutions on the safety of journalists are passed with the knowledge that action must be taken to protect them and the rights that they have in line with international human rights law. Since 2005, UN Resolutions have more frequently focused on journalism safety, with a list of the Resolutions found here. Specific UN Resolutions include the creation of specialised investigative units and prosecutors, alongside calling on States to address attacks. More recently, UN Resolutions have focused on calling for States to address digital security threats alongside attacks against women journalists.

The resolutions also make clear that states must engage with the ‘three p’s’ – prevent, protect and prosecute. In a legal capacity, this includes ensuring that they have the right to freedom of expression protected through legislation, alongside ensuring that national laws are not used to prevent journalists from conducting their work, such as through the use of arbitrary detention or outdated legislation. Protection focuses on states responding to journalists who are attacked. This may be through public statements condemning attacks and providing journalists with the ability to respond to the threat they face and be protected, such as through the use of law enforcement. Finally, prosecution is designed to tackle impunity and ensure that those who have attacked journalists are held accountable through the courts.

Certainly, the UN through the passing of resolutions and the work that a number of bodies conduct, including the aforementioned, considers journalism safety to be of paramount importance in order for journalists to conduct their work and hold power to account. These bodies each play an important role towards policy development regarding the safety of journalists, but it is UNESCO which is, as described by Article 19, “the lead UN agency on the safety of journalists.” The work that UNESCO conducts to protect journalists can predominantly be seen through its multi-stakeholder Plan of Action (UNPA).

United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists (UNPA) and the Issue of Impunity

Launched in 2012, the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity was designed to create a safe and free environment for journalists to conduct their work. It was endorsed by the UN Chief Executive Board and encourages a multi-stakeholder approach to campaigning and raising awareness of the threats that journalists face. It focuses on the three pillars of prevention, protection and prosecution of crimes committed against journalists (as noted above).

The UNPA has six main aims which include: raising awareness, setting standards and policy making, monitoring and reporting attacks against journalists, capacity building, academic research and coalition building. Annual events, such as World Press Freedom Day and the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, help the UNPA achieve its aims. The UNPA is often reviewed to examine its impact through consultation processes. A five-year anniversary conference took place in Geneva and, most recently, a ten-year anniversary conference took place in Austria.

In November 2022, on occasion of the 10th anniversary of the UNPA, a High-Level Conference took place in Vienna from the 3-4 November. The conference, “Safety of Journalists: Protecting media to protect democracy”, brought together over 400 participants from NGOs, media houses, governmental organisations and academia. The event provided an opportunity to discuss the impact of the UNPA through a collection of regional consultations, thematic consultations and an academic consultation (led by the Centre for Freedom of the Media).

The review of the UNPA revealed that it has achieved much in its six areas since its implementation, including: the approval of a number of declarations and resolutions at both global and regional levels; recommendations concerning safety of journalists accepted by member states; regional platforms developed in Europe and Africa to monitor the safety of journalists; capacity building through the training of over 24,000 judicial operators; and the establishment of the Global Media Defence Fund which has supported over 80 projects since 2020 and over 1,000 legal cases involving journalists.

While the success of the UNPA is to be applauded, UNESCO has recognised that there are new challenges journalists face since the creation of the Plan. For example, digital threats have become more prominent with the rise of digital surveillance and online harassment. The use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) to prevent journalists from reporting on public interest matters are also necessary to address, alongside the fact that women are more likely to face safety issues in comparison to their male counterparts.

Going Forward: a pressing need for State Implementation

Recognising these new threats to journalism safety, following the 10th anniversary conference, UNESCO published its Outcome document, summarising the consultations that had taken place and emphasising the importance in tackling these new issues. For example, they have encouraged member states to ensure that national legislation is in line with international human rights standards. National mechanisms also need to be in place to protect journalists. This can be achieved via numerous methods, including training and the use of legislation to prosecute those who commit crimes against journalists.

Despite the implementation of the UNPA, and all of the work from the UN and other stakeholders, 2022 saw a rise in the number of journalists killed worldwide following a decrease over the past three years. 86 journalists lost their lives and nearly half were targeted while off duty. The rate of impunity for journalist killings also remains, according to UNESCO, “shockingly high” at 86 per cent. In some countries the state is openly hostile against the work that journalists do. For example, in India, Prime Minister Modi himself has been critical about journalists and his supporters have been involved in conducting online attacks against them. In the United States, the anti-media rhetoric from Donald Trump’s time as president is still having a lasting impact on journalists who still face hostility for the work that they do. Mexico remains one of the deadliest countries for a journalist to conduct their work due to organised crime in the region and a high level of impunity.

While policy developments, such as recommendations and the UNPA, have been and continue to be put forward by the UN, the fact remains that now more than ever states need to step up their efforts towards protecting journalists. The implementation of UN recommendations and working with stakeholders to achieve this is of the utmost importance, alongside keeping pressure on states by monitoring the threats journalists face and conducting fact-finding missions when necessary. As UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay has stated: ‘Authorities must step up their efforts to stop these crimes and ensure their perpetrators are punished because indifference is a major factor in this climate of violence.’

Dr Gemma Horton is an Impact Fellow in the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) based in the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield. She holds a PhD and MA from the Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield, and an LLB from the University of York. She is the editorial assistant for the European Journal of Communication and administrator of the Young Lawyers Committee of the Human Rights Lawyers Association. Her research focuses on issues concerning media freedom and regulation of the press.