Lasantha Wickrematunge, a prominent Sri Lankan journalist, was assassinated in January 2009. In an editorial published posthumously, he wrote: ‘When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.’ Wikimedia / Indi Samarajiva. Creative Commons.
One hundred and eight journalists and other media staff were killed around the world in 2013. Though this was a fall of 10 per cent from the 2012 tally, it remains unacceptable and 2013 was another lethal year for media professionals.
The civil war in Syria, the armed insurgency in Pakistan and the sectarian violence in Iraq accounted for most of the dead—with 15, 11 and 13 killings respectively. Tempting though it is to explain away these horrendous killings by the violence inherent in bloody conflicts, countries with relative political stability, such as India and the Philippines, aren’t any safer for journalists: they shared a gloomy toll of ten murders apiece.
Seven more died in Somalia, victims of the lawlessness in the country, while political strife in Egypt claimed six. There were smaller numbers of killings elsewhere, including Brazil, Honduras, Colombia and Russia.
More than 1,000 media professionals have now been killed since the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) began publishing its annual reports in 1990. These tragedies have made journalism one of the most perilous professions in recent decades, in war and peace.
The publication of this year’s list of the dead followed a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly in New York on December18, establishing an International Day to end impunity for crimes against journalists.
The UN day will be marked on 2 November—the date two French reporters, Ghislain Dupont and Claude Verlon of Radio France International, were murdered by militants in the northern Malian city of Kindal this year. The French authorities were quick to join the chorus of condemnation and the foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, expressed his regret that, while in the past the ‘press’ label had offered journalists protection, it had turned into a target in armed conflicts.
In interviews with French media, he said France had proposed the UN day to send a strong message demanding media protection, although he acknowledged it was largely a symbolic gesture. After all, UN General Assembly resolutions are not binding on member states.
Indeed, in December 2006 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1738, urging governments to respect the rights and professional independence of journalists. Member states are bound by Security Council resolutions and this was hailed as historic UN action to fight impunity. Unfortunately, the ensuing years have been marked by consistently intense violence targeting journalists, in scant disregard for these lofty recommendations.
The media death toll of 2013 confirms the abject failure of governments to hold accountable those who are responsible for violence against media professionals. The IFJ estimates that only one in ten violent incidents targeting a journalist is even investigated.
As the largest journalists’ organisations in the world, the federation takes safety in media very seriously. In collaboration with other press-freedom organisations and sustained engagement with governments, regional and global institutions, it has campaigned long and hard to ensure governments live up to their international obligations to protect journalists by preventing, prosecuting and punishing all forms of violence.
Through the UN system, It promotes respect for journalists’ rights, working closely with the leading agencies such as UNESCO and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), to ensure that international pressure is brought to bear on governments with a poor record on press freedom. The UN is after all the custodian of all international legal instruments, namely the international human rights law and humanitarian law which provide guarantees to civilians—including journalists—of the protection of life, physical safety and liberty.
The General Assembly resolution is the latest in a series of welcome initiatives to enhance media protection. In November 2012 the UN had made a statement of intent by launching an action plan on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. This was followed in September 2013 by a report from the OHCHR on good practices in protecting journalists.
The IFJ estimates that only one in ten violent incidents targeting a journalist is even investigated.
The new UN day manifests a greater understanding at the highest levels of the world body of the threat to a tolerant and a progressive society if press freedom remains under attack. The IFJ firmly believes that only effective implementation of the already considerable body of domestic and international law will make a difference to the lives of journalists around the world. This, in turn, requires that declarations at the global level are translated into concrete measures nationally.
The safety crisis in media calls for unprecedented political commitment to address in an uncompromising manner the issue of impunity for attacks on journalists. It is well past time for symbolic political gestures, however well-meaning. For far too long, men of violence have been only too happy to call the international community’s bluff, because there was no credible willingness to enforce the rule of law. That needs to change, drastically and quickly.
It is time to face the uncomfortable reality that killings of journalists are about much more than silencing the truth. They also jeopardise public trust and threaten democratic rule.