2014 Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice: Side-Event on the Safety of Journalists

Final Report

On May 15th, 2014, the Academic Council on the United Nations System hosted the side-event on the ‘Safety of Journalists’ at the UNODC Crime Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. This side-ent was organized in cooperation with the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs and the International Press Institute (IPI).

At the heart of the issue was the increasing number of threats faced by journalists throughout the world. The panel was chaired by Dr. Gerhard Doujak from the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs. He was joined by Jenna Dawson-Faber from UNODC Vienna, the acting director of UNIS, former Reuters reporter Martin Nesirky, Timothy Spence from the International Press Institute, Katharine Sarikakis from the University of Vienna and Antonio Mazzitelli from the UNODC Country Office, Mexico.

Holding the discussion on the safety of journalist at the CCPCJ was particularly appropriate, given UNODC’s 2013 Homicide Report. The Report highlights the rise in the killing of journalists around the world. According to the Report, over the past 10 years 600 journalists have been killed for reasons directly related to their work. The panel noted that this breaks down into one journalist every week over the course of the past decade. As journalists are critical “purveyors of information”, this reality is alarming.[1] In response, the Austrian and Greek Permanent Missions proposed to draft a Resolution for the CCPCJ on ‘Combatting impunity for crimes committed against journalists and media workers’.

The panel session and lively question and answer discussions that followed highlighted three main points. Firstly, regardless of the different definitions of ‘journalist’, all data points to an increasing number of deaths of journalists. Moreover, while these figures are alarming, they represent only the tip of the iceberg for the dangers journalists experience. These dangers include everything from detention to harassment, sexual violence and censorship.

Secondly, threats to journalists are not restricted to traditional conflict zones. Some countries which have the poorest track-record for journalist threats and impunity, such as the Philippines, are functioning democracies with established judicial systems. Even within the EU itself there are countries, such as Greece, where the situation for journalists is deteriorating.

Finally, the panel highlighted that there is already an existing legal framework intended to tackle the issue of the safety of journalists.  It is in the implementation, however, where challenges are encountered. The gap between the existing legal framework and their implementation must be narrowed and eventually, eliminated. Panel discussions drew attention to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which it clearly states “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression…and [to] impart ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”. To ensure this right, it is imperative that crimes against journalists are not answered with impunity. Raising awareness must be a core element in firmly placing the threats journalists face on the international agenda.

There are encouraging signs that things are moving in this direction. Currently there is a Resolution before the UN Human Rights Council that calls for the “commitment of states to condemn all aggression and violence against journalists”. However, the inability for states to agree to pass the draft resolution in the evening hours of the CCPCJ plenary demonstrates a lack of solidarity to the issue. The panelists noted that the protection of journalists in both law and practice is in the public’s direct interest and is a reflection of the health of a democracy and judicial system. It is a ‘canary in the mine’. The conclusion of the panel echoed the grave warning in the Homicide Report that argued “the killing of journalists can be considered an attack on the human right to free expression, the foundation of strong democracy and the need for informed, active and engaged citizenry”.[2] Reports of the death of a young photo-journalist, Camille Lepage, two days before the CCPCJ panel, highlights the real world impact of these statistics and board room discussions. This is something which must not be forgotten.

Author: Caitlin Vito, ACUNS Vienna Liaison Office

For further information regarding the Resolution on the Safety of Journalists and the Combatting of Impunity, please see the Austrian Foreign Ministry Website.

[1] Global Homicide Report, ‘Shooting the Messengers: the killing of journalists and humanitarian workers’, 61.

[2] Global Homicide Report, ‘Shooting the Messengers: the killing of journalists and humanitarian workers’, 63-64.