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UN says Journalists Need Greater Protection

  • Lisa Schlein

Award-winning American war reporter Marie Colvin was killed on February 22, 2012 by Syrian government shelling against the opposition stronghold of Homs, Syria. She was 57.

Award-winning American war reporter Marie Colvin was killed on February 22, 2012 by Syrian government shelling against the opposition stronghold of Homs, Syria. She was 57.

GENEVA — The United Nations says an alarming number of journalists around the world are killed every year and very few of the perpetrators are ever brought to justice. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has drafted a plan for the safety of journalists.

Reporting, risky business

American war correspondent, Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in Syria on February 22.


They are among 65 journalists killed in the first five months of 2012. According to the Swiss news agency ATS this is 50 percent more than last year. At least 15 of the victims were in Syria, seven in Mexico and six in Somalia.

The latest report from Reporters Without Borders says 163 journalists are imprisoned in 2012.

"If we look at the record so far this year, it seems to be that both on the level of imprisonment of journalists and in terms of the lives lost of journalists that we are indeed facing a serious problem," said Christof Heyns, U.N. Special Investigator on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions.

Protecting journalists

This year, Heyns focused his annual report on the protection of the right to life of journalists.

"It is also clear from looking at the statistics that one may have the picture of the most common threat to journalists is the foreign journalist who is killed in armed conflict … But two-thirds of the deaths are outside of armed conflict and a typical situation is the local journalist who is killed, who works for a radio station, who works for a newspaper, and increasingly also the Internet and others as well," he said.

U.N. Special Investigator on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue says there has to be a commitment to investigate and prosecute those who attack, kill, and imprison journalists. "I do believe there should be in a specific level of crimes defined as persecution or acts of violence against journalists. This for me is very important because this would guarantee in a better way the protection of journalists," La Rue stated. "There are journalists who are in grave danger in non-conflict situations, but in situations of extreme violence like organized crime or authoritarian regimes."

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports almost half of the 179 journalists imprisoned in 2011, were bloggers whose work appears online. "I am from Azerbaijan. We have a case, you know we just had a Eurovision song contest, which was watched by more than 120-million people around the world and a very small community of journalism activists tried to draw attention to human-rights violations in Azerbaijan," explained Emin Milli.

Milli is a blogger, a dissident and former Amnesty International prisoner-of-conscience who was imprisoned for 16 months in Azerbaijan. He says now that the Eurovision Song Contest is gone the attention of the international media is gone. "And as predicted, the government started to target the activists and journalists," he said. "So what we have is the media coordinator of "Sing for Democracy" campaign, Mehman Huseynov has been targeted and he has been arrested and released on bail, but his charges are not dropped."

Upholding media freedom

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic advises the 56 OSCE members on upholding media freedom. She says this sometimes involves naming, shaming and blaming countries when they do not live up to their commitments to protect journalists.

"Nothing in relation to violence against journalists should be done in a quiet diplomacy. If somebody is harassed or intimidated or put behind bars, not to mention killed, is a matter that all of us should be aware of," she said. "It is something, which is in the public interest."

Expert on Summary Executions Heyns notes international laws regarding protection for journalists already exist. Governments just have to implement them. "I think one of the dangers of a new legally binding instrument is ... that one could have all kinds of issues such as registration and new limitations being discussed as well ... and if one spends too much time on negotiating a new binding instrument, one may take the eye off the implementation," he said.

All U.N. agencies have adopted a plan of action proposed by UNESCO on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. How to integrate the protection of journalists into development programs is to be discussed in November at an international meeting in Vienna.

Human Rights experts say journalists put themselves in danger by investigating governments, large companies and organized crime. But they note these dangers are increased when governments fail to protect those who put their lives on the line to expose corruption.

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