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UNESCO Acts to Ensure Journalists' Safety

  • William Eagle

The UN cultural agency, UNESCO, is calling for greater protections for the world’s journalists. It’s been joined by a number of international press freedom organizations.

The UN agency says 121 journalists were killed worldwide in 2012, almost twice the numbers from 2010 and 2011.

The call is part of its observance of World Press Freedom Day.

UNESCO and its partners are focusing on enhancing safety and combating impunity for crimes committed against journalists.

Last March, gunmen in Dar-es-Salaam attacked and beat Tanzanian editor Absalom Kibanda into unconsciousness. The Media Institute of Southern Africa reports he lost teeth, nails and an eye.

Hostile forces

His case in not unusual: Organizations note that few of the attacks are ever prosecuted, encouraging a culture of impunity for assaults on reporters – and freedom of expression.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, says 80 murders of journalists in Africa have remained unsolved since 1992. Meanwhile, 41 African journalists will be marking World Press Freedom Day in prison.

The CPJ says the five countries with largest numbers of unsolved cases were Iraq, Somalia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Colombia…Nigeria was #11.

Burundian journalist Hassan Ruvakuki received a life sentence on October 18, 2012. Authorities charged him with terrorism after he was convicted of planning then documenting a rebel attack in the eastern Cankuzo province neighbouring Tanzania. AFP PHOTO/Esdras Ndikumana

Burundian journalist Hassan Ruvakuki received a life sentence on October 18, 2012. Authorities charged him with terrorism after he was convicted of planning then documenting a rebel attack in the eastern Cankuzo province neighbouring Tanzania. AFP PHOTO/Esdras Ndikumana

The forces arrayed against journalists include hostile governments, organized crime, and armed militants. Many reporters and media workers die in conflict areas, but most are threatened, intimidated or killed while reporting local stories.

CPJ’s Mohamed Keita says in recent years, citizen journalists and bloggers have joined traditional reporters as targets.

"In places like Sudan," says Keita, "a lot of citizen reporters have been arrested for filming demonstrations and getting the word out. We’ve seen the same in Angola, which also experienced anti-government protests. In Ethiopia, they arrested citizen reporters for sending text messages and people attempting to upload footage via the social media. [An Ethiopian journalist] was also arrested for blogging about the Arab Spring. And, Zimbabwe prosecuted a man for posting a political comment on Facebook in 2011."

Outside forces

The CPJ Africa expert says that outside forces are also contributing to the problem.

"Just recently," he says, "it was reported that the Nigerian government has awarded an Israeli surveillance company a contract to intercept telecommunications of civilians in Nigeria"

"We know the Chinese company ZTE is heavily involved in Africa," he continued. "In the case of Ethiopia, ZTE got the contract to overhaul the country’s telecom infrastructure and increase and improve services. Shortly after that, we noticed the first reports of web sites being blocked in the country. We’ve also heard allegations that some Western and French companies have transferred surveillance technologies to governments in francophone Africa."

Ethiopian columnist Eskinder Nega was charged with being a dangerous individual bent on violent revolution. He is serving 18 years in prison. (Eskinder Nega / CPJ photo illustration)

Ethiopian columnist Eskinder Nega was charged with being a dangerous individual bent on violent revolution. He is serving 18 years in prison. (Eskinder Nega / CPJ photo illustration)

UNESCO and press rights groups are aiming to beef up measures protecting the free press with the U.N. Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

Janis Karklins, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, says police and law enforcement officers must understand that attacks against the press are attacks against democracy. Karklins says an independent press is just as important as the three pillars of democracy: the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

"Journalists represent what we call the Fourth Power (or Estate)," says Karklins, "and they should be as equally protected [as the other branches of government] in a given country. Today we do not see that this is the case everywhere. We are also working with governments to make sure all legislative frameworks that exist [to protect freedom of expression and of the press] are empowered and used properly."

Armed gunmen attacked Mohamed Ahmed Jama, the owner of the Hubaal Media Network in Somaliland on April 30. (Hubaal Media Network)

Armed gunmen attacked Mohamed Ahmed Jama, the owner of the Hubaal Media Network in Somaliland on April 30. (Hubaal Media Network)

Karklins says UNESCO is asking governments to voluntarily provide information on the results of investigations of killings of journalists. It’s also working with the corporate media and journalists’ associations to help train reporters to operate in a hostile environment.

"We are working with their publishers and employers to make sure employers are not misusing journalists and not sending part-time journalists, or freelancers, to dangerous places without providing them with necessary protection," says Karklins.. "This is also the obligation of the employer to provide necessary protection to their journalists when they are doing their work."

Training for hostile environments

One group helping to train journalists is the International News Safety Institute in London. INSI, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary today, World Press Freedom Day, works to provide practical safety advice and information for journalists working in types of dangerous environments. That advice includes how best to prepare and plan for their deployments in a way that reduces risk.

Director Hanna Storm says the institute also teaches traditional reporters, free lancers and bloggers how to protect records of contacts. Such records can easily be hacked by governments or outside groups. Reporters’ cell phones can also be accessed to reveal their locations.

"Say for instance you happen to update your Facebook status with a comment on where you are or you tweet something about someone appearance or presence, or someone’s [potential] death," she says. "All that can have massive ramifications on the safety of individuals and particularly of local fixers and journalists."

UNESCO World Press Freedom Day logo 2013 (UNESCO)

UNESCO World Press Freedom Day logo 2013 (UNESCO)

Her institute is also working to protect hundreds of journalists who live in exile.

"Our special report [for this inter-agency plan] is looking at issues of good practice where governments and civil society groups can work to support exiled journalists with safe houses, support their re-integration into societies, provide support for their families, and some degree of mentoring if they need to change their job and put some sort of network in place for journalists have faced similar issues and threats," she says.

UNESCO’s action plan also calls for access to health care and life insurance for journalists.

And, it calls for member states to end any statute of limitations on those guilty of crimes against freedom of expression and to remove defamation as a criminal action.

Mohamed Keita of the Committee Protect Journalists says safeguarding freedom of the press benefits development. Good reporting can expose corruption and mismanagement that reduces economic growth and can lead to political instability. But human rights groups journalists are paying a high price to do their job.

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