The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Room in the UK parliament was crowded with parliamentarians, diplomats, journalists and members of civil society organizations working for journalists’ safety and against impunity for crimes against journalists. The parliamentary sponsor of the meeting was Paul Farrelly MP, who was himself an international newspaper journalist before becoming a politician.
UNESCO Deputy Director-General Getachew Engida first presented UNESCO’s latest data and analysis about journalists’ safety and impunity from UNESCO’s World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: Special Digital Focus 2015.
Many speakers emphasised the hostile and repressive environment for journalists stemming from the misuse by governments of anti-terrorism and state security laws, which make journalists vulnerable to judicial abuse and violence, and often deprives them of legal redress for crimes committed against them by state or non-state actors.
Kevin Sutcliffe, Head of News Programmes (EU) for Vice News, said it was now ‘open season’ for attacks and abuses against journalists operating in difficult or dangerous environments, so it was much harder to ‘get the story out’ to Vice’s mass online audiences. Alaa Bayoumi, a senior editor at Al Jazeera English, said the harsh clampdown on the media in many Middle Eastern states meant that many cases of killings and imprisonment of journalists go unreported. Freelance journalist Emma Beals, who has reported on the war in Syria for the past three years, spoke graphically about the physical dangers of her work and her shock at the deaths of many colleagues. She faces those risks, she said, ‘so that people cannot say they didn’t know what was happening’ in the Syrian conflict.
Addressing the need for concerted actions in response to the failures of law and justice systems in many countries, Peter Greste, the Al Jazeera English journalist who was jailed for a year in Egypt until his deportation in February, appealed for ‘more unity of purpose’ among journalists and media organisations.
The key role played by international human rights institutions and courts in the fight against impunity was underlined by Joanna Evans, a lawyer from the European Rights Advocacy Centre in London. Wider political efforts were also essential, she said, but the success of work to take a large number of impunity cases to international courts, including the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, had exposed systemic abuses in the law-enforcement and justice systems of a number of states, and had helped to set international human rights standards.
Rob Fenn, head of human rights at the UK Foreign Office, condemned the rise of impunity in repressive states and underlined the necessity to gather evidence of serious human rights abuses in conflicts such as the war in Syria. He cited a Statement issued on 2 November by the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay, which said: ‘A free media plays a vital role in a functioning democracy. We mark today to highlight why we cannot let those who seek to undermine it do so, and that this impunity must end’.