Internet Governance and Safety of Journalists

07 December 2016

A panel organized by UNESCO during IGF2016, in Guadalajara, Mexico, with the presence of two Freedom of Expression Special Rapporteurs, Mexican Government, journalists and civil society representatives has underlined the centrality of protecting journalists from both digital and physical threats. 

During the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a multi-stakeholder high-level panel underlined the challenges of protecting journalists in, both, off-line and on-line environments.

This follows the recognition of safety of journalists by the UN General Assembly, in its resolution on the outcome document of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+10), agreed in December 2015.

The session also brought the attention to the fact that all 193 UN Member States have agreed the targets of the 2030 development agenda.  Goal 16, target 10 on public access to information and fundamental freedoms has a draft indicator that includes the safety of journalists.

More than 50 people within the Internet Governance community attended UNESCO’s panel on the safety of journalists, interacting with the panel of speakers.

The killings of media workers are “the worst form of censorship”, said the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Mr. Edison Lanza. He advocated that it is essential to bring the discussion of safety of journalists to IGF, and that debates on online Freedom of Expression had to take this into account.

For him, the discussion on Internet Freedom should have “this holistic perspective that incorporates broader issues, such as the safety of journalists”.

Worrying Data, worrying trends

Guy Berger, UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, highlighted key figures included in UNESCO Director General’s Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity .

Berger mentioned that among the 827 journalists killed in the latest decade, 59% were killed in war zones, but 41% were killed outside armed conflict areas. A total of 95% of these professionals were local and just 5% were foreign correspondents. 

He described UNESCO’s UNESCO’s Journalism Safety Indicators and encouraged stakeholders to use them to research progress in addressing safety and impunity issues, including in digital dimensions.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye, referred to how the criminalization of encryption and/or anonymity are affecting digital security of media workers. He further expressed concern about the negative impact for news professionals’ safety of political discourses against journalists.

Kaye also warned that broadly-worded counter-terrorism legislation is affecting the safety of journalists all over the world, and urged greater political will to apply laws that could protect journalists and end impunity.

A further speaker was Marta Duran, journalist and expert of the national mechanism on protection of journalists in Mexico. She pointed to a contradiction with state protection mechanisms for journalists in cases where the perpetrators of attacks were also state agents (security forces, intelligence officials, etc.).

Ms. Duran also reported cases when journalists reporting corruption were punished instead of being protected. She further highlighted how organized crime contributed to high rates of violence against journalists. Intimidating messages and death threats to journalists had the effect of silencing media professionals and creating a culture of fear, she said.

Ms. Erika Smith, Women’s Rights team of Association of Progressive Communication added that the gender-based harassment is strong in the case of female media workers, and yet was often not taken seriously enough.

Impunity perpetuates the circle of violence

All panellists underlined that the unacceptable rates of impunity regarding crimes against journalists is among the key causes of why the circle of violence continues.

Nine out of ten cases, accordingly to UNESCO data, are not solved in a due process of law.

For Marta Duran, it is crucial to take investigation of attacks seriously, since an essential part of the impunity problem was the quick denial of authorities that the crimes against journalists are related to their media work.

Different tools are available for protection and prevention

In his remarks, Berger said that UNESCO has launched a worldwide database, where any one can follow the situation regarding the violence against journalists in their own country.

He also pointed to progress in recent years. In 2012, the UN’s leadership had endorsed the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. Nine resolutions on safety were approved by Member States at different UN bodies during the last four years.

Although the impunity rates are still very high, response rates had increased in regard to UNESCO requests to Member States for information regarding the judicial follow up to killing of journalists, said Berger.  

New mechanisms and initiatives are also in place, like the joint executive, legislative and judiciary powers mechanism recently announced by Paraguay and the regional UNESCO’s initiative to support judiciary systems all over Iberoamerican to enhance protection of journalists and fighting impunity.

Edison Lanza told how his office is promoting the different protection mechanisms that already exist in Latin America (Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, etc), which have diverse levels of implementation.  

One important element of those mechanisms, for the Special Rapporteur, is the capacity of developing risk analysis, which was also highlighted by Julio César Díaz Herrera, deputy director of the Mexican Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists, at Secretaría de Gobernación. He said that that the Mexican mechanism will include special gender based considerations into their risk matrix.

Another relevant tool within the Interamerican system is the possibility of bringing cases before the Commission and the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur highlighted.

For the UN Special Rapporteur, strategies such as the creation of special prosecution offices dedicated to investigate cases related to violence against journalist could be helpful in addressing the issue of impunity.

Safety within the Digital Environment

The panel was also an opportunity for launching the Spanish version of UNESCO’s Building Digital Safety for Journalism, a process that was coordinated by the UNESCO Mexico Office, whose communication's officer, Carlos Tejada, also moderated the panel.

All panellists brought attention to different sorts of digital risks, such as widened exposure; digital footprints that can help attackers find journalists; confidentiality of sources; cyber attacks; hacking of valuable information, and device seizure.

Digital threats, many panellists noted, should be investigated by authorities for preventing further danger and also for tracking potential perpetrators.

Ms Kim Pham, technical lead, IREX Safe Initiative underlined the importance of having tool kits for helping media workers to address the issue of digital safety.  She also brought attention to the need for training, but adding that creating solidarity networks are important for coping with violence threats.

Way forward

The panel highlighted that protection is part of the equation, but a comprehensive and coherent policy should also include prevention and fight against impunity components.

They also underlined that this effort must involve other key players, such as the media houses and the private sector in general.

For Julio César Díaz Herrera, partnerships - particularly with UN System, Interamerican System and Civil Society – are central to improve the efficiency of the Mexican mechanism. 

The need to a better coordination with civil society was underlined by different panellists, particularly, Ms Erika Smith and Ms Kim Pham. The two speakers also strongly pointed out the need to further develop particular protection measures for female media workers.