Promoting Safety of Journalists and Building Effective Safety Mechanisms

UNESCO and the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) presented a Practical Guide to Developing Specialized Safety Mechanisms in a side event at UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Helsinki, Finland on 2 May.

Toby Mendel, Executive Director of CLD, spoke of the discussion paper as an indication of things to be considered rather than a universal blueprint. The seminar, moderated by Jesper Højberg, Executive Director of International Media Support, which co-hosted the event, concluded that there could be no one-fit-all set of mechanisms for all countries.

At the same time, it was noted that every society could benefit from systems to prevent violence against journalists, protect those under threat, procure punitive actions against those responsible for that violence and end the impunity enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of criminals who impose censorship by murder.

The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity was a start as a framework for broad-based co-operation by different actors, participants stated. However, more was needed to change reality on the ground in places where violence against journalists was frequent and impunity the norm, the participants noted. Both violence and impunity in many countries are due to the shortcomings of essential state mechanisms including law enforcement and the judiciary, argued Toby Mendel. Against a background of failing governance, participants and panellists alike noted that international denunciations of violence against media practitioners and exhortations to end impunity would need to be supplemented with support in those countries where law enforcement overall is weak. Mechanisms to ensure safety of journalists, argued Mr Mendel, would work if they enabled media practitioners and civil society to pressure for better governance so that such demands did not only come from abroad.

UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information Frank La Rue proposed that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG16) for 2030 adopted by the countries of the world in late 2015 could prove a landmark.

SDG16 requires all countries to demonstrate progress in ensuring public access to information and protecting fundamental freedoms, which include the right to freedom of expression, he said.

“This puts all the countries of the world on par,” argued Mr La Rue, who qualified SDG16 as the premise for achieving all of the sustainable development goals, and added that all countries of the world could improve on access to information and safety of journalists, not only those with weaker governance.

Access to information could not be ensured in countries where journalists have to resort to self-censorship due to fear, he stated. Access to information could also not be ensured in countries which practiced censorship and sought to control the media.

Progress in achieving the SDGs could be enhanced by each society establishing or improving mechanisms to monitor and address the problems of journalistic safety.