UNESCO Member States discuss what works in national systems to protect journalists

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UNESCO Director-General and Ambassadors stand united for the safety of journalists.
© UNESCO/Christelle ALIX
13 December 2017

Around 150 representatives of Member States, civil society and the media gathered at UNESCO HQ in Paris on Tuesday 12 December to discuss national initiatives for the safety of journalists.

The interactive event was organized with members of the UNESCO Group of Friends for the Safety of Journalists, a group of 31 UNESCO Member States committed to enhancing protections for journalists. 

The workshop commenced a series of events to celebrate the forthcoming 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates the freedom to seek, receive and impart information.

In her opening remarks, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay reminded participants that “a free media is not a luxury. It cannot be an add-on to development – it is the heart of democracy – it is a force for individual empowerment and human dignity – it is a condition for good governance and the rule of law.”

Zohour Alaoui, President of the 39th UNESCO General Conference, alerted participants to the increasing number of women journalists facing gender-based threats, online and offline, and the need for initiatives to effectively address this aspect. She highlighted options for action in the Outcome Document of the UNESCO-led global consultation on strengthening the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

A panel of experts presented lessons learned from experiences in Afghanistan, Colombia, Serbia, Sweden and the African continent in preventing, protecting against, and prosecuting attacks against journalists.

Ambassadors of many UNESCO Member States also took the floor to showcase initiatives implemented in their own countries to create a safer environment for journalists and media workers.

There was widespread consensus about the importance of multi-stakeholder participation involving government, civil society, media houses, academia, the judiciary, and security actors. Building cooperation and mutual trust was identified as a key factor towards success. As noted by Leticia Casati, Chargée d’Affaires of Paraguay, capacity-building, commitment and confidence-building measures are essential components.

Participants highlighted the need to pay special attention to prevention, with Diego Fernando Mora Arango, Director of the National Protection Unit in Colombia, stating that while protection was very important, “the majority of resources that a state can assign to the safety of journalists should go towards prevention of attacks.”

The importance of tailoring mechanisms to local contexts was another point made in the discussion. Najib Sharifi, head of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, explained that “local knowledge is key” and that particularly “in a conflict situation, there is no precise recipe, you must engage everybody, and most importantly, you must engage journalists.”

Esben Harboe of the NGO International Media Support explained five principles for developing national systems arising from the recent seven-country study Defending Journalism. These were Strategy, Presence (of local leadership), Collaboration (via named focal points), Influence (positions of power), and Sustainability.

Swedish ambassador Annika Markovic explained her country’s recent adoption of a plan to protect journalists and artists in the face of expressions of hatred.

Gabriel Baglo of the Federation of African Journalists said that media literacy was key for prevention of attacks on journalists, so that society and government could understand and stand up in favour of the safety of journalists. He urged more African delegations to join the Group of Friends.

From Serbia, the director of the country’s commission on ending impunity, Veran Matic, explained how this collaboration between government, police and media was working to resolve cases of killed journalists dating back 15 years. “But we should not miss what is coming in the form of new threats,” he noted.

The meeting follows the adoption in November of Resolution 61 by the 39th UNESCO General Conference, encouraging Member States to strengthen voluntary implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity at country level.

The event was organized thanks to the support of Austria, Canada, Sweden, The Netherlands and the United States of America.  

For more information, please contact Saorla McCabe.

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