World Press Freedom Day 2019: Academic Conference on Safety of Journalists attracts over 200 participants


Unprecedented interest was shown in academic scholarship about the safety of journalists on 1 May during last week’s World Press Freedom Day conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

More than 200 people attended the day-long Academic Conference on the Safety of Journalists organised by UNESCO, OsloMet University (Norway), Makerere University (Uganda), the University of Sheffield (UK) and the University of Malaga (Spain).

This year the academic committee received over 150 proposals for research presentations, submitted by academics from across the globe, including from Venezuela, Pakistan, Nepal, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tunisia, Norway, Greece and the UK.

Yetunde Ayobolu (Researcher), WPFD 2019: Academic Conference on the Safety of Journalists  © UNESCO/Addis Aemero

The top 15 papers were selected for delivery at the conference, and each was subjected to feedback from working journalists or civil society activists, as well as opened up for comments and questions from the audience.  

Plans are under way for the revised papers to be published in a forthcoming academic journal dedicated to safety of journalists.

Promoting journalistic safety and combatting impunity for crimes against journalists are central elements within UNESCO's mandate. These issues are further recognized in the United Nations Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development. 

There is a particular indicator on safety of journalists to measure progress on achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, target 10 which calls for “public access to information and fundamental freedoms”.

Guy Berger, UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development in his remarks to the conference highlighted the value of SDG 16.10, but also noted that “Unfortunately, the people who attack journalists do not subscribe to this vision. And each day, journalists pay a price – as does the public”.

Jonathan Munro, Head of BBC Newsgathering, at the Academic Conference on the Safety of Journalists, WPFD 2019. © UNESCO/Addis Aemero

The conference attracted the participation of BBC head of newsgathering, Jonathan Munro, who delivered an opening speech. Munro, who also sits on the boards of the International News Safety Institute and the Committee to Protect Journalists, said: “Journalists have a precious role in the ecology of global understanding. And it’s under increasing threat.”

He called for “proper concerted and joined up efforts by all parties, including governments across the world”.  

The BBC journalists further commented that the phrase “fake news” was used to describe news or opinion that political actors did not agree with, rather than messages  which are factually wrong. This branding was “designed to undermine journalism as a trade” and it made journalists more vulnerable to attack, he said.  

Munro hailed the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, adding “the very fact that we are gathering to assess the state of play, supported by evidence, is in itself a positive step”. In his view, research produced data which provided facts, not just impressions, and figures could provide new arguments in campaigning for safety.

Silvia Chocarro, Head of the Protection of Journalists at the NGO Article 19 told the researchers: “We have many questions for which we do not have answers. You have the tools to help us to find these answers”.

In response to Chocarro’s and remarks by other non-academic participants, Professor Jackie Harrison, Head of Department Department of Journalism Studies and UNESCO Chair on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity at the University of Sheffield, said: “It is so important that we hear from you so that we can better understand how our research can complement the work of the different stakeholders, so we can truly work together towards shared strategies and goals”. 

The conference took place at the United Nations Conference Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia within the framework the global World Press Freedom Day celebration, which was jointly organized by UNECO,  the government of Ethiopia and the African Union Commission.

During the conference, respondents critiqued the papers presented and offered suggestions on how academic research could potentially be used to support the work of the different stakeholders. Among the respondents were organisations including Article 19, Free Press Unlimited, the MENA Media Development Investment Fund and the Uganda Media Women’s Association.

Over the last four years, the Academic Conference on the Safety of Journalists has gained a much higher profile, engaging a wider range of academics and an array of different non-academic actors.