The fundamental rights of access to information and freedom of the press are vital for democratic, inclusive, and participative societies. These fundamental rights fall under freedom of expression as a norm of international law. Freedom of expression requires a free press in which journalists can report on public issues and inform public opinion, without restraint from an overreaching state or security forces. Vice versa, sound journalism requires free access to information. These fundamental rights are protected through international treaties, regional human rights instruments, and national human rights laws. Functioning as a “watch-dog” of these freedoms, journalism can be considered a public good, as it serves to inform citizens on political, economic, and social issues and ensures governance is transparent and accountable.
Acknowledging the many challenges journalism is currently facing, such as social media and “fake news”, algorithmic personalization “bots” and issues surrounding war zone correspondents (who are separately protected under the 1949 Third Geneva Convention) for instance, the focus of this article is on the everyday unlawful violations against journalists. This September, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Agency (UNESCO) published a report with findings revealing a “wider upward trend” in the use of unlawful violence by police and security forces against journalists over the last five years. Attacks were reported across 65 countries, and many of the tactics used, violate international laws and norms. Globally, journalists are facing censorship, surveillance, detention and physical attacks by law enforcement. The reported abuses against journalists include harassment, intimidation, beatings, being shot with non-lethal as well as lethal ammunition, sometimes even resulting in death. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, commented that around 1,000 journalists have been killed in the last decade – and that 9 in 10 cases “are unresolved”. The murders of journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 in Malta, Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in Turkey and Francisco Romero Díaz in 2019 in Mexico are only a few examples. Horrified by the fates of their colleagues, these events have deterring effects for other journalists. Besides the attacks on journalists being a deeply concerning issue in their own right, such attacks thus also constitute a direct threat to civil society and democracy. In democratic states, with separate legislative, executive and judiciary branches, a free press is often considered to be the 4th pillar of democracy. According to Freedom House, however, elected leaders in many democracies have made direct attempts to silence critical media voices and strengthen ones that provide favourable coverage. The trend is linked to a global decline in democracy itself: The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles.
The freedom to access accurate and reliable information, and the freedom of the press, are fundamental rights, enshrined in international law, under the UN 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the 1976 adopted UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19.2 of this covenant reads:
“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.
The human rights laid out in the UDHR and the ICCPR are universal, indivisible, and interdependent, and the interference with the right to freedom of expression by journalists, thus interferes with the right of others to receive information. Other fundamental rights under threat by the UNESCO reported violations include: the right to life, liberty and security (Article 3), the prohibition of torture (Article 5), the right to a fair trial and no punishment without law (Article 11), and the right to an effective remedy (Article 8). Article 19.2 is subject to restriction in cases which fail to respect the rights of others, notably in hate speech cases for instance. Besides this however, Member States of the UN are obliged to uphold Article 19.2 and the freedom of expression, and thus enable and protect journalists to report to civil society. However, the recent trend in increasing unlawful violence against journalists points out that these international laws do not guarantee minimum standards for journalism nor are they sufficiently implemented into national legal systems.
To intercept this upward trend of unlawful violence reported by UNESCO, and to ensure that journalists can serve society and do their job, we can improve and implement the following. Firstly, in terms of prevention, developing standard operating protocols and increasing training for law enforcement on the freedom of expression and appropriate behaviour in dealing with journalists – respecting their special status as ‘watch-dogs’ – is vital. Such training would include dialogues between law enforcement and journalists, to establish working relationship between the two groups, respecting the roles of each in society. It is imperative that national legal frameworks for police use of force align with the international standards of necessity and proportionality. Secondly, in terms of protection, countries should renew their international human rights pledges, review relevant domestic laws and practice and revise them as necessary, to ensure conformity with states’ obligations under the UDHR and ICCPR. These legislative frameworks should be subject to periodic review by independent expert bodies, such as Human Rights Watch for instance. Thirdly, as the Committee to Protect Journalists has pointed out in its “Global Campaign Against Impunity”, murder is the ultimate form of censorship and the statistic that justice is not served in 9 out of 10 murders, highlights that urgent action is needed on this front. In terms of prosecution, appointing national ombudsmen to hold police accountable for the unlawful use of force against journalists is key. The implementation of such ombudsmen and the strengthening of criminal law provisions should also operate to deter offences against journalists. Internationally, the freedom of press is only implicitly protected by Article 19.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and deserves to be explicitly mentioned and protected. The appointment of a Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for the Safety of Journalists, as proposed by Reporters Without Border and 70 media groups and freedom of expression NGOs, would be a valuable appointment. This proposal was officially rejected in 2019 by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The creation of such a position would however help prevent resolutions and treaties from being largely empty words and would have the political weight, the capacity to move quickly and the legitimacy to coordinate with all UN bodies to implement change.
Clear cut – attacks against or repression of journalists violate international laws and directly harm further human rights and democracy. Given the scale and severity of threats and attacks against journalists and their damaging effects on democracy, immediate measures are necessary at national and international levels, to strengthen the protection of journalism and to eradicate impunity. The international community has repeatedly stated the need for a more effective implementation of existing international and regional standards, yet the work still lies ahead of us. Governments should pro-actively (re-)establish their commitment to a free press and the protection of journalists as it is imperative that civil societies across the globe continue to defend right to freedom of expression. This is necessary for the enhancement of people’s lives and for the creation and maintenance of stable and healthy democratic societies.