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Focus on journalists by Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on extrajudicial executions
Tuesday, 26 June 2012 17:28

 

On 19 June the annual reports of the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, were presented to the Human Rights Council (the Council).  A clustered interactive dialogue was held to discuss the two reports, and their common theme - journalism.

 

La Rue’s overview paid particular attention to the public service role played by journalists. Their investigative purview, he argued, situates them as watchdogs - an essential pillar of a modern democratic society. Threats and violence against journalists endanger freedom of speech, censoring not only the individual threatened but also, through creating a climate of fear, the wider society. La Rue singled out Colombia’s national Unit for the Protection of Journalists for praise, and called for States to follow this example and develop protection mechanisms, tailored to the local context, to protect the rights of journalists. The criminalisation of defamation also alarmed the Special Rapporteur. Similar to the direct threats mentioned earlier, these legal statutes, and corresponding ‘judicial harassment’, may cause self-censorship - stifling democracy.

 

Christof Heyns introduced his report by underscoring the threats journalists face. According to his report two thirds of journalists are killed because they investigate corruption, politics, the environment, and human rights - not because they are in conflict zones. Most perilous of all are the positions occupied by local, as opposed to foreign, journalists. The Special Rapporteur asserted that high levels of impunity within some of the more corrupt nations, including the Philippines, Colombia, and the Russian Federation, can be directly correlated to the killing of journalists. Heyns finished by mentioning that 70 per cent of journalists killed received prior threats, suggesting that there is significant room for preventative measures.

 

Concerned states, those visited by Special Rapporteur La Rue, were then allowed time to reply to his report. Algeria spoke first, criticising La Rue’s report for being unbalanced and exceeding its mandate. The delegate criticised the report for making reference to freedom of assembly, which it stated was the sole responsibility of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Mr Maina Kiai. The Palestinian delegate spoke next, agreeing with the La Rue’s concerns about the need to balance its defamation laws against greater freedom of opinion. Efforts to establish a human rights framework are, however, being overridden by the ongoing and illegal Israeli occupation. The third concerned State, Israel, did not speak because its delegate was absent.

 

The dialogue was then opened to the floor, where several themes were discussed. Despite the considerable use of Latin American States within Heyns’s report, only two States from the region picked up on this. Cuba and Brazil were the only Latin American countries to comment upon the omission of developed countries from the report. Belarus and the Russian Federation chimed in, however, over the issue of Julian Assange.[1] The illegal use of drones, and the growing number of deaths caused by drone attacks, became another focal point. Switzerland, Cuba, and the American Civil Liberties Union each called for an end to the use of robotic weapons, which jeopardise the lives of not only civilians but journalists as well.

 

La Rue’s definition of journalism also caused contention amongst States. Whilst the majority of European and other Western states fully concurred with the definition, Senegal, Egypt, Algeria, and Mexico disagreed with its content. The definition, which includes citizen journalists and bloggers within the broader umbrella of ‘journalism’, received criticism for being too broad. Whilst these States agreed that journalists should be afforded specific rights, the inclusion of bloggers and citizen journalists was considered too inclusive. Thailand, China, and Cuba aimed criticism at bloggers for their alleged lack of objectivity and ethical standards.

 

Overall the debate was well received by all parties, with constructive dialogue throughout. Despite several contentious issues, the majority of States thanked the two Special Rapporteurs for their objective and insightful reports. The majority of States also sought to question the Rapporteurs on methods of best practice regarding the protection of journalists. During Heyns’s final remarks he outlined several such best practices. Among these was Brazil’s federal law on crimes against journalists and the National Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (NABC) provision of first aid training to its journalists. At the regional level the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was cited for its provisions. The OSCE’s Committee to Protect Journalists is one such provision to protect the freedom of expression.

 

Human rights defenders also came up during the dialogue. Norway pointed to the link between human rights defenders and journalists stating that the trend of killing or harassment of journalists mirrored that experienced by human rights defenders. While it clarified that not all journalists are human rights defenders, it added that where journalists draw attention to human rights violations through their reporting they are carrying out an activity under article 6(c) of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. In this case, therefore, the provisions of the Declaration apply. 

 

In his closing remarks, La Rue distinguished between a journalist and a human rights defender by stating the former informed the population about human rights violations, whilst the second denounced human rights violations. However, despite making this distinction he recognised the similarity of risk faced by both groups, and called for a greater synthesis in the provisions for both. He highlighted several best practices from Mexico, Brazil, and Honduras. In Honduras the Secretary General of Justice has implemented the first national plan on human rights defenders, justice personnel, and journalists for a safe working environment. Brazil, encouraged by the success of its existing  protection afforded to journalists via protection programmes designed for human rights defenders, aims to continue in this vein. 



[1] Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, faces extradition to Sweden, and from there to the US where he could be charged under the Espionage Act, a law which carries the death penalty. 

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 28 June 2012 14:18
 
© by The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) 2018