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Freedom of the press: an essential cornerstone of human and civil rights

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Today is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, an outcome of a 2013 United Nations General Assembly resolution on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. Drawing on a range of resolutions and human rights treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which affirms the right to freedom of expression, the General Assembly recognised the importance of a free media to the upholding of democracy, peace and good governance. However, the General Assembly also noted with concern the fact the journalists’ work often puts them at risk of harm, and that protection of journalists is compromised by impunity for their attackers. Four years on from the initial adoption of this resolution, which followed the 2012 UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, is the world safer for journalists?

What is freedom of the press?

Freedom of the press is a manifestation of the freedom of expression, often considered a cornerstone of other freedoms; as civilians, journalists are exercising their rights to freedom of expression in the course of their day-to-day work. Attacks on journalists therefore constitute a major threat to freedom of expression more generally, and indeed violence against journalists is often accompanied by other attempts to thwart communication by and between citizens.

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies has established a project on Media Freedom in the Commonwealth to examine, analyse and draw attention to threats to freedom of the media in the 52 countries which make up the Commonwealth, to consider the links between different ways in which the media is silenced, and to develop ideas for how the Commonwealth Secretariat can support the upholding of the right to freedom of expression in member states.

One way of supporting journalists is challenging impunity for their attackers. Impunity for crimes against journalists can be deeply entrenched. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has published its Global Impunity Index, Getting Away with Murder, annually since 2008: eight countries have appeared on this list since it was first published. Since 1992, only 13% of murder cases against journalists have resulted in prosecutions. Impunity was identified as a major challenge to media freedom across the Commonwealth by several speakers at a conference in April 2017 which launched the Media Freedom in the Commonwealth project. In some countries the only possible challengers of violence against journalists are journalists and media workers themselves, who therefore place themselves at further risk by speaking out against attacks on their colleagues.

There are some early signs that the Commonwealth Secretariat is taking threats to the freedom of the media across the Commonwealth seriously. Delivering a keynote speech at the April conference, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland, called for greater co-operation between civil society and the Commonwealth Secretariat to realise a shared vision on media freedom. This, she hoped, could become the foundation for a doctrine on media freedom and good governance similar to the Latimer House Principles, which govern issues around separation of powers in Commonwealth countries.

The picture in 2017

Photograph courtesy of Anna M Weaver

So far, the CPJ has recorded 11 murders of journalists where the motive for killing was a direct reprisal for their work. Five of these murders occurred in Mexico alone, largely related to the journalists’ coverage of organised criminal activities. (Latin America and the Caribbean was the second-deadliest region for journalists in 2014-15, accounting for 24% of all murders of journalists globally in this period). A further 15 journalists have died in 2017 as a result of being caught in crossfire and combat, most in Iraq and Syria. Unsurprisingly, as print media declines and online news outlets become more prominent, the number of online journalists murdered is rising. This is accompanied by a trend of violence against citizen journalists and bloggers – and sometimes even users of social media. While a by-the-numbers approach suggests the picture is improving slightly for journalists – 2015 was one of the deadliest years for journalists in the last decade, for example, with 115 journalists being killed – a complacent view of the right to freedom of expression is not yet warranted.

Threats to media freedom and freedom of expression go beyond physically attacking, harassing and killing journalists: governments exercise a range of techniques to silence news organisations, including through internet shutdowns, such as those which occurred during the Ugandan elections of 2016, or through restrictive laws ranging from libel and defamation to sedition to anti-cyber crime. Such attacks on the media’s ability to challenge governments serve to highlight both the fragility of democratic institutions and the hugely important role a responsible media plays in underpinning democracy by challenging corruption, monitoring elections and acting as a barometer for freedom of expression more widely.

The Human Rights Consortium’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights covers topics of contemporary relevance in human rights, including issues surrounding freedom of expression, assembly, and the interactions between securing human rights and strengthening democracy. The degree is now also offered by distance learning with the University of London’s International Programmes.

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