November 2, 2014 marked the first International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, established by the United Nations General Assembly to draw attention to “attacks and violence against journalists,” which it unequivocally condemned. See UN General Assembly, Resolution 68/163, The safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, UN Doc. A/RES/68/163, 18 December 2013, para. 2. The General Assembly also called on States to “do their utmost to prevent violence against journalists” and urged governments to “ensure accountability” by investigating and punishing those responsible for such violence. See UN General Assembly, Resolution 68/163, paras. 5, 6.
The date of November 2nd was selected for this new International Day in remembrance of two French journalists killed in Mali in 2013. See UNESCO, International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.
Several events were held on November 3 and 4 in honor of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. On November 3, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO ) held a high-level panel discussion on “Ending Impunity: Upholding the Rule of Law.” On November 4, the third UN Inter-agency Meeting on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity convened in Strasbourg, France.
The Growing Threat to Journalists
The International Day comes in the midst of a “very serious crisis,” according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye. [OHCHR Press Release] In the past decade, more than 700 journalists have been killed. On average, one journalist is killed every week. [UN News Centre] The majority of these killings are “deliberately committed in connection with journalists’ denunciation of crime and corruption.” [OHCHR Press Release] Ninety percent of these crimes will go unpunished. [OHCHR Press Release]
Increasing numbers of regional conflicts create special risks for journalists, who are frequently targeted for political leverage or ransoms. [Al Jazeera] However, these crimes represent only a “fraction of a larger phenomenon,” as media workers are most often targeted in peace time when they are speaking out against human rights abuses, according to a video statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Impunity, or the failure to investigate, prosecute or punish those responsible for crimes against journalists, represents a grave threat both the right to freedom of expression and the collective right to information. [OHCHR Press Release] UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cautioned that the culture of unpunished violence against journalists causes people to fear “speaking out against corruption, political repression or other violations of human rights.” [UN News Centre] This restricts the availability of information and deprives society of crucial information. [UN News Centre]
Protecting the Right to Freedom of Expression
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights all preserve the right to freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to “hold opinions” and “to receive and impart information and ideas.”
Article IV of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights likewise protect the right to freedom opinion, thought, and expression. In recognition of the “fundamental and inalienable nature” of this right, and of the “need to protect [it] effectively in the Americas,” the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) adopted the Inter-American Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression. The Principles explicitly recognize that “freedom of the press is essential for the full and effective exercise of freedom of expression and an indispensable instrument for the functioning of representative democracy,” and that any violence or intimidation against journalists violates “the fundamental rights of individuals and strongly restrict[s] freedom of expression.” See Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, preamble.
Although the UN, European, and Inter-American human rights systems frame the nature of the State’s obligations to ensure journalists’ freedom of expression differently, all essentially recognize that governments must protect journalists from harm at the hands of both State and non-State actors. Additionally, all acknowledge that States must investigate and punish violations of this right.
Protecting Journalists’ Freedom of Expression from Harm or Interference at the Hands of the State
The UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 34, interpreting Article 19 of the ICCPR, states that governments must guarantee journalists’ “right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds” and not penalize or excessively restrict journalists in carrying out their work, particularly because “[a] free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential to any society…” See Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 34, Article 19: Freedoms of opinion and expression, UN Doc. CCPR/C/GC/34, 12 September 2011, paras. 11, 13, 37-49.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has also emphasized that the State must respect journalists’ right to freedom of expression. This means that governments may not interfere with journalists’ right to expose “corruption or misconduct by the Government or powerful private entities” or report on “other politically sensitive issues.” See Report of the Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, UN Doc. A/65/284, 11 August 2010, para. 35.
In a recent resolution addressing the security of journalists, the Human Rights Council likewise urged governments “to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference.” See UN Human Rights Council, Resolution 27/L.7, The safety of journalists, UN Doc. A/HRC/27/L.7, 19 September 2014, para. 3.
On April 30, 2014, the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe adopted a Declaration on the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists and Other Media Actors. The Declaration similarly clarifies that States must “refrain from interference with individuals’ freedom of expression.” See Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists and Other Media Actors, para. 7.
In a December 2013 report, the Inter-American Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression framed the duty to protect journalists from harm at the hands of the State as a duty to prevent attacks against journalists. This requires that the State consistently acknowledge the legitimacy and value of journalism and condemn attacks against journalists. Catalina Botero Marino, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Violence against Journalists and Media Workers: Inter-American Standards and National Practices on Prevention, Protection and Prosecution of Perpetrators, OEA/Ser.L/V/II, 31 December 2013, para. 37. States must also train officials to respect the media and maintain accurate records of violence against journalists. See id. at paras. 52 and 59.
Preventing Harm at the Hands of Non-State Actors
General Comment 34 emphasizes States’ responsibility to “put in place effective measures to protect against attacks aimed at those exercising their right to freedom of expression.” Human Rights Committee, General Comment 34, para. 23.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has urged States to “take appropriate measures” and “exercise due diligence” to protect journalists from harm at the hands of private individuals or entities. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, at para. 36. States must also “take positive and proactive measures,” such as providing protection to journalists and ensuring the effective implementation of national legislation that meets the requirements of international human rights law. Id. at para. 38.
The Human Rights Council similarly called on States to “prevent attacks and violence against journalists.” Resolution 27/L.7, The safety of journalists, at para. 3.
The Inter-American Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression likewise emphasized that States must protect journalists, for example, by taking special measures to address any “systemic and serious structural situation of violence against journalists and media workers.” See Violence against Journalists and Media Workers: Inter-American Standards and National Practices on Prevention, Protection and Prosecution of Perpetrators, at 62.
In the same vein, the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe acknowledged that States have a duty to protect journalists “against the threat of attack, including from private individuals, by putting in place an effective system of protection.” See Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists and Other Media Actors, at para. 7.
Investigating and Punishing Violations of Journalist’s Right to Freedom of Expression
Safeguarding journalist’s right to freedom of expression also requires that States investigate, prosecute and punish any violations of this right. At the international level, the Human Rights Committee has noted, “Journalists are frequently subjected to such threats, intimidation and attacks because of their activities” and has stated that “[a]ll such attacks should be vigorously investigated in a timely fashion, and the perpetrators prosectured, and the victims, or in the case of killings, their representatives, be in receipt of appropriate forms of redress.” Human Rights Committee, General Comment 34, para. 23. Similarly, the Human Rights Council explained that such investigations must be “impartial, speedy, thorough and effective.” Those responsible must be brought to justice, and victims must have access to “appropriate remedies.” Resolution 27/L.7, The safety of journalists, at para. 3.
The resolution elaborated specific ways States can fulfill this obligation, for example, by creating “special investigative units or independent commissions,” appointing special prosecutors, adopting tailored methods for investigating and prosecuting crimes against journalists, and developing “information-gathering mechanisms, such as databases, to permit the gathering of verified information about threats and attacks against journalists.” Id. at para. 5
States within the Inter-American system must likewise undertake “the investigation, prosecution and punishment” of those who perpetrate violence against journalists. See Violence against Journalists and Media Workers: Inter-American Standards and National Practices on Prevention, Protection and Prosecution of Perpetrators, at para 160.
Similarly, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers emphasized that States have a duty to “vigorously” investigate attacks on journalists. Such investigations must “take into account in a transparent manner” any “link to journalistic activities.” Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists and Other Media Actors, at para. 8.
Learn more about the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, along with other UN special procedures, and the Inter-American and European systems for protecting human rights in the IJRC Online Resource Hub.