ARTICLE 19 expresses support for a new resolution on the safety of journalists adopted by consensus at the UN Human Rights Council on 6 October 2020. The resolution was led by a cross-regional core group of Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Morocco, Qatar, and Tunisia, and co-sponsored by over 70 countries from all world regions, signalling strong international commitment to end all attacks, reprisals and violence against journalists worldwide.1The number of co-sponsors is likely to rise in the coming days.
Since 2012, the Human Rights Council has considered resolutions on the safety of journalists every two years, with each iteration of the text setting increasingly progressive standards. This version of the resolution is no different, addressing new issues such as extraterritorial threats, overbroad and vague laws, strategic lawsuits against public participation, accreditation regimes, access to information, surveillance and protests, while strengthening language on gender-specific threats against journalists. Additionally, the resolution has been updated to provide guidance on ensuring the safety of journalists in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we look to the future, it is essential that this momentum is harnessed and future iterations of the resolution continue to pay attention to new and emerging threats facing journalists across the globe.
While increased support at the international level is welcome, we remain seriously concerned with the lack of implementation of these resolutions. With impunity for crimes against journalists as high as 90% worldwide, it is critical that action is now taken. We urge all States to translate these renewed international commitments into allocation of resources and political will at the national level to prevent, protect and remedy all human rights violations against journalists.
The resolution takes a major step forward by expressing deep concern over “incidences of extraterritorial targeting of journalists and media workers, including harassment, surveillance and arbitrary deprivation of life”.
This is the first Human Rights Council resolution on the safety of journalists since the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings’ investigative report into the extraterritorial murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. With two years passed since his death – which has only been met with impunity – this language is particularly timely. Khashoggi’s case is emblematic of an increasing trend of governments committing serious human rights violations against journalists outside of their territory, including those who have sought refuge or live in self-imposed exile. This creates a climate of fear which pushes journalists into self-censorship and silence.
We now call on States to champion the resolution and immediately put an end to all extraterritorial targeting of journalists, as well as to vocally condemn and increase scrutiny of this issue at the international level.
We commend the core group for strengthening language on gender in the resolution. The resolution now calls for comprehensive measures to protect women journalists, including to “prevent sexual harassment and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence”, to “encourage the reporting of harassment or violence by providing gender-sensitive investigative procedures”, and to “provide adequate support, remedy, reparations and compensation for victims”. Moreover, it urges political leaders and public officials to “refrain from using misogynist or any discriminatory language towards women journalists”. This language follows a recent report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women which was devoted specifically to women journalists.
We have serious concerns over gender-based attacks, reprisals and violence which affect women journalists disproportionately, or differently, when compared to their male counterparts. Worldwide, women journalists are at increased risk of human rights violations as a result of their journalistic activities, such as online threats and sexual violence, including in their own newsrooms. Over recent years, we have even witnessed growing verbal abuse against women journalists by leading public officials, serving to incite further widespread vitriol against them.
Now is the time for States to take concrete and targeted steps to end impunity by fully investigating and ensuring redress for human rights violations against women journalists, and to adopt a gender-responsive approach in the design and implementation of national policies for the protection of journalists.
The resolution is updated to raise deep concern that COVID-19 has had “significant implications for the work, health and safety of journalists” and calls on States to “assess the damage that the COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting on the provision of vital information to the public and the sustainability of media environments, and to consider, wherever possible, devising appropriate mechanisms to provide financial support to the media … without compromising editorial independence”. It goes further by requesting the High Commissioner to produce a report on the impact and repercussions of measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on the safety and work of journalists and media workers, integrating a gender perspective.
The Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression previously warned that the COVID-19 virus could become a “pathogen of repression”. Across the globe, the COVID-19 virus has exacerbated censorship and crackdowns on dissent or political opposition. A large number of States have used the pandemic as an opportunity to intensify repression of freedom of expression, including attacks, surveillance and arbitrary detention of journalists for their reporting of government responses to the pandemic. The economic consequences of the pandemic, including cuts to advertising revenue, have also undermined the vital work of journalists.
We reiterate our calls to States that all measures taken in response to the pandemic must meet the human rights standards of legality, necessity and proportionality. All States devoted to media freedom must also take heed of these recommendations to ensure the financial sustainability of journalism during the pandemic.
Overbroad and vague laws
The resolution incorporates new language which raises deep concern over “the misuse of overbroad or vague laws to repress legitimate expression, including defamation and libel laws, laws on misinformation and disinformation or counter-terrorism and counter-extremism legislation”. This bolsters existing language in the resolution which calls on governments to “ensure that defamation and libel laws are not misused … and where necessary to revise and repeal such laws”.
These laws are precisely designed without clarity or precision as to target journalists, as well as human rights defenders, academics, artists and other civil society actors. We are increasingly seeing these actors attacked, prosecuted and imprisoned under such laws. The application of such laws has only grew as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We urge all States who co-sponsored or joined consensus on the resolution to immediately repeal or amend such laws in line with international standards, and to cease legal harassment of journalists. We also take this opportunity to remind States that criminal sanctions are always a disproportionate response to defamation, and future iterations of the resolution must make this clear.
The resolution contains new language which raises deep concern over “business entities and individuals using strategic lawsuits against public participation to exercise pressure on journalists and stop them from critical or investigative reporting”.
Across the world, journalists are increasingly faced with meritless lawsuits that have the objective of imposing an overwhelming procedural and economic burden. These lawsuits – sometimes related to defamation or protection of reputation or personality – often have political and economic undertones, with governments, corporations or wealthy private actors attempting to bankrupt and silence journalists and newspapers for their investigation of corruption or public inefficiency.
It is paramount that States take heed of this new language by taking proactive and targeted measures to prevent the abuse and misuse of the law against journalists. At the same time, we encourage the core group of this resolution in the future to build on this language by moving beyond raising concern and incorporating clear operational recommendations on this issue. Moreover, there must be recognition that these lawsuits are not just brought by business entities and individuals but also by public officials or individuals sponsored by governments.
The resolution addresses the issue of accreditation for the first time, albeit in specific contexts. In particular, it raises alarm over “arbitrary and unwarranted denial of accreditation” of foreign journalists, as well as “disproportionate and undue restrictions … on accreditation” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have long raised concerns over the use of accreditation schemes to impede access to public events, buildings and officials, and restrict who can exercise journalism, despite international standards recognising that journalism is a function shared by a wide range of actors. These regimes enable governments to terminate the accreditation of journalists who have been critical of the government or have been reporting on sensitive matters. At the same time, those not affiliated to a media outlet, including freelance journalists, are disproportionately denied accreditation.
While the resolution takes a step forward by touching on the issue of accreditation, it only does so in relation to foreign journalists or in the context of the pandemic, overlooking that this a general and persistent concern. It is essential that future versions of the text introduce stronger standalone recommendations to governments to refrain from imposing accreditation schemes and procedures against journalists.
Right to information
The resolution pays new attention to right to information, stressing the importance of “journalists to have access to information held by public authorities and the right of the general public to receive media output”. Moreover, it calls on governments to “adopt and implement transparent, clear and expedient laws and policies that provide for the effective disclosure of information held by public authorities, including online”. This comes amid increased attention to this issue at the international level, with a recent resolution on the freedom of expression focusing on access to information.
The right of access to information held by public bodies is essential for journalists to carry out their work and, in turn, for the free flow of information in societies. We note how a lack of access of information is largely due to an absence of freedom of information legislation and institutional secrecy. At the same time, repressive legislation often impedes access to information of vital public interest.
With increased attention to this issue at the international level, it is crucial that governments now practice full transparency at the national level and fully implement their commitments on the right to information.
Implementation is key
It is vital that the pen holders of future versions resolution seriously contend with the lack of progress States have made in implementing commitments on the safety of journalists. A significant number of States join consensus and even sponsor these resolutions without their national records facing scrutiny. Where States fail, the UN must act.
We reiterate the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings’ previous calls for a UN Standing Instrument for the Criminal Investigation into Allegations of Targeted Killing and a Special Procedures Task-Force which could undertake investigations into all violations against journalists. Ultimately, these mechanisms could end the cycle of impunity and prevent future attacks against journalists.
Finally, ARTICLE 19 encourages all States to continue to engage with civil society on the ways to enhance their response to threats facing journalists as we look to the future.