ARTICLE 19 expresses strong support for a new resolution on the safety of journalists adopted by consensus at the UN Human Rights Council on 6 October 2022. The resolution was led by Austria together with a core group: Brazil, France, Greece, Morocco, Qatar, and Tunisia. It has also been co-sponsored by 69 countries from all world regions, signalling strong international commitment to ensure the safety of journalists worldwide.
This adoption marks a decade since the UN Human Rights Council first considered a resolution on the safety of journalists. 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 resolution adds strong new commitments to this now robust set of international standards, with new language on strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), investigations, extraterritorial attacks, protests, and defamation and libel laws, among other key issues. The resolution has also mandated an upcoming one-day expert seminar on legal and economic threats to the safety of journalists.
While increased support at the international level is welcome, we remain seriously concerned with the lack of implementation of these resolutions. 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.
Strategic lawsuits against public participation
The resolution takes a major step forward by introducing new commitments on strategic lawsuits against public participation. It first expresses concern about the rise of these lawsuits to exercise pressure, intimidate or exhaust the resources and morale of journalists, then calls on governments to ‘take measures to protect journalists and media workers from strategic lawsuits against public participation, where appropriate, including by adopting laws and policies that prevent and/or alleviate such cases and provide support to victims’.
Worldwide, we are witnessing powerful politicians and wealthy business people filing frivolous lawsuits to harass journalists who expose their corruption and wrongdoings. Their purpose is not necessarily to win but to place journalists under severe financial and psychological strain and push them into silence. Ultimately, they serve to decrease press freedom, prevent accountability from leaders, deprive societies of information, and threaten democracy.
We now urge all States to adopt laws and policies related to strategic lawsuits against public participation, notably those that allow for early dismissal, limit the damages claimed, permit a public interest defence, and provide legal support to victims. We also call on the core group to ensure that future versions of the resolution explicitly list these policies.
The resolutions on the safety of journalists have long provided strong guidance on conducting investigations into all cases of violence, threats and attacks against journalists and media workers over the years. However, the latest iteration takes a step closer in helping end impunity by detailing that these investigations require ‘following and exhausting lines of enquiry that determine whether violence, threats and attacks result from the journalistic activities of the victims’.
Across the globe, violence against journalists is on the rise. So far in 2022, at least 36 journalists have been killed as a result of their vital work. However, impunity for these crimes remains critically high – as much as 90%. This is often a result of deficiencies in investigations into attacks, including a failure to follow and exhaust lines of enquiry that connect such violence to the work of victims. The failure to recognise attacks as being in virtue of their journalistic work also serves as an injustice to victims and undermines our ability to fully understand threats to media freedom.
We now echo calls on States to implement this new guidance as part of their impartial, prompt, thorough, independent and effective investigations into violence, threats and attacks against journalists and media workers.
The resolution builds on progress made previously in the preambular paragraphs by ‘condemning unequivocally the extraterritorial targeting of journalists and media workers, including killings, enforced disappearances, harassment and surveillance, and urges States to cease and/or refrain from such attacks or measures’.
There is an increasing trend of States committing serious human rights violations against journalists outside of their territory, including those who have sought refuge or live in self-imposed exile. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi remains a painful yet emblematic reminder of the enduring international impact of these attacks, creating a global climate of fear that can push journalists into self-censorship and silence. The digital age and the widespread proliferation of devastating surveillance tools has only further enabled governments to target their critics beyond their borders.
We urge States to not only cease and refrain from extraterritorial human rights violations against journalists themselves, but also take all measures to prevent such attacks, including by placing an immediate moratorium on the export of surveillance technologies.
The resolution builds on previous language on the vital role of journalists in the context of protests by explicitly urging authorities to protect their safety ‘even if a protest has been declared unlawful or is dispersed’. This mirrors progress made at the previous session in the resolution on peaceful protests, solidifying international standards on this issue.
The role of journalists and other media workers during protests is absolutely vital – they inform the public on protest movements and the objectives of organisers, as well as report on human rights violations committed during protests. Despite this, hundreds of journalists around the world trying to cover protests have been harassed, beaten, arrested, abducted, and fired upon with non-lethal as well as live ammunition. Where protests have been dispersed or declared unlawful, journalists are most vulnerable to restrictions and attacks, despite playing an elevated role in monitoring and reporting on potential human rights violations.
With protests on the rise across the globe, States must now step up their efforts to uphold the rights of journalists to monitor and report on protests and ensure their safety.
Defamation and libel laws
The resolution takes an implicit yet important step towards recognising that criminal defamation and libel laws are incompatible with international human rights law. It calls on States to ensure that such laws are not misused through any ‘criminal sanctions’, rather than through ‘excessive criminal sanctions’ in previous versions of the resolution.
We have long called for the repeal of criminal defamation laws. This has been reiterated by multiple authoritative sources – from UN Special Procedures to the UN Human Rights Committee – showing clear international consensus on this issue. A criminal response to defamation is inherently disproportionate, undermines journalism and ultimately damages democratic discourse. These laws are particularly used to criminalise the work of journalists exposing corruption or conducting investigative work.
We now urge all States leading and sponsoring this resolution to show leadership on this issue and repeal criminal defamation laws, while ensuring that civil defamation frameworks have robust protections.
Over the past decade, the Human Rights Council has developed robust international standards on the safety of journalists through this series of resolutions. However, in many countries, there is a serious lack of progress in implementing these commitments. 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, 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, we encourage stakeholders at the national level, including civil society and the media, to proactively disseminate information about these commitments in order to hold their governments to account for their implementation.