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By Robert Mugabe (Geneva-Switzerland)
Today, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has adopted a ground-breaking resolution on the safety of journalists, setting out its most comprehensive agenda yet for states to end impunity for attacks.
For the first time, the UN’s highest human rights body urges all states to release arbitrarily detained journalists, reform laws that are abused to obstruct their work, and to not interfere with the use of encryption and digital security tools that enable anonymity.
It also addresses gender-based attacks against women journalists, the forced closure of media outlets, and the right of journalists to protect their confidential sources.
The resolution strives to ensure greater complementarity between existing UN agencies and mechanisms tasked with ensuring the safety of journalists.
Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19 stated, “ This is an unequivocal commitment from states to ensure that these crimes against journalists do not go unpunished and to prevent their recurrence.”
By calling for the immediate release of all arbitrarily detained journalists, and for the repeal of abusive laws that facilitate judicial harassment, states are sending a clear message that journalism is not a crime. The commitments to protect journalists’ digital security, including to protect their confidential sources, shows that states are finally acknowledging the need to act on the increasingly diverse range of threats facing journalists and freedom of expression, Hughes added.
The resolution (A/HRC/33/L.6) is an initiative of Austria together with Brazil, France, Greece, Morocco, Qatar and Tunisia. The UN Human Rights Council, which consists of 47 States from across all regions, adopted the resolution by consensus (i.e. without a state calling for a vote).
on 29 September 2016 at its 33rd Session. To date, more than 87 states have officially joined the resolution as cosponsors, showing significant support for the initiative.
The situation for the safety of journalists in most parts of the world is not improving. In 2015, UNESCO reported 114 killings of journalists, bloggers and media workers across all regions of the world and warned that impunity is the predominant trend, with convictions only in 10% of cases. This is the tip of the iceberg, with incidences of torture, enforced disappearance, intimidation, threats and harassment much higher.
Helene Sackstein, the representative of Journalist’s right group, Reporters Sans Frontiers said-said the resolution is a mile stone and calls for UN to appoint a special representative of safety of journalists to coordinate and manage all the established mechanisms to ensure the safety of journalists during war time and peaceful time.
“For each journalist that is killed or attacked, countless other journalists are intimidated to self-censor and entire societies are deprived important information. States must act to end this tragedy,” She added.
“Unless they are matched with national action to ensure the effective implementation ending impunity for crimes against journalists will require political will.” Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi, the Permanent Representative of Austria to the UN in Geneva, warned.
The new resolution condemns specific attacks on women journalists, including sexual and gender-based discrimination and violence, recognising also that intimidation and harassment against women journalists takes place online and offline.
The new resolution commits states to immediately and unconditionally release arbitrarily arrested detained journalists.
Arbitrary arrests and detention are a priority concern for journalists’ safety. UNESCO estimates at least 221 such cases worldwide in 2014 alone, with the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia recording 120 cases in the country between January 2014 and July 2016. In Turkey, at least 88 journalists have been arbitrarily arrested since emergency powers were introduced following the failed coup in June 2015, bringing the estimated number of journalists in detention to 121, mostly on terrorism related charges.
The new resolution calls on states to review and amend laws that limit the ability of journalists to do their work independently and without undue interference, in particular to ensure that counter-terrorism, national security and public measures comply with international law and aren’t use to arbitrarily arrest or detain journalists. The resolution again calls on States to pay particular attention to the safety of journalists covering protests, and extends this to journalists during periods of elections.
Building upon this, the new resolution also condemns unequivocally the forced closure of and attacks against journalists’ offices and media outlets.
This has particular relevance in the digital context, where the blocking of online media outlets can cut them off from their entire readership. Whether done through the courts or extrajudicially, measures to force the closure of media outlets online or offline are a flagrantly disproportionate violation of the right to freedom of expression under international law.
The new resolution also integrates strong language on protecting digital security, making clear that trust in technology and the confidentiality of communications is key to journalists and their confidential sources of information staying safe. It recognises anonymity and encryption tools as “vital” for journalists, and calls on states to:
Not interfere with the use of digital security tools for anonymity or encryption;
Protect in law and in practice the confidentiality of journalists’ sources;
Ensure any exceptions to protecting the confidentiality of journalists’ sources are limited and clearly defined in national legal frameworks, and include judicial authorisation.
The new elements in the resolution on digital security draw heavily upon recent standard-setting reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, in particular on anonymity and encryption, and on protecting whistleblowers and sources.
The resolution tasks the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to prepare a report analysing the effectiveness of existing international and regional prevention, protection, monitoring and complaint mechanisms relating to the safety of journalists. This will be presented at the 39th HRC Session in September 2018.
Enhanced coordination between UN mechanisms and agencies will be essential to ensure the commitments in the HRC are implemented, and that states failing to meet those commitments are held accountable. These will include UNESCO and OHCHR, the special procedures and Universal Periodic Review, and the treaty bodies, together with their regional counterparts, in particular in the context of delivering Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, on 2 November 2016, is an important opportunity for States to demonstrate the necessary political will and dedicate the required resources to ensure the safety of journalists and end impunity. This new UN Human Rights Council resolution sets the minimum standard for the actions required from states at the national level.
Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Central African Republic, Chile, Congo, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, France, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mali, Madagascar, Maldives, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Moldova, Republic of Korea, Romania, Russian Federation, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, State of Palestine, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, Togo, Tunisia, Ukraine, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America, Uruguay, Yemen. **Other states may join as co-sponsors until two weeks after the 33rd HRC Session closes on 30 September 2016, and will be reflected in the HRC Annual Report.
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