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Don’t shoot the messenger! Free speech is at the heart of democracy

Chloe Pieters on how increasing attacks on journalists constitute a threat to free speech and human rights

On the eve of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, observed annually on 2 November, UN experts warned that the world is witnessing more attacks than ever on journalists, spurred on by hate speech even from senior politicians.

Speaking in Geneva Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, UN special rapporteurs on arbitrary, summary and extrajudicial executions, and on freedom of expression, urged ‘states to act – in word and action – to reverse this trend’ which has, so far, this year resulted in the deaths of more than 30 journalists.

Since its proclamation in 2013 by the UN General Assembly, following the 2012 UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, it appears the world has not become a safer place for journalists. According to a recent article from the UN News Centre ‘From 2006 to 2016, at least 930 journalists were killed. In 2016 alone, some 102 journalists were killed in the line of duty. Worryingly, in [on average] more than 9 out of 10 cases, the perpetrators are never brought to justice’.

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 and rights. A free media contributes to transparency, enabling citizen to scrutinise the actions of politicians and undermine corruption, thus upholding key democratic principles. As civilians journalists exercise their rights to freedom of expression in the course of their day-to-day work. Therefore, attacks on them constitute a major threat to freedom of expression more generally. And violence against journalists is often accompanied by other attempts to thwart communication by and between citizens.

To advance the debate around these fundamental freedoms and to change attitudes, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, has established a project to examine, analyse and draw attention to threats to journalistic freedom in the 52 countries that make up the Commonwealth.

Called Media Freedom in the Commonwealth, it is designed to also 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 to challenge the apparent impunity enjoyed by their attackers. Impunity for crimes against journalists can be deeply entrenched.

For more than nine years, the Committee to protect Journalists (CPJ), which helps reporters around the world and in conflict zones, has published Getting Away with Murder, its Global Impunity Index. Since 2008, eight countries have appeared on this list and from 1992, only 13 per cent of murders against journalists have resulted in prosecutions.

At the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’ conference in April – ‘The Commonwealth and challenges to media freedom’ – Patricia Scotland, Commonwealth secretary-general, 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 like the Latimer House Principles which govern issues around separation of powers in Commonwealth countries.

The picture in 2017
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 killings occurred in Mexico alone, and are largely related to the coverage of organised criminal activities. Latin America and the Caribbean were the second deadliest region for journalists in 2014–15, accounting for 24 per cent 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 murders of online reporters is rising. This is accompanied by a trend of violence against citizen journalists and bloggers – and sometimes even users of social media.

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 to sedition to anti-cybercrime.

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.

Chloe Pieters is manager of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies which runs an MA on human rights. The 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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1 Comment

  1. yehudi webster says

    All laws against language use are implicit threats of violence toward a thinker, for speaking is an expression of a thought. Such laws are dehumanising, given that it is language use that defines the human species. In this context, free speech is the core of human speciation and civilisation’s evolution. If political leaders desire to protect their citizens from lies, defamation, slander and “fake news,” they should encourage teachers to address students’ reasoning, cultivate critical thinking, include philosophical traditions in curricula, make education a human right, and “a learning society” the goal of economic policies.

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