CFOM Lecture by Guy Berger, UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development
Lecture and debate: ‘Your right to know relies on justice for journalists under attack’
Below is an overview of the CFOM annual lecture written by our International Director William Horsley.
“Stand up for journalists, justice and the public’s right to know” was the core message from Guy Berger in his CFOM Lecture to Journalism Studies undergraduates and post-graduate students in Sheffield on Wednesday 9 November.
Some 150 people gathered in the lecture hall to hear Guy Berger, for the past five years a key official directing UNESCO’s work on journalists’ safety, and before that a journalist and editor in South Africa who was jailed under the country’s racist apartheid laws that were finally swept away in the early 1990s.
The theme of the lecture, linking journalists’ right to report and the necessity of justice and the rule of law, was chosen to commemorate the UN-declared International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, which falls on 2 November each year.
Guy Berger presented key points from the 2016 Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity. Some of its headline points were published on 2 November, and it will be issued in full and debated by representatives of world governments at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters on 17 November.
Among the more than 800 journalists killed for their work in the past ten years – in at least nine out of ten cases without those responsible being brought to justice – are these names:-
Marie Colvin, the fearless Sunday Times war correspondent who died in 2012 reporting on the plight of Syrian civilians in the besieged city of Homs.
Wali Khan, a Geo TV journalist shot dead in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2011. The conviction in 2014 of several suspects in his murder is thought to be the first time that any of the scores of targeted killings of Pakistani journalists in the past decade has resulted in a successful prosecution, with the killers being brought to justice.
That is what impunity means – a total lack of punishment for those who kill media workers, often to silence them and stop them from reporting on corruption, crime or serous abuses of human rights.
Two media workers, Ahmed Haceroglu, a reporter for an Iraqi TV channel, and Ali Resan, a cameraman for another Iraqi station, killed in Kirkuk on 21 October 2016, barely two weeks ago.
After their deaths UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, made a public statement deploring their deaths and calling on the parties to the conflict in Iraq to respect the civilian status of reporters, as required by the Geneva Conventions.
In 2012, after a long and hard-fought campaign by many press freedom and human rights groups, and with support from helpful governments, UNESCO was given the task of leading and coordinating an ambitious inter-agency UN plan known as the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.
Guy Berger outlined some of the many action lines that have been born out of the Action Plan – like coordinating the efforts of dedicated Non-Government Organisations in Pakistan to track and monitor attacks against journalists and bring them to the attention of the Pakistani authorities and the outside world; and the development of dozens of in-country mechanisms of protection, rapid response, legislation and training of journalists and officials that are designed to create a safe and enabling environment for journalist in unstable and often violent regions, for example in Colombia and Mexico.
The biannual Report on journalists’ safety and impunity by the UNESCO Director-General deserves to be followed – and followed up with further investigations and reporting – by journalists and all those who care about the right of journalists to report, and the basic right to be informed of everyone in the societies affected.
Some of the statistics are deeply shocking, like the total death toll over ten years among journalists, which UNESCO estimates to be 827 (from 2006-2015); and the overall impunity rate of around 92 percent. But there is new evidence that the rate of bona fide investigations and convictions of perpetrators has increased in the last couple of years.
Tonia Samsonova worked for the independent TV channel Dozhd TV in Russia and is now London correspondent for the well-known critical radio station Echo of Moscow, told the meeting she had been forced to learn new survival skills in her job because of frequent threats of violence against her and the killing of some of her journalistic colleagues in the not very distant past. She spoke about her personal commitment to the task of reporting independently in an environment of coercive state power; and about the courage and resilience of those Russian journalists who resist the pressures to be mouthpieces for the powerful and strive to hold power to account and inform the public without fear or favour.
Ghias Aljundi, a Syrian- born human rights consultant and media trainer who has worked in Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia, spoke from his experience in Egypt of how many years of suppression and state violence, combined with pervasive surveillance by police and intelligence services, has quashed virtually all outlets for free expression in a country like Egypt.
The terrible result, he says, is the creation of a society in which the average person lives in ‘information darkness’, with no access to news or comment apart from what is provided by official sources, which are tightly censored.
Elisabeth Witchel, who wrote the special Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report ‘Getting Away With Murder: 2016 Global Impunity Index’, explained the realities of the culture of impunity that has grown up in countries such as Syria and Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan, Somalia and Russia. It forces investigative journalists in those countries to work under the constant threat of being attacked or even killed.
Just ten years ago, one of the best-known journalists in Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered in the hallway of her apartment block in Moscow . After years of judicial neglect and failure several members of a contract killers gang were sent to prison, but the masterminds of Politkovskaya’s murder have not yet been identified and charged.
CPJ’s latest report lists setbacks in the struggle against impunity, such as the decision last year by a Moscow court to close the case against the accused mastermind behind the 2000 murder of reporter Igor Domnikov, citing the statute of limitations. UNESCO’s policy is to urge all its member states, including Russia, to set aside the statute of limitations in cases involving the killing of journalists.
In Russia’s case CPJ lists the most common perpetrators of journalists’ murders in Russia as ‘Government officials and political groups’.
Guy Berger’s address and the testimonies of the participants in the CFOM debate provided students with first-hand data which some used in the case study presentations they made during the Department of Journalism Studies’ International journalism Week.
William Horsley, CFOM’s international director, who moderated the debate, said learning and researching into aspects of journalists’ safety and impunity was especially important to give a new generation of students a toolkit of survival skills, and knowledge of legal and political realities, that will prove vital in their working lives.
Guy Berger urged journalism students, and all concerned with the right to report, to watch and follow the UNESCO DG’s Report on 17 November, as well as the ensuing stock-taking debate in Paris. Full details and background materials about the Report are available on UNESCO’s website, where anyone can also subscribe to UNESCO’s Newsletter on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.