On 26 September the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted Resolution A/HRC/33/L.6 on the safety of journalists by consensus – that is, with no objections and no vote.
It’s the latest of 8 resolutions adopted by UN bodies in the past four year alone related to the obligation of States to ensure journalists’ safety and their ability to work without undue interference. And as UN resolutions go it’s a good one.
That’s because this text spells out in detail as never before what States need to do in practice to comply with their obligations under international law. That’s quite something in a field of international law where States often hide behind their ‘sovereign rights’, and the heavy burdens of fulfilling their commitments, and the alleged criminality of what journalists write and say.
For the first time the new Resolution identifies the arbitrary arrest of journalists and media workers as a particular problem, and urges the ‘immediate and unconditional’ release of those held without reasonable evidence or due process.
So will Turkey now release, for example, the brothers Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, both arrested three weeks ago for giving out ‘subliminal messages’ on TV about a coup on the day before one actually took place in July? Will it free scores of others – journalists, lawyers and others – who are also locked up pending trial, often without a shred of evidence cited?
The Resolution also calls on States to adopt laws, or to reform existing ones, in order to maintain ‘in law and in practice’ a safe and enabling environment for journalists. And it spells out more specific things they should do, like monitoring and reporting attacks against journalists, and training their judiciaries and police in international legal standards related to maintaining journalists’ safety.
Does that mean that scores of UN member states will hasten to repeal or amend their sweeping laws and extremely harsh penalties for alleged sedition, extremism, anti-state activities, criminal defamation or blasphemy, which are often used to condemn and lock up journalists who ask searching questions about corruption or abuses of power?
Just possibly some of those things will happen, in some cases, at some time in the future. Probably not at all soon, in most cases, if past experience is a guide.
But it is still something… something that States including Armenia and Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire and Croatia, Georgia and Germany, Mali and Mexico, Tunisia and Ukraine, are all among the countries that sponsored Resolution A/HRC/33/L.6. And something that no state took action to vote against it.
The Resolution has other merits, too. We find language in it about how States should develop ‘strategies for combatting impunity’ for attacks against journalists – like setting up independent commissions to investigate those crimes; appointing a specialized prosecutor; and establishing early warning and rapid response mechanisms to give journalists quick access to protection if they are threatened.
All those elements exist in previous UN documents, but never all in the same place in a resolution adopted in the UN’s Human Rights Council.
They all exist in reality, too, in some place or another.. like the combined state and civil society protection mechanism in Colombia which has greatly reduced the death toll from targeted violence against journalists as well as human rights defenders and others. Or like the independent Commission to investigate unresolved killings of journalists in Serbia, which has brought fresh opportunities to clear up targeted murders of journalists that date back 20 years or more.
This Resolution tells us a lot of things that we already knew. But the recognition of them in this form, unanimously, in the world’s foremost human rights forum, matters.
The drive to repeal or amend bad laws concerning the safety of journalists and protection of journalism in Europe has been boosted by the new Guidelines accepted in April this year by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. Those Guidelines – Recommendation 2016(4) of the Committee of Ministers – represent the most detailed manual for states in Europe to review all their laws and practices related to freedom of expression and the work of journalists. It should be used.
And on November 17, at the headquarters of UNESCO in Paris, the dismally poor record of many states in failing to investigate and punish those responsible for the killing of over 700 journalists worldwide over the past decade will be held up to scrutiny in a public debate, following the release of a new Report on journalists’ safety and impunity by the Director-General of UNESCO.
These are among the elements of a system that actually exists — if very imperfectly — of monitoring, reporting and reforming the way in which State power is often misused to stifle or silence the voices of investigative journalists.
It is no use complaining that a new UN Resolution by itself changes nothing. Of course it doesn’t. It must be put into practice just as all those states have committed themselves to doing in this text. And they may need some help to do that.