In midst of deadliest year on record for journalists, Global experts discuss urgent measures for reporter safety

Governments worldwide must take responsibility for ending the growing threat to journalist safety, affirmed panelists at an IPI roundtable to mark the 2012 International Day to End Impunity.

Setting the tone for the discussion was IPI’s sobering announcement that 2012 is already the deadliest year for the media since the group’s record-keeping began in 1999. A total of 119 journalists have been killed so far this year because of their work, according to IPI’s Death Watch, a chilling statistic that confirms the importance of a landmark UN Human Rights Council Resolution in September urging member states to promote reporter safety.

But in spite of the consensus for action from both civil society and international bodies, “what we don’t have yet is the successful translation of these important endeavours into a change in the chilling reality on the ground,” said IPI Deputy Director and former CNN Beirut correspondent Anthony Mills, who moderated the event.

Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, declared that the security situation for journalists around the world, and in particular those working in “undeclared conflict zones” such as Mexico, had got “progressively worse”.

Ultimately, he noted, “the protection and promotion of human rights is the responsibility of states and we cannot ignore that responsibility”, arguing that no solution to fight impunity could substitute for the “political will of governments”.

Roland Bless, Principal Adviser to the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, emphasised the importance of framing the fight against impunity in terms of the wider threat it poses to free society. “Any attack against the media should be labeled an attack on democracy itself,” he indicated, adding the protection of journalists was “foremost a government obligation”.

Recent events in the Middle East loomed large over the discussion, with panelists strongly condemning the killing of three Palestinian journalists by an Israeli airstrike on Tuesday and stating that journalists are never a legitimate target, regardless of their perceived national or political affiliation.

The dire situation facing Gazan journalists was vividly described by Karl Bostic, a former NBC News Baghdad bureau chief and producer, who told listeners that Israeli attacks on the densely populated Strip meant that hospitals had been perceived as the only relatively safe location for Gaza-based media before the recent cease-fire. Bostic’s experience provided the discussion with a unique, first-hand perspective on the hazards of reporting and managing from a war zone.

The panelists also addressed the often-thorny issue of who should be considered a journalist, a long-standing question thrust into the spotlight recently by the citizen journalists and bloggers who have largely replaced traditional media in war-torn Syria.

Anita Zielina, deputy editor-in-chief of Austria’s Der Standard newspaper and and a leading digital media expert, argued that efforts to promote journalist safety must include non-traditional reporters. “The media sphere is changing and we must build rules and frameworks for the media of the 21st century,” she said.

Anita Zielina, deputy editor-in-chief of Austria’s Der Standard newspaper and; Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Karl Bostic, former NBC News Baghdad bureau chief and producer participate in an IPI roundtable on journalist safety and impunity. PHOTO: IPI

Zielina’s point was echoed by Massoud Akko, a member of the Syrian Journalists Association and a guest of the Norwegian National Commission for UNESCO, who described the tremendous risks taken by media activists to expose conditions in Syria to the rest of the world.

Guy Berger, Director of the Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, praised an IPI-hosted gathering of civil society groups yesterday as a chance to “catalyse a new and concerted effort” to address journalist safety. Berger called on NGOs to increase cooperation in order to provide a seamless global network for journalists in danger.

Even amid the increased attention paid to the issue, panelists acknowledged the difficulty in encouraging governments to do more to combat impunity, given that the latter were often at odds with the goal of increasing the free flow of information. “Today with the growth of online news, by which content reaches the world faster than ever before, more and more politicians are scared of the impact of communication in general,” asserted La Rue. Nevertheless, panel members expressed hope that the UN Human Rights Council resolution and the recently passed UN Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity would push governments to take action.

This roundtable, organised by IPI with the support of UNESCO, coincides with a series of UN meetings in Vienna, hosted by the Austrian government, to discuss institutional measures to combat impunity concerning crimes against journalists.

This year’s International Day to End Impunity, November 23, marks the fourth anniversary of the Maguindanao Massacre in the Philippines, in which 32 journalists were slain in a single day.

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