New resolution seeks stronger safeguards for journalists 


New York, September 2016 — The issue of journalists’ safety has once again received world attention with the adoption in by the United Nations Human Rights Commission of what Article 19 has described as “a ground-breaking resolution”.

Read together with the UN’s Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, Resolution A/HRC/33/L.6, adopted on September 26, makes an emphatic statement against impunity for attacks on journalists.

The resolution was initiated by Austria, together with Brazil, France, Greece, Morocco, Qatar and Tunisia. It urges States to develop and implement strategies for combating impunity for attacks and violence against journalists, including by using, where appropriate, good practices such as:

  • The creation of special investigative units or independent commissions;
  • The appointment of a specialized prosecutor;
  • The adoption of specific protocols and methods of investigation and prosecution;
  • The training of prosecutors and the judiciary on the safety of journalists;
  • The establishment of information-gathering mechanisms, such as databases, to permit the gathering of verified information about threats and attacks against journalists;
  • The establishment of an early warning and rapid response mechanism to give journalists, when threatened, immediate access to the authorities and protective measures;

Further, it urges States to implement more effectively the applicable legal framework for the protection of journalists and media workers in order to combat the pervasive impunity, including through enforcement mechanisms with the capacity to pay systematic attention to their safety.

More importantly, it calls the immediate and unconditional release of journalists and media workers who have been arbitrarily arrested or arbitrarily detained, taken hostage or who have become victims of enforced disappearances.

At the same time, it condemns the forced closure of media outlets and offices whether in conflict or non-conflict situations. And on the safety of women journalists, it calls for a “gender-sensitive approach to designing and implementing measures to address the safety of journalists”.

The resolution has echoes of the African Union’s first ever decision on the safety of journalists. Sitting in Banjul, Gambia, on May 12 , 2012, the organization’s African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) adopted a resolution expressing deep concern over “declining safety and security situation of journalists and media practitioners in some African countries”.

The resolution called on States Parties to the African Charter, “to take all necessary measures to uphold their obligations under the African Charter and other international and regional instruments, providing for the right to freedom of expression and access to information. It noted that “killings, attacks and kidnapping of journalists, which are contrary to international humanitarian and human rights law, are often committed in an environment of impunity”.

It urged “all parties involved in situations of armed conflicts to respect the independence and freedom of journalists and media practitioners to exercise their profession and guarantee their safety and security in accordance with international humanitarian law”. To ensure the protection of journalists’ safety, the African Commission appealed to member States of the African Union “to fulfill their obligation of preventing, and investigating crimes against journalists, as well as bringing the perpetrators to justice”.

The UNHRC’s resolution comes at a time of growing concern over attacks on media around the world. According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), the rate of impunity for crimes against journalists remains extremely high worldwide. It points out that seven percent of crimes against journalists have been brought to justice and that in Africa, only five of 131 murders of journalists committed between 2006 and 2015 have been brought to court.

Only recently, Turkey shut down 20 media outlets in circumstances that suggest the government’s growing intolerance of its critics. In Africa, similar action in countries such as Zambia, Tanzania, and South Sudan, as well as attacks, killings and harassment of journalists in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea Tunisia and elsewhere, have led to street protests calls and condemnation of the authorities.

In Tanzania, the introduction of two media related laws – the Cybercrimes Act and the Statistics Act in 2015, and the likely passage of the Media Services Bill and Access to Information Bill, are being seen by the media fraternity as a serious threat to freedom of expression. The Statistics Act, for example, criminalizes publication of data from any source without the approval of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). This means the government can control data being published and avoid any figures that would cast it in bad light.

Equally disconcerting is the Media Services Bill, which provides for a penalty of $10,000 or five years in prison, or both, for a journalist who publishes any statement deemed threatening to the interests of defence, public safety, public order, etc.

The Bill also neuters one of country’s most visible, active and decidedly respected media institutions, the Media Council of Tanzania. By proposing to make the Council a statutory body, it effectively kills the spirit of self-regulation.

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