Interview: UNESCO names and shames governments that provide impunity for those who kill and threaten journalists

November 1, 2019

Across the world, and increasingly in Europe, journalists are under threat and those who murder or threaten them are getting away with it. On this 2019 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, ECPMF seeks to understand what is being done to better protect them.
UNESCO names and shames governments that provide impunity for those who kill and threaten journalists Professor Ivor Gaber, UK representative on UNESCO committee. Photo: ECPMF

The Council of Europe lists 22 cases of impunity for the murder of journalists, with 14 in Serbia and Albania alone. The latest name to be added to this list of shame is that of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

UNESCO as the United Nations body responsible for the safety of journalists, through its Communications Committee, is trying to break this vicious spiral.

Ivor Gaber is Professor of Political Journalism at the University of Sussex and the UK government representative on this UNESCO Committee. In an interview with the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), he explained how it operates…

Ivor Gaber: Unlike the UN Security Council, the Committee doesn’t have the power to do much apart from condemn governments. It’s soft power if you like and the power to name and shame is as good as it gets. For a long time it’s been training journalists in journalism safety. Local NGOs, mainly in the South, apply to UNESCO for funding to get an international expert to train them. In many countries, political demonstrations are dangerous places for journalists to go. You need to know how to protect yourself. There are very simple measures, but things that people don’t always think about – like keeping your phone always charged, making sure you have a spare battery, telling people where you’re going and when to expect you back, checking your driver knows where to go, ensuring that you know the lie of the land and escape routes. These sound obvious, but often it’s the obvious which would have saved journalists’ lives.

ECPMF: They may not be obvious to freelancers or newly-qualified journalists who are just entering the profession. Do you make any special provision for them?

A: You raise an important point, because significant numbers of journalists who are murdered are freelancers or bloggers, not protected by employers who mostly – all credit to them – go to great lengths to ensure the safety of their correspondents.

Q: In EU members states now journalists are being murdered: UK, Malta, Slovakia. But UNESCO seems to focus mainly on the global South…

A: Certainly in terms of raising awareness and embarrassing governments, that is something that’s happening. When UNESCO publishes its biennial report on the safety of journalists, it does not discriminate between North and South. If journalists are being killed in Russia, as they are, that will feature highly. At this stage, the killing in Malta is a one-off, so you see Malta fairly low down in the league table. The issue of impunity is at the heart of this, because many of these journalists’ deaths would not happen if the perpetrators did not know that they were going to be protected. As global consciousness about the problem of impunity is raised, governments will feel obliged to do something. For example, recently in Russia, the government DID rush to condemn the killing of a journalist. It was a better reaction than when Anna Politkovskaya was murdered.

Q: Do the biennial reviews place any obligation on the governments to respond or take action?

A: UNESCO member states can resent an international body telling them what to do. Nonetheless, naming and shaming has proved effective and we do publish a list, not just of those countries that have responded but also of those countries that haven’t responded, and there has been a notable increase in responses. It’s sad that journalists around the world don’t report this UNESCO initiative with anything like the prominence it deserves. It should be a headline story. Unless there’s a sensational killing – as in the case in Malta – journalism safety doesn’t actually grab the headlines. It’s sad, it’s a pity.

Q: The climate of fear under which many journalists work contributes to that – the attacks and insults from politicians for example. Is there a way that UNESCO could use soft power to influence the language used by politicians and their attitude towards the media?

A: The Committee does hold conferences that ambassadors and high-level representatives attend. It’s part of a global effort to address this issue. However, at the moment, I’m not sure we’re going forwards. We keep working on it, just as your organisation does.

Q: What are your hopes and fears for the safety of journalists?

A: The Committee has had to shift its attention to the killing of journalists. At the moment all we’re trying to do is to stop the killings from happening as opposed to improving the quality of journalism or the diversity. These are the issues we ought to focus on. But because of the growing problem of the deaths of journalists, the Committee’s been distracted.

By Jane Whyatt

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