Global effort to defend our journalists

2011-11-26 14:30

‘I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts.”

These are the chilling, yet inspiring, words from an editorial written by Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge a few days before he was murdered in 2009 by two motorcycle gunmen in the midst of morning rush-hour traffic in downtown Colombo.

The editorial, in which Wickrematunge predicted his assassination, was published posthumously and sent a shock wave across the world.

“In the wake of my death, I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry,” he wrote.

“But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one too.”

A defiant, stoic resignation to the tragic fact that in many countries, the killers of journalists are almost never brought to justice. According to the International Press Institute’s Death Watch figures, more than 90 journalists have been killed this year.

Since 2000, more than 900 journalists have died because of their work. The killers of journalists are almost never brought to justice.

This has created a climate of impunity. Those who kill and assault journalists, or arbitrarily send them to prison, have one goal: to silence the messenger and intimidate other journalists.

They seek to ruthlessly censor and promote self-censorship.

They constitute the world’s gravest threat to press freedom.

The safety of journalists is a fundamental pillar of the universal, inalienable right to press freedom, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When fear prompts journalists to self-censor, the free flow of information is impaired.

Citizens are deprived of information. Accountability – in both the public and private sectors – is undermined. And democracy is threatened.

In the absence of critical, independent information, it is disinformation, propaganda and incitement that prevail. It is the duty of everyone – not just journalists and civil society actors, but especially governments – to participate in a global effort to promote and ensure the safety of journalists.

The approach must be comprehensive. It must bring together news organisations, civil society groups, governments and international organisations.

Governments must devote more effort to bringing to justice the killers of journalists, and preventing assaults against the press.

Violations need to be investigated and perpetrators held accountable.

International organisations must assist the international community in remaining vigilant. Civil society must raise awareness and must embrace an authoritative visionary message that welcomes positive government initiatives and engagement, and denounces contempt for a free media.

We have a long way to go.

International human rights watchdogs, such as the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the United Nations, have pointed to the broad gap between existing international law and its actual implementation.

Furthermore, there has been a notable lack of focus on the safety of journalists outside narrowly defined conflict zones.

That is why the Austrian government, with the support of the International Press Institute, is seeking to address the safety of journalists at the UN Human Rights Council – to which Austria was elected recently. We want to focus on eradicating impunity and on preventing future attacks.

As a first step, on Wednesday, a group of experts met in Vienna for our joint initiative to discuss concrete means of bolstering the safety of journalists across the world.

The date we chose for this gathering was a significant one. On November 23 2009, 32 journalists were slaughtered on their way to a political event in the Maguindanao province of the Philippines.

A further 25 men and women, travelling in convoy with the journalists, were killed in the attack. Since then, November 23 has been named The International Day to End Impunity.We are fully aware of the uphill road ahead.

But we – governments and media representatives – owe our commitment to journalists under threat everywhere, to the courageous defiance and noble legacy of those media workers who have paid the ultimate price in the pursuit of their job, and to the citizens on every continent who have a fundamental right to know.

» Spindelegger is vice-chancellor and foreign minister of the Republic of Austria.

McKenzie is executive director of the International Press Institute 

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