The HR Commissioner to Ossigeno: Why war reporters deserve protection from all sides

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OSSIGENO – June 9, 2022 – With this text sent to the president of “Ossigeno per l’Informazione”, Alberto Spampinato, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatovic, spoke on the topics of the Ossigeno conference entitled “War, peace, information. The dangers for journalists. The case of Ukraine “held on 9 June 2022 in Rome in the Auditorium of the Casa del Jazz

Dear Alberto, dear participants, 

Thank you for this opportunity to address your conference on such a topical issue like the protection of journalists in conflict situations.

The importance of press coverage of conflict situations cannot be underestimated. By gathering and disseminating reliable information about armed conflicts, journalists carry out a crucial mission of public interest. It is often thanks to them that serious human rights violations, war crimes, and other atrocities, are brought to the attention of the public and of decision makers. Sometimes journalists covering conflicts have also helped courts obtain crucial evidence to hold war criminals to account. Their work can therefore document crimes, help to uphold human rights, establish accountability and foster international solidarity. 

This comes however with a price. As the current war in Ukraine proves once again, journalists on duty in the battlefield often face extreme dangers. 

For these reasons, journalists covering conflicts are afforded protection under international humanitarian law. This means that all parties to a conflict must protect journalists, avoiding deliberate attacks against them and upholding their rights in case they are captured. In addition, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court establishes that intentionally directing attacks against civilians, and therefore also against journalists who do not engage in the hostilities, constitutes a war crime. 

The Council of Europe and other international organisations have developed precise standards to help member States uphold their obligations to protect journalists covering conflicts. Regrettably, the reality on the ground differs greatly from these standards. 

Although it is impossible to guarantee zero-risks, States can and should increase the safety of journalists who cover conflicts by implementing available standards. They have a positive duty to protect individuals under their jurisdiction, including by preventing and punishing any harm caused by state and non-state actors alike. 

During my mandate as Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, and also in my previous capacity of OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, I have devoted a great deal of my efforts to persuading member states to confront these problems. 

Last April I addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe urging them to repeal and prevent laws which create obstacles for the work of journalists. I also published an article detailing several measures States must take to ensure to the maximum extent possible the safety of journalists who cover conflicts.

One of these measures is that States support initiatives of journalists, their associations and media organisations, for example those aimed at collecting and distributing protective gear. 

Another need to be addressed is training in combat situations and first aid. All too often journalists cover the battlefield without adequate preparation, a condition which increases their vulnerability. 

It is also crucial to ensure psychological assistance. Journalists who have endured conflict related dangers and witnessed terrible events may experience traumatic stress. 

Another key component of upholding media freedoms is respecting the confidentiality of journalistic sources, including in armed conflicts. 

Beyond specific measures related to journalists who cover armed conflicts, States should also take more general measures aimed at improving media freedom. 

Firstly, they should ensure protection. Police and law enforcement officers must not overlook threats against journalists nor neglect requests for protection. 

Secondly, end impunity. The police and the judiciary must be able to investigate all cases of violence against journalists, including those involving state agents, and prosecute the perpetrators. 

Thirdly, align legislation with human rights standards. Lawmakers should enact legislation that protects media freedom and shields journalists from undue pressure. Defamation and libel, for example, should be fully decriminalised and dealt with only proportionate civil sanctions. Legislation should also prevent SLAPP lawsuits. 

All these measures are within reach if there is political will. States have legislative, financial and others means to increase journalists’ safety and media freedom. They should use them better. 

I would like to conclude by thanking Ossigeno for this renewed opportunity to raise awareness about journalists’ needs and rights in times of war and peace. 

It is worth repeating at any possible occasion that democracy, human rights and the rule of law cannot flourish if there is hostility against journalists. 

Rest assured that I will continue to repeat this message to member States, demanding that they uphold their duty to protect journalists, at all times. Dunja Mijatovic

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