UNESCO. Best practices for monitoring and safety of journalists have been initiated by NGOs

The UNESCO seminar in Sri Lanka showed that many similarities exist between Asia and Europe and highlighted how late Italy is in establishing a national human rights commission

Most of the safety mechanism and best practices to address the issue of impunity established so far in Asia have been initiated by civil society and media and do not yet involve Member States’ public institutions.

This is the situation presented at the seminar “Reinforcing regional cooperation to promote freedom of expression and the rule of law in Asia through ending impunity for crimes against journalists”, which was held on 4 December 2017 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The seminar was jointly organized by UNESCO and the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media of Sri Lanka, and served as the main commemoration of the 2 November International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. This and other outcomes of the event have been presented in the final report on the seminar available on the UNESCO website.

Although the report focuses on the Asian region, the document is very relevant in light of the similarities with the situation in Europe, since it shows that the issue of the non-fulfillement of international obligations from States is shared among many countries around the world. This confirms the opinion that the Italian NGO Ossigeno per l’Informazione has long been expressing, namely that it is highly probable that the issue of impunity is rooted in legislation and in the political will. Indeed, according to Ossigeno, impunity and the lack of establishment of national mechanisms for monitoring attacks and the safety of journalists come in first place from the non-binding nature of the obligations that international human rights treaties and international fora, such as the UN, OSCE and the Council of Europe, establish on Member States. Moreover, in spite of the weakness of such obligations, States have not taken any step forward to enhance the protection of freedom of information and freedom of the press, in times when the protection of such rights has sharply declined. Ossigeno believes that a positive step should be represented by ensuring legal protection to this fundamental freedom in the criminal law.

The UNESCO report on the seminar in Colombo highlighted that most governments have little interest in the matter and do not have monitoring, protection and prosecution mechanisms in place.

It was observed that national human rights commissions, whose status as independent public institutions and whose mission of protecting human rights is highly relevant to the issue of safety of journalists and impunity, could host national protection or prosecution mechanisms or become possible focal points for monitoring safety of journalists.

However, there is a need for a reinforcement of the national human rights commissions’ role on this issue. Citizens need to be more aware of their existence and function and of the possibility of referring to them. The commissions’ actions and their role to reinforce freedom of expression and safety of journalists need also to be tested and used by the citizens and the media.

In this regard, it should be pointed out that Italy is far behind, more than other European and Asian countries since it has not created a national human rights commission yet. The Italian Parliament has long been discussing a draft bill to fill this legal gap and, for this reason, has attracted the attention of the United Nations in many occasions. Sadly, another legislature has just come to an end, in December 2017, without reaching this goal. Worryingly, Italy lacks of even the premises to implement the interesting recommendations emerged from the seminar in Colombo. It will be interesting to observe whether and how the running candidates to the Parliament will assume any commitments on this issue.

The following recommendations emerged from the plenary discussions for the main commemoration of the 2017 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists in Colombo, Sri Lanka:

– Starting media initiatives to promote safety of journalists that would not involve an additional cost, such as fostering links with civil society organizations and asking them to organize trainings for journalists on various topics (first aid, digital safety).

– Humanizing the stories of killed journalists, all the while continuing to investigate and publish stories on the causes of their deaths.

– Using a digital platform to save journalists’ stories, such as the one hosted by Reporters Without Borders, which is willing to roll out similar platforms in the region if needed.

– Further strengthening collaboration mechanisms between journalists, civil society, and international NGOs such as Reporters Without Borders or the International Committee of the Red Cross, for collaboration and capacity building.

– Advocating with governments on behalf of civil society organizations and intergovernmental bodies, to send a strong message that no form of journalism justifies the loss of journalists’ lives.

– Developing capacities for prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement bodies in Asia on freedom of expression and safety of journalists.

– Educating society about how the threat to journalists impedes the citizens’ right to know.

– Pushing for the implementation of the UN Plan of Action, with the participation of UN agencies such as OHCHR and UNESCO.

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