Action Plan or Inaction Plan? The fate of the world’s journalists — and our democracies — hangs in the balance

On the 2022 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, and the 10th anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, IFEX’s Executive Director underscores the need for States to start living up to their commitments.

A few weeks ago, the UN Human Rights Council adopted, by consensus, an important new resolution on journalist safety.

It could not be more timely. More than ever, we need journalists to be able to do their work — instead, they are being imprisoned and murdered in greater numbers. Autocrats are using every trick in their playbook to undermine them. And still, in the vast majority of cases crimes are committed against journalists with impunity.

This new resolution is being lauded not only for its strengthened commitments and scope (it features progressive language on some of the most pressing issues facing journalists today) but for the breadth of support it has received — led by six States, and co-signed by 69 others.

Surely, with so many States signing on, we should be seeing these impressive words turn into real actions, and real results.

Right?

Maybe.

We aren’t opening the champagne just yet.

We at IFEX are not, by nature, cynics. You can’t be, if you work in human rights. But we need to be realistic, and when we see State failings and lost opportunities, it is our responsibility to say what needs to be said. We have a track record of bringing about real change on the ground, and our voices need to be heard. So please, read on.

We are marking another important milestone — the anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, launched 10 years ago as a “sustained, coordinated framework to address the threats facing journalists.” It, too, was greeted with much optimism, and had broad support from States.

The anniversary of the Plan calls for serious reflection.

It won’t be “breaking news” to anyone that, too often in the last decade, States haven’t done what they signed up for, and the UN hasn’t always succeeded in convincing them to live up to their commitments.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) have consistently advocated for states and UN actors to play their part, and called them out when they fall short. In 2017, five years after the Plan was launched, CSOs, including a coalition of IFEX members and partners working together on the issue of journalist safety, reviewed it and proposed ways to improve the global response.

Many of the successes we’ve seen in implementing the Plan’s recommendations over the years have been thanks to CSOs proactively stepping up to fill the gaps left by State inaction.

  • CSOs have taken their watchdog role seriously. Whether States have attempted to push through national legislation that would curtail freedom of expression in the country, flouted international rules and principles of human rights, or through inaction failed to implement protective and preventive mechanisms, CSOs have continued to monitor, document, and raise the alarm when violations take place.
  • When States have failed to act or seek accountability in cases of attacks against journalists, CSOs have taken this up too. In a recent — but groundbreaking — example, after a decade-long legal battle and with the support of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), prominent journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima won her case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR). In 2021, the Court found the State of Colombia responsible for the abduction, rape, and torture of Bedoya Lima in 2000 by failing in their duty to protect her and to adequately investigate the crimes committed against her. In considering sexual violence as a form of silencing women journalists, the ruling also set an important precedent with regional ramifications.
  • A civil society-driven initiative, the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists has stepped up to tackle what national and regional courts either couldn’t, or wouldn’t — the underlying structural and systemic causes of impunity. In September of this year the Tribunal found Mexico, Sri Lanka and Syria guilty of all the charges of human rights violations brought against them. The process allowed victims and witnesses to tell their stories, achieving at least a powerful form of symbolic justice where criminal justice had been obstructed by State inaction and complicity.

On 3–4 November, IFEX will be taking part in a high-level conference organised by UNESCO commemorating both the 2022 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists and the 10-year Anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

Along with key civil society allies and partners, we will be presenting specific recommendations to strengthen and bolster the Plan. States must address the global scourge of gendered attacks with an intersectional approach; strengthen support for work that monitors attacks against journalists as well as mechanisms designed to protect them; address the structural gaps that lead to impunity; and tackle the challenges of a fast-changing digital environment.

A cynic might argue that we are simply responding to a failure to turn words into actions with yet more words. We disagree. The lifeblood of the work we do is optimism, grounded in reality — and that means that where we see failings, we also see opportunities. While civil society organisations cannot replace State action, we can be a guide. With our words and our actions, we can show what can be achieved when States do their part.

Our powerful IDEI campaign images, featured in our Twitter thread, show world leaders who are letting people get away with crimes against journalists in their countries with impunity. The explicit tagline on the images is: Raise your hand if you’re okay with journalists being murdered. It also contains an equally powerful implicit message to other world leaders and UN agencies to step up…to raise THEIR hands and their voices if they’re NOT ok with this.

The status quo is unacceptable. More has to be done to address threats against journalists and break this dismal tradition of impunity.

And when that happens, we’ll raise a glass together.

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IFEX

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org