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Opinion: The killing and imprisonment of journalists should concern us all

Worrying press arrests in Ferguson and the grisly murder of James Foley underlines it is in all of our interests to ensure journalists can report without fear.

Kirsten Roberts

THE APPALLING MURDER of a US journalist, and the reported continued detention of another kidnapped by ISIS has again underscored the risks that journalists around the world face. Journalists are a fundamental component of any free society and they must be able to do their jobs free from threat of murder, kidnap, attacks and intimidation. Yet many work in the face of extreme risk: the Committee for the Protection of Journalists reports that there have been 30 journalists killed so far in 2014 and that 211 journalists were held in prison in 2013.

The killing and imprisonment of journalists represents more than just an appalling attack against an individual, it is a challenge to free expression and to our right to have access to information on what is really going on in the world around us.

Freedom of expression at the heart of a free society

Journalists play a role of public importance within their own countries and globally in ensuring that the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information are a reality. Freedom of expression is a human right, and one that is rightly considered as being at the heart of democracy. This right is explicitly provided for under the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The rights contained in these conventions include the freedom of journalists and the media to criticise both private actors and the government. They also place a responsibility on the State to ensure that physical attacks, threats or intimidation against journalists are treated with the highest priority and full force of the law.

Attacks, threats and intimidation restrict free press

Kidnapping and murder are, of course, the most horrific of the dangers faced by journalists, but pressure is often exerted in other ways to prevent them from doing their job. Threats and intimidation have a negative impact not only on individual journalists, and can also result in self-censorship in the media, where journalists avoiding reporting on contentious or potentially sensitive issues for fear of recrimination. In some countries, threats and intimidation reaches such a level that there are ‘untouchable subjects’, such as in relation to corruption, extremist groups, organised crime, minority rights and war crimes. This situation particularly persists in countries where journalists are not well protected, and freedom of expression is at the mercy of political interests.

Legal channels for suppressing freedom of expression and freedom of the media are also worryingly common. Defamation laws can be misused by states to create a chilling effect on independent journalism. Such laws should never be used to prevent legitimate criticism of the state or state officials or to protect the reputation of the state: freedom of expression requires open debate on issues of public interest, even where this involves being critical of the state. Yet in many countries, criticising the state is seen as almost treasonous.

A worrying decline in media freedom in the United States

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, show that it is not merely in unstable, undemocratic countries where media freedom must be protected. The NGO Reporters Without Borders in its 2014 report found a worrying decline in media freedom in the United States. This decline is of concern because the US has long been put forward an example of freedom of the press, enshrined as it is in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The arrest of journalists in Ferguson has caused a considerable outcry, but the fact of their being arrested in the first place suggests that they are not seen as ‘untouchable’ by law enforcement, as they should be when doing their jobs. In other countries, it is not just journalists who face restrictions or threats – even bloggers have been the subject of arrest and intimidation.

Protecting journalists and freedom of the media

There are steps that can be taken to help protect media freedom and ensure that the state and society respects the role of journalists (even if we do not always agree with their views!). Freedom of information laws need to be robust and have a presumption of openness so that information can be accessed. Governments should seek the views of journalists in the preparation of media-related legislation and policy. There should be strong provisions in criminal law to protect journalists from threats and intimidation.

Broadcasting authorities should comply with international standards on independence, oversight and accountability such as independent open appointments and transparent procedures. Funding and ownership of media outlets should be transparent and publicly available including through publishing the identity of owners, shareholders, contributors and other vested interests of media outlets.

But these provisions are probably more appropriate for states where there is already a strong rule of law. In unstable, undemocratic countries, the challenge is much more difficult. Threats to journalists commonly come from the government or public bodies in the state in which they are reporting. This is a depressing fact – but it also means that there is potential for improving the situation for journalists and the media at the state-to-state level; through diplomatic channels, international pressure and restrictions on aid and trade to countries who act to restrict freedom of expression.

As individuals, we can also support some of the excellent organisations that act to protect journalists, media freedom and freedom of expression around the world, as well as continuing to voice our outrage over attacks on journalists and support for their work.

Securing the safety of journalists and their ability to work without threat is vital to ensuring freedom of expression and keeping societies free and open. It is in all of our interests to do everything we can to make sure that journalists can report without fear, and that those who murder, attack, imprison, intimidate and suppress journalists and the media cannot do so with impunity.

Kirsten Roberts is an academic at King’s College London specialising in human rights and international law. @KirstenJRoberts

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