International coalition to protect press freedoms could have unintended consequences

November 20, 2018

With the deaths of Jamal Khashoggi and so many other journalists, media unions and publishers are reviving efforts to create a new international legal structure to protect reporters.

It’s a laudable cause. But such efforts can have complications that aren’t immediately apparent.

There’s also the question of whether new documents and institutions are the answer at all to the dangers reporters face.

The latest proposal for a legal solution is led by the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. The IFJ says it represents more than 600,000 journalists in 146 nations, including some writers in the United States. The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, WAN-IFRA, has endorsed the effort.

Advocates met Oct. 22 in New York with U.N. delegates they sought out from five continents to promote the project, called the International Convention on the Safety and Independence of Journalists and Other Media Professionals.

The proposed text formalizes previous U.N. resolutions and international laws on journalists’ safety and freedom. It also obligates countries signing the document to recognize the confidentiality of reporters’ sources; to investigate and prosecute anyone who hinders or harms them; and to instruct officials, security forces and citizens in the importance of their work.

The convention would establish a 15-member committee to investigate acts against journalists.

So far no U.N. document or appeal has stopped the slaughter of journalists. That doesn’t mean press advocates should give up on declarations advocating press freedom and reporters’ safety (a dozen countries have just signed on to one initiated by Reporters Without Borders). But there are traps to be aware of in trying to negotiate any formal guarantees for journalists from governments.

These include:

Who’s a journalist? Laws protecting journalists have to define them. The IFJ proposal covers “persons who are regularly or professionally engaged in the collection, processing and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication, including cameramen and photographers, technical supporting staff, drivers and interpreters, editors, translators, publishers, broadcasters, printers and distributors.”

That fits the traditional journalistic community but leaves out many people journalists often depend on — including activists in places like Syria who risk their lives to provide regular streams of news and images to media organizations.

Carmen Draghici of the City University of London, who authored the text, says professional journalists need special protection because their credibility is greater than “witnesses sharing images on social media platforms.”

However, Courtney Radsch, advocacy director of the U.S. Committee to Protect Journalists, told me, “We should be deeply concerned by any effort by the U.N. to define who is or who is not a journalist. Acts of journalism are performed by people on a regular basis, and on a casual basis. The emphasis should be on the journalism and not on the person doing the act — whether they fulfill some U.N. criteria or not.”

The Reporters Without Borders declaration says, “Journalism can be practiced by a plurality of actors, without regard to their status, being professional or not.”

Perhaps, in negotiations, the convention can be modified to give at least some status to people who regularly supply reliable information to the media and public that is available in no other way.

The price of protection. Some nations may say that in return for broader protections, journalists need to do their part. That could include carrying government press credentials, wearing armbands when reporting or entering countries only with an official journalist’s visa. The argument would go, “If we don’t know who they are, how can we protect them?”

But governments can easily deny press cards to journalists they consider undesirable. Journalists often find it safer to blend into crowds than to be readily identifiable. And reporters slip into countries via tourist visas or other means when governments try to bar them.

Anthony Bellanger, the IFJ’s general secretary, told me the convention must not be used to add additional restrictions on journalists. But it’s rare for governments to give something for nothing.

The loopholes. The IFJ proposal doesn’t grant journalists total freedom. It acknowledges “necessary and proportionate” restrictions on media, already contained in the 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to protect “the rights or reputations of others, for the protection of national security or of public order or public health or morals.” Oppressive regimes can, and regularly do, drive trucks through these loopholes, punishing journalists for supposedly besmirching the reputations of government officials and endangering national security and values.

The committee. Draghici told me the proposed Committee on the Safety of Journalists would guard against abuse of loopholes. However, the committee is not a law enforcement organization or a court. The convention requires governments to help it investigate actions against journalists and reach official conclusions, but there is no penalty for not helping. The committee’s ultimate power would be to report to the General Assembly.

Committee members would be appointed by countries that sign the convention and would have the right to act independently of their governments if they choose. However, it would be up to the nations involved to guarantee that independence — and to make sure the committee members are true free press advocates to begin with.

The IFJ and its partners face a long process to get the convention placed on the U.N. agenda. If it is, negotiations could take years.

Should the campaign begin to attract significant interest at the U.N., press advocates will need to make certain it doesn’t do more harm than good.

For its part, CPJ is not signing on to the effort. Radsch said CPJ is focused on the U.N. taking “meaningful actions on the ground” rather than on new declarations and structures.

She says U.N. resolutions and documents such as the 2012 U.N. Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity already allow U.N. bodies to extend protection to journalists in danger and investigate crimes against them.

“The problem is not a lack of institutional capacity,” she says, “but of political will.”

CPJ has called for a U.N. investigation into Khashoggi’s death. Radsch says that if nations really want to help journalists, nothing blocks the body from starting a Khashoggi probe right now.

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