This month marks the five-year anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of Security Council Resolution 1738, which obliges nations to safeguard journalists operating in conflict zones. The international community hailed the passage as a landmark for protecting our colleagues and defending free speech. Yet journalists around the world continue to work under threat, and in many countries, impunity reigns.
According to statistics compiled by the International News Safety Institute (INSI), nearly 1,000 journalists have been killed in the course of duty over the past ten years. In more than two thirds of these cases, no perpetrator was ever brought to justice. There is no fiercer form of censorship than a death threat.
The times and places where journalists are most needed are often the same times and places where they are most at risk. In Syria, for example, eighty-four journalists have been imprisoned since March. In this time of growing global unrest, the media must be protected as the witnesses—and the international community must do more to ensure their protection.
The challenge, then, is twofold: enforcing the international law already in place with initiatives like Resolution 1738, and pushing those measures further. As Mariclaire Acosta, the director of Freedom House in Mexico and the author of a recent book on impunity, put it, “Such protocols [as Resolution 1738] set up frameworks whereby society and specifically journalists can demand that they be adapted and followed.” Yet more often than not, corrupt authorities get away with murder and the laws themselves fall short.
This year alone, eleven members of the media were killed in Mexico; eleven more were killed in Pakistan and eight were killed in Honduras. These countries are the first, second, and fifth worst countries in the world, respectively, when it comes to the killing of journalists—and none of them are technically at war.
“Resolution 1738 is a start and more awareness about it needs to be raised,” explained Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary execution. “At the same time, the limitation that it applies to armed conflict specifically has to be recognized,” he said, illustrating a difficulty currently faced by the international community and journalist support groups. Resolution 1738 applies only to journalists working in zones of armed conflict, but some of the most dangerous terrains for reporting now fall outside this remit.
Heyns attended a conference last month in Vienna with experts from U.N. agencies, journalist support groups, (including INSI) and governments. There, it was underlined that the international community is obligated to protect journalists in regions of conflict as well as in areas of so-called peace. Heyns believes that greater recognition of this “could blow new life into 1738 and provide for broader coverage; most killings of journalists, after all, take place outside armed conflict.”
For sure, the blame does not solely rest on semantics, and rethinking how we define peace and conflict will not be enough to solve the problem. The international community does not speak loud enough in demanding the protection of journalists and making these stories more visible. The journalists most at risk are not big-name Americans—most of the people being targeted are courageous local reporters working at small newspapers in places like Russia or Mexico. The problem at hand is that the most vulnerable journalists often fly under the radar of the international community.
The constraint facing bodies like the U.N. when it comes to protecting journalists in a country such as Mexico is that they can only do as much as the Mexican government permits. The international community can exert pressure, but it cannot directly force change.
“There isn’t a quick answer or campaign that can turn things around globally, or even in one country,” said Ann Cooper, former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. She added that offending countries should be constantly scrutinized by the international community, support organizations, and journalists themselves. Indeed, when it comes to a problem like impunity, much of the task involves highlighting the mechanisms that allow the murder of journalists to go unchecked—the ways in which transnational criminal networks find accomplices, collaborators, and abettors in various foreign governments.
The fight against impunity and for journalist safety is, as Cooper put it, “a long slog”—but there are some signs of progress. The Austrian government, which was elected to the U.N. Rights Council this year, pledged to carry forward the issues raised in last month’s conference in Vienna on journalistic safety and impunity.
But until governments like Mexico’s decide they want to confront the problem, or until governments like ours decide to impose extreme measures to pressure them to do so, journalists will continue to be imprisoned, gunned down, or beheaded for challenging oppressive regimes and exposing transnational criminal networks and the authorities that defend them.