What can the UN do for press freedom?

The United Nations General Assembly shifts into high gear today, and leaders of some of the world’s most repressive countries will be in full public relations mode. Vladimir Putin of Russia, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, and Xi Jinping of China will not only address the General Assembly, they will speak at public events, do the rounds of think tanks, and seek out opportunities for friendly media coverage.

Journalists should not allow themselves to be made accomplices in efforts to whitewash media repression. Instead of enabling some of the world’s most draconian leaders to burnish their image without consequence, journalists, diplomats, and all others with whom they engage should demand accountability for their deplorable records on press freedom.

Responding to an upsurge in media killings, particularly of journalists working in conflict zones, the UN has prioritized the issue of journalists’ safety in recent years. In 2012, UNESCO, the UN agency charged with defending press freedom, launched a Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The following year, the General Assembly passed a resolution to create an International Day to End Impunity for crimes against journalists, marked each year on November 2.

In July 2013, Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press, become the first ever journalist to address the Security Council. She noted, “Most journalists who die today are not caught in some wartime crossfire, they are murdered just because of what they do. And those murders are rarely ever solved; the killers rarely ever punished.” Last May, the Security Council passed a historic resolution reaffirming the international legal protections for journalists covering armed conflict. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon regularly condemns the killing of journalists, and calls on member states to take action.

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All of these measures are important, and have tremendous symbolic value. But it is difficult to point to concrete advances in response to UN action. In fact, the level of violence against journalists has increased in recent years, and imprisonment of journalists around the world has reached record levels. Recent high-profile cases—including the conviction of three Al Jazeera reporters in Egypt; the ongoing imprisonment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian in Iran; and the seven-and-a-half-year sentence handed down to renowned investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan—demonstrate that when it comes to imprisoning journalists, repressive governments are increasingly unresponsive to international pressure.

That’s partly because the UN is not equipped to hold member states accountable, particularly when it comes to human rights violations. This is, of course, no accident. The mechanisms created to uphold human rights commitments—the Geneva-based Human Rights Council and the system of Special Rapporteurs—help to raise awareness and establish principles, but by design have limited enforcement powers.

For those seeking redress, the system can be cumbersome and frustrating. For example, Ali Rezaian, the brother of jailed reporter Jason Rezaian, has along with The Washington Post petitioned the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Ali Rezaian recently addressed the Human Rights Council in Geneva to request urgent action. These strategies, he said, have helped raise awareness, but Iran has not felt pressure to respond.

“I don’t see a framework to ensure compliance with international obligations,” Rezaian said. “Member states just gloss over it. There’s a lack of concern for human rights.”

Despite his frustrations with the UN, Rezaian plans to travel to New York for the General Assembly. Peter Greste, one of the three Al Jazeera journalists convicted in Egypt of “aiding a terrorist organization,” will also be doing the rounds. Greste calls the UN human rights system “toothless and rather mechanical,” and like Rezaian, will be focusing on using the General Assembly to marshal diplomatic and public pressure.

Both Greste and Rezaian will be meeting with diplomats and journalists, trying to make sure that those who are in contact with President Rouhani of Iran and President Sisi of Egypt push both leaders on their lack of respect for press freedom.

Indeed, precisely because leaders come to the General Assembly to make a positive impression on the world stage, such a strategy can be highly effective. President Sisi, for example, pardoned more than 100 political prisoners in Egypt just prior to his trip to New York, including two jailed Al Jazeera journalists. The legal status of Greste, who had already been deported from Egypt and therefore tried and convicted in absentia, is unclear.

Over the years, the Committee to Protect Journalists, which I head, has used the General Assembly to secure commitments from a number of heads of state, including former President Vicente Fox of Mexico, who agreed to appoint a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who committed during a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations to receive a CPJ delegation in Ankara.

The UN itself needs to be held to account for the gaping disparity between its press freedom rhetoric and the results. Inevitably, the response must be to strengthen the human rights mechanisms and to increase enforcement powers.

But if the focus is on the practical realities of winning the immediate release of imprisoned journalists, advocating for justice and an end to impunity, and pushing back against repressive laws, then working outside the UN system is the most effective approach. This means mounting a concerted effort to deny the opportunity that presidents and prime ministers seek when they address the General Assembly, which is to look good in the eyes of the world. Journalists, diplomats, and organizations that interact with the heads of state while they are in New York need to do their part by raising press freedom concerns at every opportunity. Journalists who land interviews with the likes of Rouhani, Xi, or Sisi have a special responsibility because they cannot allow themselves to be used by these leaders to improve their international image while their less fortunate colleagues languish in jail.

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Joel Simon is a CJR columnist and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His second book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, was published by Columbia University Press in November 2014.