33rd Human Rights Council - Side event on safety of journalists

Out of all of the Sustainable Development Goals, Target 16.10 states that by 2030 the aim is to “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”1 As Ms Peggy Hicks has pointed out, no target is more important than Goal 16.10. This side event, organised by the Permanent Delegation of Austria, really shed light on why that is the case.

Panel Speakers:
•    Frank La Rue, UNESCO Assistant Director General for Communication and Information
•    Peggy Hicks, Director, Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division, OHCHR
•    Thomas Hughes, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19
•    Abby Rose Zeith, Legal Advisor, International Committee of the Red Cross
•    Nina Larson, Journalist from AFP
•    Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi, Permanent Representative of Austria to the United Nations Office in Geneva


How to define a ‘journalist’

Who is a ‘journalist’? Mr La Rue stated that it’s incredibly important to adopt a broad definition of the term since we’re moving towards the creation of new technological tools and media actors are changing along with them. In fact, according to Mr La Rue, nowadays a journalist is simply somebody who “informs others regularly and systematically.” Moreover, as Ms Larson added, journalists are the real watchdogs of the balance between people and governments, and in this sense they can and should be considered as human rights defenders.

‘Journalism’ is not only a degree, nor can be determined by registration with a professional association. Mr Hughes pointed out that journalism needs to be thought as a practice – hence including, for instance, bloggers. Journalism should be a free profession to be protected all around the world not depending on the content, but focusing on the real nature of the activity.


Freedom of expression and freedom of information

Without journalists providing citizens with relevant sources and facts, we could not make our own decisions. As Mr La Rue stated, this is a fundamental element of democracy: it is absolutely essential for people to be informed properly to exercise their rights in a democratic context.

Ms Hicks also remarked that the engagement of citizens with their rights and freedoms is essential for their own development as active citizens. Receiving information is, in fact, fundamental for personal education and for building up critical thinking to make thorough and conscious decisions.

Hence, the panellists highlighted the relevance of protection of journalists in the current international panorama. Mr La Rue underlined how this is not a matter of defining content, but it’s an issue of having a free floor for information to be shared. Specifically, he claimed, along with Ms Hicks, the issue of women journalists and the sexual harassment and gendered violence they have to go through.


Media actors in conflict zones

Ms Zeith dealt with the crucial issue of media actors and journalists operating in conflict zones. She highlighted that the nature of the work is risky in itself. However, these journalists go through deliberate acts of violence such as murder or enforced disappearances because of their profession.

Ms Zeith also specified that when looking at the legal framework available for the protection of journalists, the starting point needs to be international humanitarian law – i.e. the Geneva Convention. If we were to substitute the word ‘civilian’ in the Convention with the word ‘journalist’, they could be safeguarded. However, the Geneva Convention only makes one express reference to the issue of media actors. Moreover, respect for these rules is far from satisfactory: especially for what concerns the matter of impunity.

Ultimately, Ms Larson specified that media actors are also systematically attacked in peaceful countries. For instance, many reporters have been killed in Mexico, India and in the Philippines. Today journalists are targeted even more since through online tools they’re reaching out to more and more people.


Effective resolutions


Mr La Rue highlighted the responsibility that states have to take action: impunity is what makes violence against journalists to be repeated. Thus, it has to be eradicated regardless of who has committed the crime. Accordingly, all states should have a particular mechanism of safety for journalists.

Mr Hughes also pointed out that, in order to tackle impunity, each state should ensure speedy prosecutions – provided that they are due to the work of the journalist – and increase the protection of witnesses.

        Provision of training

Mr La Rue specifically claimed that the need for policies of prevention is urgent. For instance, in Latin America training for judges and lawyers has been provided concerning the particular condition of journalists.
Mr Hughes also pointed out that the provision of training for journalists and media actors to know their rights is crucial.

        Civil society’s role

Mr Hughes noted that the role of NGOs cooperating with one another had been, so far, incredibly important. For instance, ARTICLE 19 has collaborated with regional bodies in order to bring transparency to the actors and to determine what can be done.


Final remarks

It seems clear how the extreme urgency of the matter should be highlighted more within the Human Rights Council. As all panellists have highlighted, the first step could be the incorporation of the issue of safety of journalists in the Universal Period Review. Ultimately, in fact, the legal rules surrounding the issue should not stand still, but always elaborated since a solid legal environment is the starting point for the protection of journalists around the world.


1 Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations. Available at: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/peace-justice/



MR - Research Assistant at CIPADH



Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations. Available at: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/peace-justice/

UNESCO, “A world without information? Right to Information and SDGs”, 15/06/2016. In: UNESCO, YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppJ_0m1wjiI