The UN General Assembly Is Meeting: Put Press Freedom on the Agenda?

Joel Simon from the Committee to Protect Journalists has a featured piece in Columbia Journalism Review on how the United Nations should — but really can’t — do something about press freedom.

What can the UN do for press freedom?

Bottom line: Not much, but it can make some nice statements.

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.

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.

Simon argues journalists, diplomats and other human rights defenders need to use the occasion of the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, when leaders from around the world come to New York to argue for more action to protect journalists in their home countries.

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.

Simon says this one-on-one approach should not let the United Nations, itself, off the hook, but it appears to the only way — for now — to get things done.

He argues journalists should demand accountability from the leaders who speak a the UNGA for their violations of press freedom. By just reporting the speeches and not looking at the records of the speakers, journalists become accomplices in efforts to whitewash media repression.

 

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