Don Foster MP

News

Don Foster: A Speech on the Safety of Journalists Abroad

This speech was delivered by Don Foster MP in Westminster Hall on 21st March 2012

I am very pleased to have secured this debate, in which I will focus on the sadly topical issue of the safety of journalists abroad.

This debate is timely. A meeting at UNESCO relating to the safety of journalists is due to take place in Paris tomorrow where the International Programme for Development Communication will consider a report on the Safety of journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The UK will be represented by Professor Ivor Gaber.

However, recent news has drawn so much international attention to these issues.

The American-born, veteran war reporter Marie Colvin died - along with French photographer Remi Ochlik - in the Syrian city of Homs on 22nd February when a shell hit the building in which she was sheltering.

The 56 year old had been a reporter for the Sunday Times since 1985 and had covered conflicts from Chechnya to the Arab Spring.

Marie Colvin won glowing posthumous accolades. The Foreign Secretary said, “For years she shone a light on stories that others could not and placed herself in the most dangerous environments to do so. … She was utterly dedicated to her work, admired by all of us who encountered her, and respected and revered by her peers,”.[1]

The priest at her funeral said, simply, that she was “a voice to the voiceless”.

Sometimes reporters such as Marie Colvin play more than the role of providing a voice.

For example, Peter Oborne, writing in the Daily Telegraph, commented that, “At times, Colvin herself intervened in history, as she did in 1999 in East Timor when she helped save the lives of 1,500 refugees encircled by Indonesian troops in a United Nations compound. The situation was so dangerous that the UN commander wanted to evacuate, leaving the refugees to their fate. But Colvin insisted on staying behind, thus shaming the UN commander into staying – and averting a potential massacre.” [2]

Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik are not the only journalists and media workers to have lost their lives in the course of their duties since the start of this year.

Each year the International News Safety Institute publishes its “Killing the Messenger” Report. These reports show that, on average, there are two deaths of people working in news media every week. Last year – 2011 – for example, they reported 124 deaths.

And already in 2012 there have been 23 deaths (8 of them in Syria).

Far more have been injured or have been the victims of abduction, hostage taking, harassment and intimidation.

Many journalists, because of the threats upon them, have had to resort to self-censorship in an effort to protect themselves rather than lose their lives.

And of course, not all these deaths and injuries – nor the threats upon their lives, freedom or jobs – have been to journalists and others working in war zones. For example, 60% of the loss of life in 2011 occurred away from conflict zones; in areas where investigations were underway into organised crime, corruption or other illegal activities.

A press freedom violation can be an assassin’s bullet, aimed to kill an investigative journalist, and to intimidate and silence his colleagues. It can be the knock on the door from the police, bringing in a reporter to question her on her sources, or put her in jail with or without a proper trial. It can be a restrictive media law, which puts the power over editorial content into the hands of censors and press courts.

Journalists and media staff have been killed in the line of duty. Often they are local journalists working their own patch. They died because someone did not like what they wrote or said, or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Every job has its risks, and journalists, whose job is to bring into the open what someone wants hidden, are at greater risk than most. But the risks today are unacceptably high. In some parts of the world harassment, threats and worse have become an unavoidable part of the job.

In war or civil conflict the risks often escalate. For example, the invasion of Iraq triggered the deaths of 350 journalists.

World-wide, more than a thousand in the last ten years.

Yet sadly, unless the life is that of a well-known Western correspondent, the world barely notices.

Organisations seeking to ensure improved security for journalists deserve our support and thanks.

I’ve already mentioned INSI (International News Safety Institute) which, since 2004, has provided basic safety training free of charge to more than 2,000 news media personnel in 23 countries. But there are others such as Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) and the Inter American Press Association (IAPA).

Our own National Union of Journalists (NUJ), with 38,000 members, is the voice for journalism and for journalists across the UK and Ireland. It is affiliated to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) which is the world’s largest organisation of journalists with around 600,000 members in more than 100 countries.

Both NUJ and IFJ monitor press freedom violations and campaign for greater safety for journalists who are at greatest risk and have the least protection.

They have established support for journalists and media staff in conflict areas through rapid safety training. And they have ensured that leading media organisations – BBC, Reuters, CNN and major newspaper groups – put health and safety in the mainstream of international media develop­ment strategies, take responsibility for the safety of journalists and provide their safety training.

But, the continuing high level of media deaths cries out for more action by international institutions such as the United Nations to force governments to pay more attention to the safety crisis facing journalists and media.

More has to be done to improve safety and to combat impunity.

Impunity occurs when there is the absence political will to back the investigations into the killing of journalists; when there are inadequate legal frameworks; when judges are weak or corrupt; when the police or investigating authorities are incompetent; when there are meagre resources assigned to those responsible for providing security and enforcing the law; and when official negligence and corruption is rife.

The combating of impunity is a vital element of freedom and security. If journalists can be killed without much fear of the case even being investigated, let alone the killer identified and brought to trial, then there is no deterrent against people threatening or causing harm or death.

Yet recent reports from IFEX (International Freedom of Expression Exchange) show that in nine out of ten cases of journalists killed while performing their professional duties the perpetrators of these crimes are never prosecuted. Other research shows that more than two thirds of the people responsible are not even identified because of the failure to carry out sufficiently thorough investigations.

This means that in many countries it is almost virtually risk-free to kill a journalist. Murder has become the easiest, perhaps cheapest and most effective way of silencing troublesome journalists.

The record of governments to tackle impunity in too many states is appalling.

At one end of the spectrum there are countries like The Gambia where journalists have been targeted, oppressed and jailed. In response to international campaigns in support of Gambian journalists, Yahia Jammeh, the president of the Gambia, declared publicly “I will kill anybody caught tarnishing the image of my government. I will kill you and nothing will come of it.”

More recently, according to French journalist Jean-Pierre Perrin, “the Syrian army issued orders to kill any journalists that set foot on Syrian soil”. Given its relevance in the death of Marie Colvin, what information does the Minister have on this claim?

Since November 2009, the International Federation of Journalists has been campaigning to force the Aquino administration in the Philippines to fully investigate the killing of 21 journalists and media workers in what became known as the Ampatuan massacre in Maguindanao. Some progress has been made, but not enough.

In Somalia – one of the most dangerous African countries for journalists - for many years, no crime committed against a journalist has been investigated, and so no-one’s been convicted. And now it appears the current Transitional Federal Government has been persecuting journalists, their union and media organisations.

I was pleased that our Foreign Secretary raised the issue of the safety of journalists with President Sheikh Sharif during his visit to Mogadishu in February, and that he pressed for an independent inquiry into the death of Hassan Osman Abdi.

But what about leading democracies? The United States has refused consistently to carry out credible and independent investigations of the killing of journalists, including ITN’s Terry Lloyd near Basra in March 2003 and Spanish cameraman Jose Couso and others when US forces fired on Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel the following month. The IFJ has catalogued 16 other cases of journalists who have died since March 2003 at the hands of US soldiers in Iraq without proper investigation.

When the world’s leading democracy refuses to prosecute those responsible for serious violations what chance have we when confronting the likes of President Jammeh of The Gambia.

And what of our own government?

Portuguese Timor, as East Timor was then, became the focus for Indonesian destabilisation in 1974. A civil war from August to September 1975 killed more than 1,000 people. Instability and unrest remained.

Into this situation flew two British citizens, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie working for the late Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine network. They headed for the East Timorese border town of Balibo. There, on 13 October 1975, they met three other journalists who were working for the rival Channel Seven network. Three days later all five were dead.

Their deaths form the basis of an excellent new film called, simply, “Balibo”.

As I have said in previous debates:

“When Britons die abroad we anticipate our Government doing all they can to help the relatives. We expect the Government to seek as much information as possible and to share it with the relatives. Sadly, in this case, the opposite happened. From 1975 until 1995, there was almost complete inaction. The Government were involved in a disgraceful cover-up.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 1 February 2006; Vol. 456, c. 97WH.]

Our government knew about the planned invasion, and our Ambassador advised the Indonesians to keep it covert. Consequently there was no warning to the journalists.

And after their death our own ambassador, Mr. Ford, suggested that

“we should ourselves avoid representations to the Indonesians about them”,

to which the FCO replied, “We agree”.

Eventually it was left to the Australian Coroner in New South Wales to conduct an inquest into the death of Brian Peters, one of the two British journalists. Her report, in November 2007, said that all five journalists had been “deliberately killed”, and she named those responsible. She said that Brian Peters had died,

“from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by…Indonesian Special Forces”—

including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah. They were killed

“on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo.”

The coroner concluded that an international conflict was under way at the time and so the killing of the journalists was a war crime.

Two named Indonesians, both still alive, credibly accused of war crimes against two British citizens and still – five years after the inquest and 37 years after the murders - all our government is doing is to wait to see if the Australian Federal Police are to instigate war crimes proceedings.

It’s simply not an adequate response. Our government should be taking its own action.

And if individual government’s are failing, what about the regional bodies?

Those who look to them for help are often disappointed.

 

They appear spineless. Journalists under fire in Asia, the Middle East and Africa expect little support, if any, from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Arab League, or the African Union.

The African Union, for example, has its headquarter in Ethiopia (a known abuser of press freedom), and its human rights body is in – of all places - the Gambia, a known jailer of journalists.

So, if more action is to be taken, we have to look at wider international bodies.

 

UNESCO is the sole UN specialised agency with a mandate to defend and promote freedom of expression and its corollary press freedom and to combat impunity.

It has at its disposal tools and instruments including international humanitarian laws, universal human rights laws, covenants, declarations and resolutions……….

…….. from UNESCO’s Resolution 29 which condemns violence against journalists and obliges states to prevent, investigate and punish crimes against journalists to the establishment of the Guillermo Cano World Press freedom prize and the annual World press Freedom day on May 3rd.

All these instruments make it clear that journalists, including embedded journalists, are civilians and must therefore be protected as such.

And the Geneva Conventions define the murder or ill-treatment of journalists in times of war or major civil unrest as a war crime. So journalists have the same rights as civilians in armed conflicts, whether between nations or in situations of widespread civil conflict.

These instruments are meant to compel governments to abide by international laws and standards.

But today’s sad reality is that not many journalists can rely on international institutions to defend their rights when they disappear or are jailed or murdered.

A few years ago journalists were full of hope when the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1738 reasserting that journalists and media professionals engaged in areas of armed conflict shall be respected and protected. But sadly these hopes seem to be getting thinner by the day, as UN bureaucracies are often reluctant to confront certain governments.

Some countries don’t even provide information requested of them on a voluntary basis.

Since 2008 the Council of the International Programme for Development Communication (IPDC) has encouraged member states to submit information, on a voluntary basis, of actions they have taken to prevent impunity and on the status of the investigations conducted on each of the killings of journalists condemned by UNESCO. Such reports are intended to be included in a public report submitted by the IPDC to UNESCO.

As the 2010 Report (Dealing with crimes committed 2006 – 2007)shows, only 18 of the relevant 29 countries provided detailed information of judicial follow up of cases of the killing of journalists in their countries. The 2012 Report (dealing with crimes 2008 – 2009) shows that the response rate is even worse. Just nine out of 27 countries submitted responses.

Tomorrow, at the IPDC meeting being held at UNESCO, this latest report will be discussed as well as a “Final Draft UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity” based on a consultation involving all relevant UN agencies following, I am pleased to say, an initiative led by the UK at a previous IPDC meeting .

The aim of the plan is to work “toward the creation of a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers in both conflict and non-conflict situations, with a view to strengthening peace, democracy and development worldwide”.

The plan includes strengthening UN mechanisms, doing much more to highlight those countries which appear to be dragging their feet in the protection of journalists, raising awareness about the issues, assisting member states to develop their own legislation and mechanisms for protecting journalists, improving collaboration with other relevant agencies, and developing further safety initiatives which might include the creation of so-called “media corridors” in conflict zones.

I am pleased that is was a UK-inspired initiative that led to the development of this plan.

And I welcome the statement, in response to a PQ, of the Foreign Office Minister (the Hon. Member for Taunton) on 22nd February [Cl.801W] that the government is in full support of initiatives being taken by the United Nations in order to improve the safety of journalists.

However, I believe our government can go further.

For example, at present ours is one of the few developed countries that doesn’t contribute financially to the work of the IPDC. We are a member of it, but don’t contribute to it. We should be doing so, especially as much of its funding is used to train journalists in how they can best protect themselves from physical attack.

And we should look at ways of helping other organizations that do similar work.

I look forward to the Minister’s response to these proposals. And, maybe, he can explain why our government isn’t making any contribution to World Press Freedom Day.

Our government can press UNESCO to go further.

Currently member states are only “encouraged” to supply information on work to combat impunity and investigations into the deaths of journalists. We should press for such reports to be both more detailed and mandatory. And the reports should be published in full.

And we should also press for earlier reporting. For example, the report on killings in 2010 – 2011 is not due for publication until 2014. IPDC should be encouraged to speed up the process.

These actions, together with the widest publication of reports- or failures to report- will help put teeth into UN Security Council resolution 1738.

And further, we must press UNESCO to be absolutely clear that the promotion of safety and the ending of impunity must apply in non-conflict areas as well as war zones; that “conflict” should be viewed at its broadest.

Impunity states should have to face a persistent international campaign of publicity, not once a year, but every time they acquiesce or sanction, or turn a blind eye on the murder of a journalist. Impunity states should be made responsible for their negligence and, in many cases, complicity.

Again, I look forward to the Minister’s response.

If we are to be seen to take these matters seriously can I ask the Minister to consider one other suggestion; that annually the UK voluntarily releases and distributes full details of its representations and actions relating to the rights and lives of threatened journalists.

Today hundreds of journalists are in jail and scores are killed each year. Journalists working in dangerous conditions feel isolated and abandoned by the very international institutions created to protect their rights. I want our government to speak out forcefully for press freedom and pushes back against member states that seek to block international institutions from fulfilling their mandate and enforcing international laws.


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