UN Defers Safety of Journalists Around the World

The United Nations headquarters in New York. By denying the Committee to Protect Journalists consultative status, a UN committee is doing a major disservice to reporters.The United Nations headquarters in New York. By denying the Committee to Protect Journalists consultative status, a UN committee is doing a major disservice to reporters. (Photo: VinceTraveller / Flickr)

Truth-telling has never been a risk-free act, but today, journalists navigate a particularly landmine-laden professional field.

NPR photojournalist David Gilkey was killed by Taliban fire Sunday “doing what he always did — chasing an important story in a dangerous place,” according to an NPR report. Beside him, his translator, fixer and friend Zabihullah Tamanna was also killed. In a remembrance, NPR’s Philip Reeves wrote that Tamanna was “one of a group of Afghan journalists who carry on their crucial work despite great and constant personal risk.”

International reporting is the last line of defense between an ignorant, indifferent world and one where compassion keeps the possibility of change alive. That fight is as treacherous as it is worthy.

“Journalists are being caught in a terror dynamic, in which they are threatened by non-state actors who target them and governments that restrict civil liberties,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in releasing the organization’s 2015 annual report.

In the report’s foreword, CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour wrote, “From government surveillance and censorship to computer hacking, from physical attacks to imprisonment, kidnapping and murder, the aim is to limit or otherwise control the flow of information — an increasingly complicated effort, with higher and higher stakes.”

As journalism takes new forms, it faces new threats. Journalists like James Foley and Steven Sotloff were executed to provide brutal fodder for propaganda videos. Journalists covering the Tahrir Square protests in 2011 were groped, raped and attacked. In Kenya, reporters covering controversial LGBT issues themselves became targets. In China and Egypt, authoritarian governments have imprisoned record numbers of journalists over the past several years; a CPJ report concluded these countries “continue to use systematic imprisonment to silence criticism.”

The stark divide in ransom policies among Western nations has highlighted the paralyzing conflict over proper protocols for managing press freedom and safety. Groups like CPJ offer hard-won wisdom on the issue. It is a fact of bureaucracy that justice delayed is justice denied. On May 26, 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists applied for consultative status, which would allow reporters access and some degree of participation in UN meetings. The request was deferred by the UN NGO Committee — and not for the first time.

CPJ applied for these relatively routine credentials in 2012. Since then, the request has been deferred seven times for so-called procedural reasons. “A small group of countries with poor press freedom records are using bureaucratic delaying tactics to sabotage and undermine any efforts that call their own abusive policies into high relief,” Joel Simon said. He went on to describe the situation as “Kafkaesque.”

Consultative status would allow CPJ to contribute its expertise in analyzing and mitigating threats against journalists to those with tools to address those threats. What CPJ seeks is precisely what the UN Charter calls for: “international machinery [used in] the promotion of economic and social advancement.” The foundation of such advancement is knowledge — knowledge about danger and change, about the nature of power and the people who hold it. The purveyors of that knowledge are journalists. Records of pre-vote discussions show that participating states affirmed the need for further action in defense of reporters. Such affirmations were shown to be hollow when those countries voted down the request.

Azerbaijan, Iran, China and Cuba are on CPJ’s list of the 10 most-censored countries. They are also among the UN NGO Committee’s current members. The committee also includes Burundi, Greece, Guinea, India, Israel, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela — nearly all countries found on the bottom half of the Press Freedom Index. CPJ makes specific allegations on its website indicting Russia, Turkey and South Africa (among others) for fostering cultural acceptance of suppression and violence against journalists. Allowing government actors who represent states indicted by CPJ for repression seems nothing short of a treacherous conflict of interest.

At UNESCO’s Humanitarian Summit on May 23-24, 2016, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova championed a focus on protecting journalists. In a press release on its website, the organization wrote, “The work of journalists is particularly important in situations of crisis where accurate reporting can help alleviate human suffering and save lives.”

In one body, the UN touts — rightly — contributions of the media in reducing risk, rectifying rumors and empowering citizens. It elevates the necessity of their protection. In another body, the UN bans input from the nongovernmental organization most capable of and dedicated to that protection.

The UN’s internal disunion was visible again as Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke out against the decision. UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said Ban is “deeply disappointed by this recent decision.” US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power echoed the sentiment, calling it “outrageous.”

The gravity of such tactical deferment within the United Nations is both a stranglehold on press freedom and a permissive confirmation of such ethos by the very body empowered to uphold human rights.

In a 2015 article, Susanna Flood, media director at Amnesty International, was quoted saying, “More and more, we are seeing governments less willing to tolerate dissent and being prepared to do anything to stop journalists from speaking out and informing the public. The message seems to be ‘if you dare to report on human rights issues you should be ready to spend time in prison or even be killed.'”

Shouldn’t the UN, whose supposed lifeblood is moral authority, be a safe place to discuss and build a strategy for defending press freedom and the rights of those exercising it?

The presence of journalists and nongovernmental organizations in UN meetings is not only a matter of fair access to public knowledge; it is a critical means of providing counternarratives to challenge prevailing truths. The Committee to Protect Journalists is a body built by the same values that have kept the UN relevant for over 70 years. CPJ is invoking its rights to exercise the responsibilities inherent in those values. It is time the UN did the same.