The First International Day to End Impunity for crimes against journalists has been marked by a series of meetings and conferences internationally. The UN chose November 2 for its call to action, to commemorate the murder of French journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, in Mali, on this day in 2013.
Al Jazeera Media Network hosted a regional symposium on the subject in Doha on November 1. Sami al-Haj, manager of the Human Rights and Public Liberties department and a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, welcomed more than 60 invitees from international and local organisations specialising in the protection of journalists, media workers, and human rights activists.
Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, sent a personal statement reminding the assembly of the risk to those working in areas of conflict: “The threat is grave. On average, one journalist is killed per week and while fatalities include foreign correspondents, the vast majority of victims are local, covering local stories, living in a climate of impunity.” The strongly worded statement continued: “Impunity is poisonous – it leads to self-censorship for fear of reprisal, depriving society of even more sources of significant information.”
Recent reports reveal the extent to which journalists are at risk in both Arab countries and an increasing number of other regions.
Research released by the Campaign to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that more than 370 journalists had been murdered in the course of their work between 2004 and 2013. Of almost 400 cases, CPJ found only 9 in which all the perpetrators, including the masterminds behind the killings, were successfully convicted of the crime.
Ernest Sagaga of the International Federation of Journalists is concerned about the changing nature of threats against journalists. He told Al Jazeera: “The recent beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the so-called Islamic State [ISIL] represents a new threat in covering wars, as more kidnappings are targeting journalists as bargaining chips to extract political gains and/or ransoms.”
The increase in regional conflicts poses specific and growing threats for media workers across the spectrum from mainstream journalists to local bloggers. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has expressed its concern at the deterioration of the situation for media workers in Libya.
Since the end of the revolution in 2011, RSF registered seven murders, 37 abductions and 127 physical attacks or acts of harassment especially targeting journalists. Libya’s decline in the agency’s press freedom index is marked. The transitional nation is now ranked 137th out of 180 countries (six places lower than in 2013).
Still further down the index is Egypt.
The Jazeera journalists serving long prison terms in Egypt after a farce of a trial are the public faces of the threats facing all journalists - especially Egyptians - who are simply trying to do an honest job of reporting Egypt's mounting political crisis.
RSF says the media there underwent an enforced “Sisification” after the military coup which unseated President Mohamed Morsi’s government in June 2013. In the immediate aftermath it logged no less than 80 cases where journalists, bloggers, and media workers were arbitrarily detained by police.
Speaking at the Doha conference, Al Jazeera cameraman Mohamed Zaki revealed the extent of the persecution he suffered while covering events surrounding the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Square protests in Cairo:
“I was taking images so I moved to a higher vantage point. A man threw me off the higher point and my leg broke. After the coup d’etat and the Rabbiyah massacre I was targeted [by] the army. He shot right at my hand while I was adjusting the camera.”
So far his injuries have needed three surgeries with “three more to come”.
Injury is not the only danger journalists face. Other risks they must contend with in the course of their work may include intimidation, arrest and detention – as well as entry bans or deportations.
Al Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste have been imprisoned for 309 days in Egypt where they were covering political unrest in the country.
Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison, while Mohamed received an additional three years for having a spent bullet in his possession, which he had picked up at a protest.
The journalists have repeatedly said that they are being punished for political reasons while merely carrying out their professional duties.
Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Middle East Division, told Al Jazeera: “The Jazeera journalists serving long prison terms in Egypt after a farce of a trial are the public faces of the threats facing all journalists – especially Egyptians – who are simply trying to do an honest job of reporting Egypt’s mounting political crisis.”
Gianfranco Fattorini, representative to the UN of the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) sees a necessity to create an independent organisation to challenge the current impunity enjoyed by those targeting journalists.
He spoke at the Doha conference: “While preventive measures may lead to a decrease in crimes against journalists this is only a first step and not a solution. Fighting impunity requires after-the-event measures. In a large number of cases governments are involved in actions against journalists, we need an international body.”
Does the United Nations, the international body formed to protect freedom of speech, have the powers in place to protect individuals, including media workers? Paolini told the symposium that this issue may demand a new organisation with specific aims and authority: “The UN is giving you a platform,” she told the assembled journalists and activists. “We are supporting in capacity building. It is a shared responsibility.”
Until an international body exists with powers to protect journalists and to bring perpetrators of attacks to account for their actions, journalists around the world continue to be at risk in the course of their duties.
Al Jazeera’s North Africa reporter, Abdullah Elshamy says this will not stop he or his colleagues from going to areas where they are needed: “There’s a principle in my life as a journalist. There are a lot of untold stories. The weak people need to have their voices heard. The powerful have their ways of telling their side. But in areas, for example with Ebola, the people’s story needs to be told.”